The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Homelessness is historically undercounted in the census. Can a count during coronavirus get it right?

Ami Angell, executive director of the h3 Project, and others visit the NoMa area of D.C., helping those without housing fill out the 2020 Census form. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

It had been six months since her last volunteer shift educating D.C. residents on the importance of filling out the 2020 Census and Arnesia Davis had yet to complete it herself.

It’s not that she didn’t want to, Davis said recently as she shaved her hair beneath the L Street Bridge in Northeast Washington. But she had sparse Internet access and felt wary of answering questions about a permanent address or phone number — neither of which she had.

So one month before the filing deadline, the D.C. resident stood beside her decorated tent uncounted.

The Census Bureau is supposed to make it easy for homeless people like Davis to be enumerated. This year, however, calculated plans to count people without conventional housing were upended by the coronavirus pandemic, leaving experts and advocates alike concerned that the 2020 Census would pass over a vulnerable population hit especially hard by the dual health and economic crises.

But over the past six months, as the filing deadline has been repeatedly moved back, local leaders who have partnered with the U.S. Census Bureau have been hard at work to fill in the gaps in enumeration created by the pandemic. Census workers, local leaders and advocates hope that their creativity and drive will produce a more comprehensive count of people experiencing homelessness.

“This year is going to go down in the history books as a year that is unlike any decennial census because of covid,” said Maryland Secretary of Planning Robert McCord, who has worked with the bureau to disseminate the census in Maryland. “But the challenges have in some ways brought us closer together.”

Experts say that people experiencing homelessness have been undercounted for decades. This year it is especially critical to accurately account for homeless populations because of a looming wave of pandemic-induced evictions that will probably incite a surge in homelessness and amplify the need for resources. While annual point-in-time counts track homelessness, the 2020 Census determines the distribution of funding from federal assistance housing programs such as the Community Development Block Grants.

Annual homeless count shows slight drop, fewest unhoused since 2001

“There are real resources implications here,” said Samantha Batko, a senior research associate at the Urban Institute. “So it is always important for this count to be comprehensive. And this year, there are specific challenges that make a comprehensive count more difficult.”

Typically, the Census Bureau will spend years leading up to the decennial count cultivating partnerships between local leaders and outreach organizations across the country to structure a comprehensive plan to count people experiencing homelessness. Census workers are expected to fan out to identified emergency and transitional shelters and street encampments, providing access to the survey and explaining that it does not require a permanent residence to complete.

The bureau had initially planned this year’s outreach to people without housing, known as “service-based enumeration,” for late March. But then the pandemic hit and in a matter of days public gatherings were banned, community spots like libraries shuttered, and census workers began to drop out over health concerns. In D.C. alone, organizers said they canceled more than 45 public events that included plans to disseminate the census.

After suspending its field operations, the Census Bureau ultimately delayed the original date of service-based enumeration from March 30 to Sept. 22.

“Everything needed to be modified, and that was particularly true for people who are experiencing homelessness,” said Laura Zeilinger, director of D.C. Human Services.

As the bureau scrambled to adjust to the pandemic, community partners across the country were working overtime to mobilize their own networks to create systems to count homeless people.

Miriam’s Kitchen, a nonprofit group that works to end homelessness in D.C., had prepared to serve as a training site for the Census Bureau’s service-based enumerators. Instead, Adam Rocap, its deputy director, saw potential to disseminate the census from their outdoor meal sites, which have grown in demand through the pandemic. Last month, census workers conducted interviews with locals in line for food.

John Summerlot, a program manager for the Prince George’s County Department of Social Services, directed the Census Bureau to new shelter sites the county had created amid the pandemic. And the Complete Count Committee in Montgomery County, one of the thousands of committees that help develop and implement the census, pivoted from an outdoor advertising campaign to focus on digital outreach.

“Our local staff have worked within the communities to identify recruiting needs that may include specific language skills and cultural facilitators,” a Census Bureau spokesperson said in an email statement. “We have consulted with numerous service providers on the best timing to count the people they serve in their locations across the country.”

But despite local efforts and partnerships with the Census Bureau, many people experiencing homelessness across the country remain uncounted. Experts point to closed public spaces such as libraries, which once provided free Internet access, and bans on public gatherings at community centers to warn of a potential undercount this year.

“The situation is really challenging to have done a comprehensive count, so no I don’t think that we will have a full capture of people who are experiencing homelessness,” Zeilinger said. “I think people did the best they could.”

In early October, a federal judge extended the 2020 Census count through the end of the month to allow more time to engage with communities at risk of being undercounted. The Trump administration has disputed that ruling, asking the Supreme Court on Wednesday to stay the lower court’s order.

With three weeks left until the latest filing deadline, outreach workers are working overtime to help educate people experiencing homelessness on the importance of filling out the census.

Ami Angell, founder of the h3 Project, a nonprofit outreach organization, has spent the past few weeks working alongside members of the NoMa Business Improvement District and the office of the deputy mayor for health and human services to educate hundreds of people without housing in D.C. about how to fill out the census.

“By not giving them a true voice in the census, that is also not allowing the true nature of what D.C. represents to be seen,” Angell said. “It’s just about human dignity.”

On the last Saturday of September, about a month before the census filing deadline, Angell led a small team down First Street in Northeast Washington and through the tent city that spread across the underpass of the L Street Bridge.

There she found Davis, shaving her hair between a fenced off construction site and a row of tents embellished with potted plants and local art work.

“It’s so humid out here you are doing the right thing,” Angell told Davis, gesturing to her own long hair before the two began to laugh together. “But really, I am here about the census.”

Over the next 10 minutes, Angell stressed that the census is confidential and does not require permanent addresses. She lent her organization’s tablet to Davis, standing beside her to answer questions as they arose. And she offered Davis a Harris Teeter gift card once she completed the survey.

“This is important,” Davis said moments after completing the survey. “I just want it to be known that we are trying to make a difference and make things better. We are trying to have a voice.”

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