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2020 Census: Counting California’s Homeless Population

photo - Man Living on the Street in Los Angeles

This post is part of a series examining challenges involved in the 2020 Census and what’s at stake for California. 

Accurately counting the homeless population is notoriously difficult. People experiencing homelessness can be hard to find—they tend to move around a lot, and at any given time, they might be in a shelter, in a car, outdoors, or couch surfing with family and friends. They may also conceal their living arrangements for privacy reasons or to avoid law enforcement.

The issue is particularly urgent for California as the 2020 Census approaches. California has the most homeless individuals of any state, with 130,000 people living in shelters or outdoors, according to estimates from January 2018. Since this count doesn’t include people staying temporarily with family or friends, it’s almost certainly an underestimate.

Undercounting homeless Californians could affect political representation and lead to reduced federal funding for low-income and homeless families, especially in urban areas with large homeless populations. In addition to determining congressional seats, the census is used to allocate billions of federal dollars for health care, education, and housing programs, including Section 8 housing vouchers for low-income families.

The goal of the census is to count all residents “in the right place,” meaning where they usually live and sleep. People who are couch surfing without a permanent place to live should be included in the household where they’re staying on Census Day (April 1, 2020).

What about people staying in shelters, living outdoors, and residing in other temporary locations? The census bureau has two approaches:

  • Census workers will interview and record responses from people experiencing homelessness at service-based locations or outdoors. These sites include emergency and transitional shelters, soup kitchens, mobile food vans, and targeted outdoor locations (e.g., under bridges, in parking lots, in encampments). This effort will take place from March 30 to April 1, 2020. Census workers in 2010 counted nearly 28,000 Californians in homeless shelters and about 64,000 Californians at other service-based locations and outdoors.
  • Census workers will go to “transitory” locations to collect responses from people who don’t have a usual home elsewhere. These locations include RV parks, motels, campgrounds, racetracks, circuses, carnivals, and marinas. This effort will take place from April 9 to May 4, 2020. Census workers in 2010 collected data from nearly 24,000 transitory locations in California.

The Census Bureau works with local partners to identify service-based and outdoor locations. Input on the latter is particularly important, as California has high shares of homeless individuals who are not living in shelters. The bureau’s new construction program allows governments to submit addresses for new shelters and transitory locations that are expected to be completed by April 1, 2020.

Getting input from local officials and on-the-ground organizations will be critical. They likely have the most up-to-date information about service-based and outdoor locations in their communities, as well as on those who have been displaced due to fire or other disasters. Individuals with experience working directly with the homeless population may also consider applying to be census workers—speaking with a trusted person from the community can help encourage participation among those who might otherwise distrust government officials.

Together, these efforts could go a long way toward motivating homeless individuals to participate in the census, while also ensuring that census workers have accurate information about where to count these Californians.

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