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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 County .

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 areas," where 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 admirably.

"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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