| Counting the Homeless
Workng with community partners and local
agencies, the SSRC helped to survey the homeless population
of Orange County
April 21, 2005
By Valerie Orleans
Determining the extent of homelessness and the characteristics
of the homeless population presents a challenge. Without
good estimates of the number of homeless persons in a county,
funding for shelters and support services may suffer.
But exactly how do you count a population that doesn't have
a consistent address and tends to move from area to area?
That was the problem facing Social Science Research Center
(SSRC) staff members earlier this year when they embarked
on the largest homeless census project attempted in Orange
Working with community partners, Info
Link Orange County and the OC
Partnership, under a contract with the County's
Housing and Community Service Department, the SSRC first
had to identify the 3,244 beds offered by 81 formal shelter
providers where the homeless frequently seek refuge. Efforts
also were used to identify informal, shelter-like locations,
such as churches and private dwellings. In addition to counting
individuals in the shelters, counts also needed to be made
of those turned away because of a lack of available space.
The researchers worked with local police
departments, city personnel, hospitals, jails, senior centers,
shelter providers and county and mental health association
outreach workers to locate and map "outdoor congregating
the homeless also reside.
"In a remarkably short period of time, the SSRC collected
information on hundreds of locations throughout Orange County
where homeless persons have been observed," said Greg Robinson,
SSRC director. "We utilized a Geographic Information System
(GIS) application, then mapped and divided these locations
into clusters for volunteer survey takers."
Because the homeless are often suspicious or fearful of
strangers, volunteers also received special instruction on
how to approach and ask survey questions.
Volunteers visited shelters on a cold and rainy night in
late January. Because the questionnaire was difficult for
some respondents, group leaders or proctors were available
to provide assistance or answer questions. Surveys were conducted
in English and Spanish.
In the early morning hours, volunteers hit the streets,
pairing up with experienced homeless outreach workers. In
addition to administering surveys, the volunteers distributed
hundreds of pairs of new socks and bus passes.
"We counted 720 homeless persons on the street, in outdoor
encampments, or in cars, trucks or vans, and 210 of these
were interviewed," said Robinson. "Over 2,200 persons in
shelters were counted, and 1,130 completed questionnaires.
With a homeless population, it is often difficult to reach
everybody because shelters can't always administer surveys
to everyone and many homeless don't want to participate.
"The numbers were smaller than many expected, but the purpose
of a point-in-time survey like this is to obtain a cross-sectional
view of the homeless," Robinson added. "At that, we succeeded
"This was an outstanding effort on the
part of many caring community volunteers, and it was a
pleasure to represent Cal State Fullerton, applying social
scientific methods to an unusual problem in the context
of some rigorous HUD standards. We learned a lot, and we'll
be back to repeat the process in 2007."
The final report, when presented to the county, included not
only the numbers of homeless persons recorded in shelters and
other locations, but the myriad problems the homeless face,
including illness and domestic violence, said Robinson. The
study also included the number of veterans and disabled, those
who suffer from mental illness and substance abuse, as well
as emancipated minors and youth.
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