In the early morning darkness, officers Adam Hunter, Amanda Hood and Kathryn Violago formulated a game plan before entering a vacant lot filled with garbage.
They decided that Hunter, a police officer in the town of Fountain Valley, would first approach a homeless person and assure them that they were not in trouble. Then, Hood, a benefits specialist at City Net, a nonprofit organization that offers the homeless, would gather information about the person’s housing situation.
A single flashlight helped illuminate a path through what was once a Boomer’s amusement park in the Fountain Valley. The trio walked carefully towards the farthest corners of the plot. Broken glass, rubble and an old deck were among the items scattered throughout.
“It looks like all our friends have left,” Hunter said.
Across Orange County, hundreds of volunteers, including county officials, set out to count people experiencing homelessness in a single day. The federally required two-year census collects demographic data and other information so agencies can update their practices and resources. It also helps determine how much funding Orange County will receive to address homelessness.
The count officially began on Monday when a group of volunteers spoke to people living in shelters. Typically, the count takes place in late January, but an increase in coronavirus cases after the winter break delayed this year’s count by one month. The count in 2020 was canceled due to the pandemic.
On Tuesday, a crew of workers, including volunteers, police officers and city officials, gathered inside Freedom Hall at Mile Square Park. Each team was sent off shortly after noon
“Ending homelessness, housing the unread, and reducing societal impacts remains a top priority for my office,” said Supervisor Katrina Foley, who recruited 10 local volunteers, including all of her office staff, to help with the count. Her team started in Tustin. “I want our team to see firsthand the reason for the work we do every day.”
Hunter, Hood and Violago drove to three locations before Hunter pulled into a residential area on Oak Street and Slater Avenue. The time was 06.30 and there was now natural light.
“Did you see her?” Hunter walked up the sidewalk along the Slater and stopped at a bush. To the untrained eye, the person was invisible.
Behind a hedge sat a woman named Christine Lenz, 73, with crossed legs, making breakfast with jam and a stick of butter. A broom stood upright against the foliage. Three water bottles were placed neatly next to her.
Hood knelt down, pulled out his iPhone, and began asking questions. Did Lenz have a spouse or partner? Did she have children under 18? Who else was here with her?
Lenz explained that she had resided in Huntington Beach and Fountain Valley, but she had been homeless for so long that she could not remember her last permanent address. She turned down a bag of snacks and the option of a McDonald’s or Starbucks gift card.
The trio moved on to their next location, where they met Steven Bloom. The 62-year-old wearing a faded camouflage hat lived behind foliage near Slater and Dixie Street.
He used to live in Newport Beach, but said he had spent most of his time in his pocket in the Fountain Valley since becoming homeless two years ago. Prior to that, he said, he regularly attended service at Fount, a Methodist church, and was a student at Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa.
“I want to be here about a week more and then go to Newport and then rehab,” Bloom said. He also planned to sign up for the Huntington Beach shelter.
Bloom immediately drank Capri Sun included in his pack of snacks. He thanked Hood and clenched his fists.
During the morning, Hood’s team weaved around the Fountain Valley, drove into malls and fast food restaurants, and traversed the back of the stores, where workers prepared stock for the coming day.
Hunter estimates the city has about 50 to 100 homeless people living in the area. The pandemic did not necessarily increase the number of uninhabited individuals in the Fountain Valley, he said, but he has heard people express reluctance to stay in shelters for fear of being hit by COVID-19.
He recognized Lenz from an earlier meeting.
“She used to be over [Magnolia], just north of Talbert, “he said, adding that a clinician in the crisis assessment team has tried to evaluate her, but Lenz” insists on living right there, behind the bush. She does not want a shelter, she does not want any resources. ”
At 9 p.m., the trio returned to the former Boomer’s estate. It was still empty. They had only counted about five homeless people. As part of the count, they had to return to the same places once more to try to catch someone they might have missed. Violago would be free to go home after the morning shift, but Hood had double duty.
Despite the long day ahead, the work was worth it for Hood.
“My everyday work is a lot of paperwork and sitting at my desk,” she said. “So it’s fun to get out and see people on the street and see where they are. I like working with the officers. It’s fun to see colleagues, and it’s just the camaraderie. ”