Volunteers to survey O.C. in Point-in-Time homeless count

Before dawn breaks on Saturday, hundreds of volunteers will fan out across Orange County to document and survey the county's homeless.

In doing so, organizers hope to not only get an idea of the size of the population but also a more complete understanding of what sort of services may be needed to tackle homelessness countywide.

The Point-in-Time Count & Survey also will give the volunteers an up-close look at people who have fallen into homelessness, said Karen Williams, president and chief executive of 2-1-1 Orange County, the nonprofit that manages the count.

"What we're looking at doing is dispelling fear and helping people understand that these are ... not just this separate category called 'the homeless,'" Williams said.

The tally, conducted every two years, also helps determine how much money the county will receive from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to address homelessness issues.

Orange County typically receives $22 million to $23 million annually from HUD for that purpose, according to Becks Heyhoe, housing and income program manager at Orange County United Way.

"The information from this survey helps shape the work that happens in our county — it helps change the direction of services," Heyhoe told about 35 people during a volunteer training session Wednesday at the United Way offices in Irvine. "If they need to shift, it's information that you guys are gathering that's going to do that."

That isn't lost on Newport Beach resident Max Johnson, a first-time participant in the count. The 22-year-old said he believes it will provide useful information to help confront the county's homelessness issues.

"It's, I think, a state of an emergency and we really need to get on it," he said.

Given Orange County's economic climate, he added, "we should not have the amount of homeless people that we have."

For about four hours starting at around 5 a.m. Saturday, Johnson and approximately 1,200 other volunteers will break into small teams and walk designated areas to tally any homeless people they come across.

Since Orange County is so large, officials identified and mapped areas where homeless people are known or likely to be.

Volunteers were schooled on some common characteristics to help them identify possible homeless people, such as dirty or shabby clothing and those who have numerous possessions with them or are sleeping in public areas or in their vehicles.

Officials also will tabulate the number of homeless people in transitional housing programs and shelters countywide.

According to the 2015 count, volunteers noted 4,452 homeless people. That was up slightly from 2013 but down significantly from 2009, when the figure was 8,333.

Volunteers for Saturday's count also will survey as many people as possible to collect information and try to get a more complete understanding of the factors that can contribute to homelessness in Orange County.

Along with asking people for demographic information such as race, gender and age, surveyors will ask whether they have any medical or mental health conditions, if they are veterans and whether they have experienced domestic violence.

Given the sensitive nature of some of the questions, it's important for volunteers to treat those they encounter with respect, Heyhoe said.

"We just need to at all times ... honor their dignity and treat them well," Heyhoe said.

Volunteers also will note how many people they encounter who were released from law enforcement custody under Proposition 47, a measure passed by California voters in 2014 that reduced some crimes from felonies to misdemeanors.

As a result of the measure, some lower-level offenders ended up being released and "didn't have anywhere else to go," possibly contributing to the county's homeless population, Williams said.

Williams said the count's findings will be compiled into a report outlining the state of homelessness in Orange County. The report is expected to take a few months to complete.

For more information about the count, visit pointintimeoc.org.

luke.money@latimes.com

Twitter: @LukeMMoney

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