It’s that time of the decade – census time.   Time to stand up and be counted!  You might wonder, at least you might if you are in my situation, does the census count the homeless and if so, how do they do it?  I spent a little time looking into that question and it turns out that the homeless are actually counted more frequently than the rest of the country!  The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) demands a count at least every other year from cities and counties across the country so it can allocate money and services designed to combat homelessness. This means that there are already methods in place to conduct counts of people without a fixed address that census workers can use.  Do these methods work?

In Minnesota census ‘enumerators’ (why does that sound like a role for Arnold Swartzenegger?) try to count the homeless over a period of 3 days.

  • On the first night, enumerators will count persons residing in shelters and temporary arrangements.
  • On the second day, enumerators will interview persons at regularly scheduled mobile food vans and persons at soup kitchens. If individuals at the mobile food vans and soup kitchens report a “usual residence,” they are not included in the SBE operation and are instead included in the general population count.
  • On the third night, enumerators will count persons at pre-identified targeted nonsheltered outdoor locations.

They’d still miss us.  The article points out that counting the homeless isn’t easy because ‘some homeless people don’t want to admit they are homeless, and the homeless are not uniquely identifiable as such by any physical characteristic, and thus cannot be identified easily.’  That’s right; we aren’t all unkempt slovenly individuals shuffling along the sidewalk talking to ourselves or asleep under newspaper blankets on park benches!

Similarly in San Francisco they too will spend three days attempting to count the homeless at shelters, soup kitchens, parks and highway underpasses and the census in Washington D.C. will include people in transitional housing and emergency shelters, on the streets, and in parks and camp sites, along with formerly homeless people now in permanent housing where they receive assistance from case workers. It does not, however, include those who are doubling up with relatives and friends, sleeping on couches and floors, one step from a shelter or worse.

Because the HUD count, and now the census count, methods are aimed at what I consider the traditional class of homeless – as described above, those in shelters, attending soup kitchens, at campsites, etc. – I wonder if it will accurately capture the numbers of the new homeless, those formerly middle class, now unemployed and cast from their homes by this Great Depression.  We don’t frequent food pantries or hang out under bridges.  We (I’m speaking generically here) stay with friends and family, move from motel room to campgrounds, sleep in our cars and RVs.  And we are probably amongst those who do not want to admit we are homeless. Would you want to be memorialized as homeless in the census for future descendants and genealogy buffs to see?  And we probably won’t benefit from the funds for homeless services.

Yesterday we arrived home and amidst the commotion of unloading kids and homework and groceries and releasing the dogs from captivity for their mid-day walk, a young woman approached.  She was wearing a name badge around her neck, carrying a clipboard in her hand.  “Hello,” she said.  “I’m from the US Census 2010.”

We were counted. But I don’t know if we count.

Advertisements