Challenging perceptions that the homeless mostly come to Costa Mesa from other communities, new data show a solid majority of the city's homeless population have ties of some kind to the city.
At least 65% of the 182 homeless interviewed last year lived in Costa Mesa before they were on the streets, maintain a city mailing address, or have close friends or family in the city, according to the results of YOU Count, a homeless population census conducted by volunteers through Vanguard University and the Churches Consortium, an alliance of churches predominantly in Costa Mesa.
The data, presented Wednesday at Vanguard, were gathered over a six-day period in October.
In their interviews, the volunteers asked questions from a five-page survey created by Vanguard sociology professor Ed Clarke. They spoke to homeless people on various city streets, and at Lighthouse Church, the Crossing Church, Someone Cares Soup Kitchen, the Church of Christ and Lions Park.
Larry Haynes, executive director of the Mercy House in Santa Ana and an adjunct professor at Vanguard, called YOU Count's census the "best, most accurate" homeless data anywhere in Orange County.
"Nothing, nothing, nothing that we have can touch this," he said.
The survey found the following among 123 respondents who were categorized as homeless Costa Mesa residents:
They had a mean age of around 50.
•More than 90% were either U.S. citizens or legal residents.
About 16% were employed. Five people said they earned between $200 and $500 a month. One respondent claimed a monthly salary of $25,000.
About 19% were veterans.
•About 36% had received treatment for mental health issues and 40% were prescribed mental health medication, though only about 25% were taking it.
•About 36% reported being in "good" health. Twenty-three people, or 19%, said they were disabled. At least 57% said they had not been hospitalized within the past year, nor had they sought help at an emergency room (ER) within the past three months.
•An additional 34%, however, said they had been to the ER one to three times within the past three months. Nearly 38% were hospitalized one to three times in the past year.
•Fifty-one, or about 42%, said they had been victim of a criminal or violent attack, the largest percentage of which was assault and battery.
Of the 182 total homeless respondents:
They had a mean age of nearly 48 years old.
•Nearly half were homeless for the first time.
•Fifty had children attending Costa Mesa schools.
•About 72% were male.
'Housing is what we need'
Three people spoke after Clarke's presentation, including YOU Count organizer Becks Heyhoe, who also serves as director of the Churches Consortium.
One clear solution to fighting homelessness is providing enough affordable housing, she said.
"Housing solves homelessness," Heyhoe said. "Housing is what we need."
Yet those who care can help with the simpler things as well, she added, such as helping to provide identification cards.
"If you have no ID, it's phenomenally difficult to do anything," Heyhoe said.
People can help the homeless recover their birth certificates, passports or Social Security numbers and improve their access to benefits providers by helping them set up mailing addresses, email and voicemail, she said.
"It's not about doing things for people, but it's about coming alongside and being a friend," she said.
Clarke said links to conventional social networks can instill an overall sense of belonging.
"One of the things that gets people better is people treating them like they're better, ya know?" he said.
Haynes and other homeless advocates are hoping that YOU Count's data, combined with Tuesday's vote by the Costa Mesa City Council that commits up to $500,000 toward permanent housing with support services for the homeless, will bring definitive solutions to the problem.
The Costa Mesa resident said YOU Count's data-driven approach "takes the nonsense out" of the homeless debate — that the problem is too big, that nothing can be done about it. It's a debate often driven by bias and ideology, not facts, he said.
This effort "counters the lie," Haynes said. "It counters the despair that we can't end homelessness. We can. We can."