Volunteers fanned out across the county in the early morning darkness Wednesday to connect with the homeless population on the first of two days of the biennial Point in Time survey.

The Central Coast Collaborative on Homelessness and Common Ground Santa Barbara County use the survey to identify at-risk homeless people and prioritize services.

In Santa Maria, the survey was coordinated by Good Samaritan Services. Volunteers gathered at 5 a.m. at the Salvation Army on West Cook Street, which also serves as an overnight warming center.

In Lompoc, they congregated at the City of Promise shelter before splitting into six teams.

Before heading out into the streets, the Santa Maria volunteers started out by surveying the handful of people who had spent the night there.

Using a smartphone application to record answers, the surveyors ask the homeless 127 questions about things like where they are sleeping, if they have any source of income, if they struggle with mental illnesses or drug or alcohol addiction or if they face any health problems. 

Good Samaritan Volunteer Outreach Coordinator David Bickham said the answers would be used to compile a report and identify those most in need of food or medical attention. 

One team, consisting of 5th District County Supervisor Steve Lavagnino, Santa Maria Fire Chief Dan Orr and two Good Samaritan employees, headed north on Broadway to a shopping center, where they contacted several people who agreed to take part in the survey.

The first person they encountered was sleeping in his SUV in the parking lot. He told the group he had been homeless for most of the last two years.

Another, a middle-aged man with a sign reading "Homeless U.S. veteran," was sitting on the ground outside of the FoodMaxx store in the center.

A middle-aged woman with a baby stroller full of her belongings also stood outside the store, and she was soon joined by her adult son.

All four agreed to participate in the survey in exchange for a personal hygiene kit and a $5 gift card to McDonald's or Starbucks.

Not all homeless agreed to be interviewed. Volunteer Katherine Fair said that of the three homeless her team encountered, only two consented to being questioned.

Fair was struck by how candid those who agreed to be interviewed were, answering openly about legal problems or other issues.

"Everyone is super honest," she said.

Fair was hopeful that the survey provided agencies with important information on providing services to the county's homeless population.

Volunteer Aracely Barajas said conducting the survey gave her new insight into the challenges the homeless face, repeating something an interviewee had told her that stuck with her: "homeless but not hopeless."

In Lompoc, a group of seven was designated to cover the Santa Ynez Riverbed.

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"It's hard in the riverbed because they are all very scattered and they are all very secluded and usually there is a lot of (post-traumatic stress disorder), volunteer team leader Mark Ashamalla said. "They don't want to deal with social interactions."

Ashamalla, a case worker for Transitions Mental Health Association, estimated that 30 to 50 people live in the riverbed, some of them permanently.

Three of Ashamalla's team members are currently homeless, which he said makes it easier to connect.

"These gentlemen know most of the people out here so it hasn't been as intimidating," he said. "So they've been more willing to do the survey.

Bickham said that the teams interviewed approximately 45 people in Santa Maria on Wednesday morning, and volunteers were headed out again Wednesday night and this morning.

"We anticipate several hundred when everything is said and done," he said.

People wanting to get involved in homeless outreach can contact the shelter, Bickham said.

"This is a year-round effort."

Email Bickham at dbickhamssi@gmail.com.

Staff Writer Kenny Lindberg contributed to this report.

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