Reaching into neighborhoods to count the homeless for the census is a formidable task, given that homeless people are a transitory and transient community with no fixed address. But this year, the 2020 coronavirus pandemic makes that undertaking even more challenging, both for census takers at risk of encountering a lethal virus in face-to-face interactions, and for the homeless who have nowhere to ‘shelter-in-place’.
Where the homeless are
Squirrelled away in locations that make their whereabouts difficult to pinpoint, the homeless are hard to count to begin with. The places they call home rarely have a mailing address. They live under bridges and in tunnels, in makeshift homes and shacks, and are not easy to find unless grassroots community sources can account for them. Those who seek homeless shelters, soup kitchens, social services or city streets are more accessible to enumerators, but the ‘fluid’ nature of their lifestyle can contribute to inaccuracies in the estimate.
Research shows that mounting an accurate count of homeless people is complicated. “Counting the homeless population is extremely difficult because of the lack of a clear definition of homelessness, the mobility of the population, and the cyclical nature of homelessness for many individuals. In addition, homeless people are often reluctant to be interviewed, and many of them remain invisible even to the most diligent of researchers.”
The NIH study reported that attempts to count the homeless in order to extend funds for emergency shelters or food distribution nationwide has produced data that must be interpreted with great caution because “the everchanging and fluid nature of the homeless population presents great methodological challenges in obtaining an accurate measure of its size. ”
Who counts as homeless?
A key issue is defining who counts as ‘homeless’. The label itself has come under fire from advocates who demand a redefinition what it means to be homeless.
The push-back on the label “homeless,” rises from the complexity of living situations that people experience.
Nonprofit organizations working with the homeless in San Francisco prefer to use the term ‘unhoused’ because “most individuals experiencing homelessness are doing so because they’ve had one, two, three—or more—strokes of bad luck that led to their current circumstances.” In a study conducted by Stanford professor Thomas Wasow, one participant objected to the term homeless explaining, “ the reason is, ‘I have a home, it’s Palo Alto. I’m unhoused.”
Researchers in the NIH study also called for better definitions to be developed “concerning who is considered homeless and defining Subgroups, such as homeless families.
Given this context, how will the Census Bureau go about the business of accounting for this marginalized community, even as in-person outreach efforts are scaled back due to the pandemic?
Revising Outreach Plans to Count the Homeless
An integral part of the Census Bureau’s outreach efforts has been to create a network of local nonprofits and trusted messengers at the grassroots level to administer the enumeration. For example, in California, the United Way Bay Area (UWBA) is implementing a census outreach initiative called Bay Area Counts 2020 with local non-profits and community partners.
That investment has earned a 63.2 % self-response rate for California (as of July 13), just ahead of the national rate of 62.0%.
However, health and safety concerns with COVID-19 forced the Census Bureau to delay counting people experiencing homelessness in the 2020 Census. But, in renewed operations scheduled between September 22 and 24, the Census Bureau is adjusting its operations for vulnerable, homeless and transient communities.
The Census Bureau is coordinating with local service providers and consulting with advocacy groups and other stakeholders to adjust its approach and boost outreach into this hard-to-reach population in response to COVID-19. Census takers will follow the latest local public health guidance regarding the use of personal protective equipment and social distancing.
The Census Bureau now plans to send specially trained census takers to count people at shelters, service providers and locations which the Census Bureau has identified as places where people are known to sleep. They will also work with local groups to identify these locations.
Census takers will count people in person at previously identified potential outdoor locations such as under bridges, parks, wooded areas, designated beach areas, tent cities, alleys, and under highway systems as well as all-night businesses ( transit stations and 24-hour laundromats).
They will obtain data from emergency and transitional shelters with sleeping facilities for people to stay overnight, such as “missions, hotels and motels used as shelters, and places for children experiencing homelessness, neglected, or who have run away from home. Census takers will work with the administrators at different service provider locations including soup kitchens and regularly scheduled mobile food vans, to utilize rosters to ensure a complete count of this population.
People experiencing homelessness will be counted where they are staying when census takers visit between September 22-24. People experiencing homelessness who are not counted in households or other operations will be counted where they stay or receive services when census takers visit.
In its message to shore up support for the homeless count, the Census Bureau reiterates, “Census statistics are crucial to programs and service providers that support people experiencing homelessness. A complete and accurate 2020 Census can ultimately help organizations provide better services, more food and improved shelter options to those in need.”
Meera Kymal is a contributing editor at India Currents
Coverage for Census 2020 has been facilitated through a grant from the United Way Bay Area.