Homeless in OC: Counting the unsheltered

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(Katie Albertson / Daily Titan)

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(Jason Rochlin / Sarah Wolstoncroft)

A woman with tangled, greasy platinum blonde hair wearing a long, striped blue dress under an oversized brown sweatshirt looked down at her dirty feet, barely covered by an old pair of sandals. She was standing with a woman who was looking into a small mirror and using a red pen for eyeliner.

“I have a bit of arthritis and my feet are sensitive. I’ve been walking about 15 miles a day because my van broke down,” said the sandal-wearing homeless woman in Downtown Fullerton during Saturday’s Point-In-Time Count homeless census.

The 71-year-old became homeless in 2003 when she was no longer able to pay rent in Los Alamitos. Her anger problems caused her to quit 10 of her last 11 jobs, she said. She has been living out of her van for nearly four years.

“My biggest problem is going to the bathroom and finding a place to park,” she said on her way to Carl’s Jr. to use its public restroom. “I haven’t been able to make it as well without a home because I have none of the conveniences of a home.”

The Point-In-Time Count is a nationally-administered biennial count that assesses the needs of the unsheltered homeless in each county to provide federal funding for outreach programs and resources.

The volunteers counted people who were living on the street or in cars, but not those staying in shelters and abandoned buildings. If the homeless weren’t asleep, they asked them a series of questions about their needs.

Orange County counts non-English speakers but does not survey their needs, unlike Los Angeles County, which does both.

“To be honest, I was mad because I am 100 percent fluent in Spanish and I could easily translate the questions,” said CSUF volunteer Allan Rivas, who said that organizers are considering including a Spanish-speaking survey for the 2019 count.

“Why wait two years when you can do it this year?” Rivas asked.

The 2-1-1 Orange County nonprofit organizes the volunteers in Orange County. They project that the county will receive around $22 million this year in a federal grant to be divided among groups that help the homeless.

“What we want is for people to go out and learn what the need is and respond to that so it’s a community-first approach,” said Casey Crosbie, executive director of Family Promises OC and adjunct professor for the CSUF social work department.

Although the survey questions try to determine mental health and physical disability needs, the count also highlighted more basic needs like finding an area to sleep, clothes to handle cold nights outside and the need for items like toothpaste and batteries.

While participating in a survey on a bench near the train tracks in Downtown Fullerton, one homeless man showed his sense of humor to the volunteers by going off on tangents, cracking jokes and playing music from his multi-colored portable speaker.

Just as the sound of Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy” was drowned out by a passing Amtrak, another man came up to the group wearing a sleeveless gray Philadelphia 76ers jersey despite the 45-degree weather. Straddling a wobbly bicycle as he walked, he greeted the music-playing man like they were old friends.

Do you have any batteries? the sleeveless man asked.

I don’t but the bags these guys are giving away for doing this survey have some, the music-playing man said.

When both men finished the survey and dumped the contents of their bags on the dirty pavement, they realized the AA batteries wouldn’t fit in the sleeveless man’s flashlight. He needed AAAs.

Other items in the clear zip-close bags that were given away included a toothbrush, toothpaste, beanie, poncho, deodorant and women’s hygiene products.

During the three-hour training sessions leading up to the count, volunteers were told to be respectful of the fact that they were entering the homes of the people they were surveying.

For one homeless man, home was the space between the backside of a strip mall, a fence, his overpacked shopping cart and a few green port-a-potties. Though he looked to be asleep at first, when approached by volunteers, he crawled out of his blanket cocoon and invited them to “make themselves at home.”

The man smiled as the volunteers sat down with him.

For two other homeless men, home was lying on a bench and on the ground behind a Catholic church. The men refused to take the survey because the sun was rising.

We know we are going to get kicked out in the next two minutes, one of the men said. “It’s our time to get out.”

Despite having over 1,000 volunteers in Orange County, organizers use computerized estimates for the homeless they can’t find.

However, the remnants of their lives are still apparent.

Hidden in the underbrush on one side of the train tracks in Downtown Fullerton was a dirt-stained twin mattress and a light brown pillow that was indented as if recently used.

Not too far away was a picnic table behind the grandstands of a baseball field where all that remained from the home’s former occupant was a blanket draped across the bench and a knocked-over box of cereal.

Micah Augimeri-Lee, Bryant Freese, Megan Maxey, Galen Patterson, Ashlyn Ramirez, Kaleb Stewart, and Amy Wells contributed to this story.

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