Undercounted: Homelessness and the 2020 Census


Undercounted: Homelessness and the 2020 Census

The decennial United States Census is one of the most important civic responsibilities we face as a nation. Not only does it try to count every person in every household, but the data is used for redistricting and determining federal funding for programs such as food stamps, healthcare, and housing. 

Photo of a person standing on the street with a clipboard and mask on, talking 6 feet away from a person in a hat who is standing just in front of a homeless encampment
Source: Emily Bi/Senior Staff – The Daily Californian

The term “household” is used to describe any place where a person may be residing. The Census Bureau previously identified three days where they will be coordinating outreach to people experiencing homelessness. However, due to the ongoing SARS CoV-2 pandemic, these have been postponed to unidentified dates in the future. The Census Bureau  “needs further review and coordination with outside partners and stakeholders” to coordinate new dates for counting all those experiencing homelessness.

A total of 552,830(A) people were counted as experiencing homelessness during the 2018 PIT Count nationwide, including 25,310(B) in Texas. It is estimated that 2-3.5 million people experience homelessness annually across the United States and that an additional 7.4 million double-up due to economic necessity (c). It is vitally important that the census counts all people, including those residing in shelters, on the streets, in their cars, and those “doubling up.”

There are many reasons that people experiencing homelessness are at-risk for being undercounted in the 2020 census. Census Counts, a national coalition of nonpartisan agencies, identifies four characteristics that define people experiencing homelessness as “hard to count”:

  1. Transitory Status  – The Census Bureau attempts to count households by sending materials to every known residential address. People experiencing homelessness often are temporary members of a household. It is vitally important to educate this population and the people who give them shelter to include them on the census form completed for that household.
  2. Hard-To-Locate Locales – People experiencing homelessness can be hard to locate through census methods, in part because of where they live. In 2016, 68% of the homeless population was in emergency shelters, transitional housing programs, or safe havens, and 32 percent were in unsheltered locations. In 2015, 31 percent lived on the street, in a car, or in an abandoned building. Furthermore, local ordinances that prohibit begging or sleeping in public force people experiencing homelessness into less conspicuous locations.
  3. Internet Access –  People experiencing homelessness are far less likely to have internet access than the general population. The Census Bureau plans to promote an internet response form as the primary way for households to respond to the 2020 Census.
  4. Age – Young children are traditionally very hard to count and about 22 percent of people experiencing homelessness are children.

In addition to these four reasons for a possible undercount of people experiencing homelessness, the lack of clarity of rescheduled dates for targeted outreach to encampments due to COVID-19 further complicates the counting process. 

In order to do justice in our communities, we must recognize and respond quickly to the undercounting of those experiencing homelessness. By ensuring accurate counts, we will ensure adequate and appropriate funding and programs for all of our community members for years to come, not just those who are easily identified.

A graphic of a grouping of human bodies in different shades of blue standing next to each other, creating the shape of the United States. In the middle, it reads, Census 2020.

If you are in any area in Texas, our regional office in Denver, Colorado and can be reached at 1-800-852-6159 or Denver.Regional.Office@census.gov.
To learn how you identify a census worker, please see the bureau’s guide here

Undercounted: Homelessness and the 2020 Census
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