Officials worry about an undercount of homeless people in the 2020 Census

A woman walking next to a green lawn with a Census bag.

A Census taker walks her community. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Census Bureau

Accurately counting homeless communities in the U.S. Census was difficult even before the pandemic. The Census Bureau originally planned to determine the homeless population through partnerships with service providers and other advocacy organizations, who provide lists of shelters and outdoor locations where people can easily be counted.

But COVID-19 made a complex task more complicated, potentially threatening the funding allocated for programming, hospitals, clinics, and community-wide social services based on this count of men, women, and children experiencing homelessness.

The original Service-Based Enumeration for counting people experiencing homelessness was planned for March 30, March 31, and April 1 and had three steps: The first would have counted those in shelters; the second those at soup kitchens and mobile food vans; and the third those in outdoor locations, such as public parks.However, the Census Bureau was unable to carry out the planned count during March and April due to the coronavirus pandemic. New dates were set for the end of September to allow the Bureau more time to adjust its plans. Census workers carried out the Service-Based Enumeration on Sept. 22 – 24.

[Read more: Homeless census count postponed until September due to COVID concerns]

On Sept. 24, U.S. District Judge Lucy Koh pushed back the original Sept. 30 deadline for the Census, in order to give the bureau more time to gather its data. But the Supreme Court reversed that decision in a ruling Oct. 13, allowing the Trump administration to end the census count early, over the protest of many worried about an incomplete count, including dissenting Justice Sonia Sotomayor.

The Census Bureau did not make any adjustments to the count, as the Supreme Court decision came after the count was completed. The results are expected to come around Dec. 31, which is the statutory deadline for the census. 

Many D.C. shelters are not operating at full capacity so as to comply with public health directives. Most shelters are operating at 25 to 50% capacity, according to Larry Handerhan, chief of staff for the D.C. Department of Human Services. This made it harder to count everyone. As people disperse and find informal shelters, or set up camp in new or unknown locations, they are likely to be missed. 

Beyond the impact of the health crisis, there remain persistent challenges in accurately counting the homeless population. Many people experiencing homelessness, having had negative encounters with government workers in the past, are cautious around them and don’t trust the Census. According to Handerhan, many in the homeless population are afraid that the information they give will be publicly shared. He stressed that any information provided for the census is confidential. 

According to a 2019 report by the Census Bureau, 25.2 million households were “doubled-up” in 2019: temporarily sheltering with friends or family. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development does not include people who are doubled up in its definition of homelessness, and thus they are not counted. 

[Read more: Seeing Double: DC drastically reduces the number of people in shelter as more double up]

People living with friends or family in violation of public housing rules might fear the Census Bureau will share answers with a public housing agency, which could result in eviction,” according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

Rescheduling from March to September also likely affected the homelessness count. According to service providers, the best time to do the count is when people are likely to seek services and formal shelters to avoid the cold. When it is warm outside, people are more likely to move around or to sleep in the open where they can be difficult to reach. This is why HUD’s annual “Point-in-Time” enumeration of the homeless population is held annually in January.

A census worker is handing a census form to a resident, who is looking at it curiously.
Census Taker helping a resident. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Census Bureau

The Census Bureau relied on staff at shelters and service providers to deliver the questionnaire and send the bureau the information. 

According to Handerhan, the DHS chief of staff, it was a priority to bring the Census to the homeless community despite the dangers that in-person meetings pose during the pandemic. He said that DHS and its partners did everything they could to count people staying in the city’s low-barrier shelters and elsewhere. Many shelters were encouraged to hand out questionnaires to their residents, with headcounts also being used for those who refused. 

The Census Bureau also relied much more heavily on people responding to the Census through the internet out of concern for the health of the public and its own staff. People experiencing homelessness already have problems accessing the internet, and doing so when public libraries and other resources are either closed or have restrictions placed on the services they offer is even more challenging. The lack of a permanent address already puts homeless people at a disadvantage. “We’ve tried to include everyone we can,” Handerhan said. “And it’s important to get the Census out to as many people as possible.”

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