The man walked in slowly, shifting the weight of his backpack from one shoulder to the other.
After a moment, he locked eyes with Helen Cameron, who was standing a few feet away Wednesday morning in a McDonald’s in Westside Costa Mesa. She strode forward and greeted him.
“We’re meeting with people who may be living without housing,” she said. “Would that, maybe, be you?”
“Yes,” the man replied. “I’m homeless.”
Cameron — director of supportive housing for Jamboree Housing Corp. — fired up her cellphone and began a questionnaire, one she would repeat throughout the day. She asked the man about his background, how long he had been without housing, particular issues he is struggling with.
When the survey was over, he offered a smile and a parting fist bump — “because my hands are dirty,” he said.
A similar scene played out at a nearby table where Jennifer Munoz posed the same questions to a man in a stocking cap and Los Angeles Rams sweatshirt.
“Remember, all this is optional,” she said. “You’re actually helping us.”
Cameron and Munoz, a lead case manager with City Net, a nonprofit that coordinates efforts to fight homelessness, were among more than 1,200 volunteers who fanned out across Orange County for the 2019 Point in Time count, a biennial census of the homeless that collects updated information and demographics so agencies can appropriately tailor their practices and resources.
The tally, required by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, helps determine how much funding Orange County will receive to address homelessness issues.
“This process gives us just the kind of data we need to be able to move forward in meaningful and intentional ways to address homelessness across the county,” said Susan Price, the county’s director of care coordination.
Volunteers started their day well before sunrise at one of five deployment centers countywide. After receiving their assigned areas, they hit the streets in search of homeless people to meet, greet and survey.
A new element this year was that surveyors used a smartphone app to log responses, providing detailed information and the locations where they met particular people.
“The amount of data we will collect during this process will yield a lot of insights,” Price said.
Once they were done, volunteers provided respondents with bus passes, resource directories and hygiene kits that included notes of encouragement, such as “You are loved.”
Cameron and Munoz’s team was tasked with combing through a sizable chunk of Costa Mesa’s Westside where the local homeless population is readily apparent.
One man was sleeping next to an overturned shopping cart packed with possessions. Another lay on the ground near a bus stop, his head resting on the concrete. Another waved a greeting as he folded his makeshift mattress near the Costa Mesa Senior Center.
The people the volunteers came across hailed from all walks of life. Some said they struggled with substance abuse. Several had been homeless for years — others not nearly as long. A few were veterans.
“Fourteen years of accounting and management experience,” Cameron said, nodding toward a woman sitting on a nearby bus bench, “and she’s sleeping there.”
Several people contacted around West 19th Street and Anaheim Avenue said they were planning to head to the nearby Lighthouse Church of the Nazarene, which offers food, showers and respite from the winter weather as part of its outreach ministry.
Shortly after 7 a.m., more than 20 people were already at the church.
Last week, the Costa Mesa City Council voted unanimously to move forward with developing a temporary 50-bed homeless shelter on the church property at 1885 Anaheim, with the goal of opening the facility in April.
The latest Point in Time Count comes amid a seismic shift in Orange County’s homelessness landscape, with virtually unprecedented attention being paid to what has become a pressing issue throughout the region in recent years.
U.S. District Judge David Carter, who is presiding over the case, has called for cities to develop enough transitional and emergency beds to serve 60% of the unsheltered people documented during the 2017 countywide count. He also has threatened to issue an order that would prevent cities from enforcing their anti-camping ordinances or citing homeless people for sleeping in public.
The 2017 count found 2,584 unsheltered people countywide, including 103 in Costa Mesa, giving the city a target of 62 beds.
Along with the planned shelter at Lighthouse Church, Costa Mesa has partnered with College Hospital, an acute-care facility at 301 Victoria St., to provide 12 beds that would be available to people suffering a mental health crisis.
Officials have said they hope securing the beds will satisfy Carter and allow Costa Mesa to resume enforcing its anti-camping laws while the search for a suitable long-term shelter site continues.
Results of this week’s count are expected to be available by April. Price said she thinks the data will prove invaluable as regional, county and city leaders continue to examine how best to tackle homelessness.