An initiative created by the Churches Consortium and Vanguard University is attempting to address Costa Mesa's homeless population, one person and one interview at a time.
The volunteer-run YOU Count program involves taking a census of the city's homeless population, followed by in-person interviews. The program is in its first year after a trial run last year.
The census portion began Monday. About 50 people took to the streets early that morning to provide an estimate of how many homeless are in the city.
"There's no extrapolating data, no mathematical equations," said Becks Heyhoe, a YOU Count organizer and director of the Churches Consortium, an alliance of churches mostly from Costa Mesa. "It's literally who you see."
Then throughout the week came the 44 interviewers who asked questions based on a five-page survey created by Vanguard sociology professor Ed Clarke.
The survey assesses health, housing and service needs — the "basic nuts and bolts of this," Heyhoe said. Its last page asks for interviewees' insights on solutions to homeless problems.
The sessions can last up to 45 minutes.
Danielle Owens, a Costa Mesa resident who attends the Crossing Church on Newport Boulevard, helped Heyhoe do interviews Friday.
"You just have this feeling that you can help them with something," Owens said, adding that word of the effort is spreading. "They're hearing about this because of the excitement that's happening."
Heyhoe called Costa Mesa's amount of homeless people manageable, and that there are misconceptions about them.
"It's better to have actual data, rather than preconceived ideas," she said.
Heyhoe has previously worked for a homeless nonprofit in London and served as a member of the city's Homeless Task Force. She has also been involved with the Neighborhood Improvement Task Force.
She fell in love with Costa Mesa when she first visited for a two-week stint in 2008 through her church, Soul Survivor.
"I really do love this city," she said. "I don't think I've ever felt as much affinity with a city as I do Costa Mesa."
Part of the consortium's goal has always been to find people with good intentions who want to help, but may not know how to be truly helpful, Heyhoe said.
"Dropping off peanut butter and jelly sandwiches at the park is not always the most helpful thing because you don't realize 10 other people have already done that that morning," she said.
It's too early to draw conclusions from this year's YOU Count data, but the hope is to have it ready for a presentation by January or February. About 150 have been interviewed so far — a considerable increase compared to last year's 37, Heyhoe said.
YOU Count's efforts last year led to the creation of the Check-In Center at the Crossing Church, where the homeless can store their belongings for part of the day.
Organizers are hoping their strategies can be a model for other cities. Next month, they will host a thank-you party for those involved.
"We want to see other cities be empowered to address homeless issues in their communities," Heyhoe said. "We love sharing what we've learned."
For more information or how to get involved, email email@example.com or visit the consortium's Facebook page.