In the parking lot of an Anaheim Hills restaurant, Anaheim police officers and nonprofit workers find Mahin Salary sitting inside her car, wedged between her car door and her belongings with her Jack Russell Terrier in the back seat.
It’s a Monday morning and the temperature is steadily approaching 80 degrees.
A case manager from City Net, a nonprofit that works to address homelessness, pulls out her phone, logs into an app and begins asking Salary, 62, a series of questions.
The query covers everything from her income and veteran status to whether she has a history of drug use and mental illness and if she has children or pets with her.
“We’re just trying to get an idea of what’s out there and what population we can help and how we can help them,” said Reeny Burgula, a City Net case manager who works in Tustin and at The Courtyard shelter in Santa Ana.
Once the voluntary survey is finished, Salary is given a free one-day bus pass and the team continues its search for more homeless people willing to answer the same questions.
Salary and her dog, Fluffy, have been living in her car for about a year, she said, adding that she wanted services to help get back on her feet.
“I’m scared to death to be out here,” she said with tears running down her face.
Over a three-week period beginning March 26, dozens of teams comprised of City Net workers, police officers, and volunteers have scoured north Orange County to conduct a homeless census with the aim of gathering data that can be used to make recommendations on housing options and homeless initiatives to public officials.
The targeted cities are Anaheim, Brea, Buena Park, Cypress, Fullerton, Los Alamitos, La Habra, La Palma, Placentia, Orange, Stanton, and Yorba Linda.
The census differs from Orange County’s biannual Point-In-Time Count, which tallies the number of homeless people without a home on a particular night.
“This is more comprehensive because we’re actually talking to the individuals and getting their information,” said Gigi Zanganeh, program development director for City Net. “You can’t really address a problem until you really understand what the problem is.”
Sgt. Phillip McMullin of the Orange Police Department said his agency’s participation was important “to provide an accurate picture of the needs of our homeless population.”
The teams will visit emergency homeless shelters next week to gather additional responses.
The information collected could shed light on the significance of the homeless problem in north Orange County, said Sgt. Bob Conklin, a homeless liaison officer for the Anaheim Police Department.
“This is a foundational step for helping the cities in Orange County realize that this is a county-wide concern,” Conklin said, adding that some cities take on a heavier burden than others. “Part of the purpose of the census is to show that the distribution of responsibility is there for all of us.”
City Net has conducted homeless counts in Anaheim, but this is the first regional survey for North County, Zanganeh said.
The cities in the task force will have the final say over what they do with the data, but Zanganeh said that could range from hiring more mental health clinicians to funding more programs for homeless families.
The endeavor is funded through a $20 million package over four years, spearheaded by state Sen. Josh Newman to help the newly formed North Orange County Public Safety Task Force, a coalition of cities, police agencies, and nonprofit groups tasked with addressing gang prevention, offenders re-entering society, and homelessness.
At an April 9 early morning gathering of City Net employees, police, and volunteers at Placentia Presbyterian Church, Newman said the data collected is more important than ever since the removal of hundreds of homeless people from the Santa Ana riverbed earlier this year.
“It’s really important not to just know how many there are but who they are and what they need,” Newman said.
On Monday, Conklin and a City Net team drove around Anaheim looking for homeless people willing to participate in the census.
Some were found in parks and others in their cars. One man sitting in front of a Jack In The Box near Lincoln Avenue and State College Boulevard refused to talk. Others were willing, like Irlene Cooks, who said she relocated to the city after she was evicted from the Santa Ana riverbed.
Her hope is that the census will lead to additional resources toward helping her find affordable housing, she said.
“I’m willing to work to help with affordable housing and I made a resume and everything,” she said. “I’m ready to get busy but I just need some help.”
Charles Wilson, 43, and friend Polly Sanders, 45, were sitting at an Anaheim Hills bus stop when they were approached by Burgula and Conklin. The pair took the survey and received bus passes.
Wilson said he does just fine living on the street and did not want help.
“I’m an outdoorsman,” he said.
Sanders said she had been homeless for five years after a divorce left her in financial ruin, and she wanted help for depression.
As of Wednesday, 1,400 surveys have been taken and a report on the findings is expected to be released in June.