The deputy walks along the paved Oso Creek Trail, looking for a homeless man named Craig.
As she heads under a bridge at Marguerite Parkway and La Paz Road, where she made contact with the man the previous day, a woman on a lunchtime walk notices the Orange County Sheriff’s Department logo on the front of the deputy’s black, long-sleeved polo shirt.
“It’s good to see the sheriff’s department out here,” the woman, Liz Patterson, a 23-year resident of Mission Viejo, tells Deputy Dana Chaney, whose shirt also identifies her unique title.
“They have a Quality of Life deputy?” Patterson says. “That’s great for the community. I love it that you’re here.”
Indeed, since February 2018, Chaney, a 10-year veteran of the OCSD, has been working full time in the new position, a first for the agency that is designed to proactively address issues in the city of nearly 100,000.
While many police agencies have Homeless Liaison Officers — the OCSD has its own Homeless Outreach Team (HOT), for north O.C. — Chaney’s position is a bit broader.
In addition to tackling issues associated with homelessness, Chaney keeps tabs on sober-living facilities, day laborers and “problem houses” in Mission Viejo, the largest city the OCSD contracts with for police services.
Chaney also patrols Mission Viejo’s parks and trails on a mountain bike.
“I’m results driven,” Chaney says. “If there’s a way to help somebody, I want to figure it out. I want the success stories, even if it takes some time.”
Chaney’s position was created from repurposing an old position in the OCSD’s current contract with Mission Viejo and did not increase the police services contract, said Lt. Quyen Vuong, chief of Mission Viejo Police Services.
“Law enforcement has evolved in which we have taken a more proactive approach to improving the quality of life for everyone, which increases public safety and makes our city one of the safest in the nation,” Vuong said.
“In Mission Viejo, we want to provide public resources to those who are less fortune, help neighbors with their disputes, educate business and neighborhood watch groups on their specific issues, and be able to follow-up with them,” Vuong added. “In most police contacts, we are there for 15 minutes and move on to the next call. With Dana’s position, her partners can refer calls to her to make sure the problem has been resolved or mitigated. There are plenty of services throughout the county and without someone knowing how to navigating the system, it could be very daunting to our citizens.”
During her walk down the Oso Creek Trail, Chaney sees some personal belongings tucked up high underneath the bridge, there’s no sign of Craig on this cloudy weekday.
Chaney told Craig she would be back to check on him. Before she left him the day before, she gave him some water and protein bars.
Craig, who is in his late 30s, has a grandmother living in Mission Viejo, but staying with her isn’t an option, he told the deputy.
He has an ID, a bicycle and a cell phone, and lives off social security income.
Craig also has cerebral palsy, which he told Chaney is limiting his work options.
Chaney believes Craig may be a good candidate for emergency temporary housing.
She will continue that conversation when she next sees him.
The process of proactively helping the homeless — meeting them, gaining their trust, getting them to talk —- can be painstaking, but Chaney relishes the challenge.
“I want to engage with this population and start talking to them and try to figure out who they are and how to help them,” says Chaney, who works out of an office at Mission Viejo City Hall.
“It’s more about educating myself about the resources that are available, as well as educating the community and my partners in the field.
“It’s not a quick fix.”
Although Mission Viejo doesn’t have a huge homeless population — a count in early 2017 pegged the number at less than 50 — residents and businesses frequently call deputies to complain about tents that pop up in greenbelts and other areas.
“They’re kind of all over the place,” Chaney says of the homeless.
She’s ideal for the job.
Chaney has spent most of her career as a deputy working in O.C.’s so-called collaborative courts, which help veterans, the homeless, the mentally ill and drug and alcohol addicts through diversion and other programs.
“When I got this position,” Chaney says, “it kind of came back full circle for me.”
Chaney worked patrol for Mission Viejo Police Services for about a year before becoming Quality of Life deputy.
She worked some overtime shifts on the Santa Ana River Bed last summer when the swelling homeless population spurred county officials and several law enforcement agencies to eventually clear it.
Since February, Chaney has been learning all she can about resources available to the homeless.
She’s gone on ridealongs at other law enforcement agencies, including the Long Beach, Newport Beach and Temecula PDs, to see how they’re handling the growing issue of homelessness.
“A lot of my job is still being defined,” says Chaney, who works 6:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. four days a week.
She drives a city-issued gold Taurus instead of a black-and-white, which better suits her specialized “let’s talk” approach to law enforcement, in which she’s less of a first responder and more of a deputy who responds to referrals from her colleagues in patrol — and who she runs into on the streets.
After looking for Craig, Chaney headed to the underpass of Oso Parkway and the 5 Freeway to check on a homeless woman who lives high above railroad tracks atop a steep concrete embankment.
“Hey, Lisa!” Chaney shouted from below.
Seconds later, a disheveled woman previously hidden behind clothing and other belongings — it was Lisa, who’s been living in the same spot for about five years — scampered off to climb up to the street, where Chaney couldn’t see her.
On a previous visit, Chaney gave Lisa a turkey-and-cheese Togo’s sandwich and chatted with her.
“That was a start,” Chaney says. “She knows my face and name. To me, that’s progress.”
On this day, however, Lisa, who has mental health issues, wants nothing to do with the deputy.
On another shift the same week, Chaney met a homeless man outside City Hall as she left to check on a homeless woman temporarily staying at a hotel.
The college-educated, 62-year-old man told Chaney he sleeps at a church in San Juan Capistrano and rides his bike to Mission Viejo.
He also told her he was receptive to some services.
The woman at the hotel, who is in her 70s, told Chaney she was a victim of domestic violence and had left her husband. She was running out of money but had a car.
“I’m hoping something good comes out of this, and that I’m able to get her access to some services,” Chaney says.
That same day, Chaney also made contact with an 84-year-old Army and Navy veteran living out of a VW van with a dead battery.
“There’s a diversity of people out there you don’t see or hear about who need our help and attention,” Chaney says.
Becoming a deputy was a transformative experience for Chaney, who grew up in L.A. County and went to La Mirada High School, where she played soccer and softball.
The lifelong athlete — running, bodybuilding, triathlons, you name it — graduated from Cal State Fullerton in 2001 as a public relations and communications major.
But Chaney wasn’t totally sold on a career in PR, so she ended up in real estate.For several years, she worked as a title rep until the housing market started shifting dramatically downward around 2007.
“I thought I really wanted to make a drastic career move,” says Chaney, who turned to law enforcement.
She isn’t exactly sure why. She says she might have seen a billboard advertising job openings for police officers.
Chaney knew that physically, at least, the career would be a perfect fit.
It’s turned out to be all that, and more.
But it was an adjustment.
“Slicking back my hair in the academy and wearing a ponytail was a big change, as was firing a gun,” says Chaney, who was accustomed to wearing her hair down over business suits.
“And having a grown man yelling in my face (at the academy) was super intimidating,” she says. “I had to learn how to think through stress and be able to perform, which is what the academy’s all about.”
Chaney graduated in June 2008 from the Orange County Sheriff’s Department’s Regional Training Academy as a member of Class 184.
Her success at becoming a first responder — “I came out of the academy a different person,” Chaney says — rubbed off on her sister, Samantha, who just became a probationary firefighter for L.A. City Fire.
And just as she helped close deals in the housing industry, Chaney still is closing deals, so to speak, on the streets of Mission Viejo — deals that now require great patience, a soft and compassionate touch, and a real desire to help others, one small step at a time.
She’ll continue to just keep showing up and checking in on the homeless and others who need her help, greeting those with her standard first line:
“Hello, here I am again.”