Every 10 years, the federal government embarks on a massive undertaking that involves counting everyone who lives in the United States, called the census. This colossal data collection effort informs federal funding for many different programs, including school lunches, mental health services, and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as SNAP. The data is also used to determine the number of seats each state has in the House of Representatives. The lower the count, the less representation in government and the less funding toward vital programs.
Many of these programs are critical for people who are homeless or housing insecure, which is why Thrive DC is concerned that everyone will indeed be counted, especially our clients. “Nationally, it is estimated that every year over 3.5 million people are homeless,” says Alicia Horton, Thrive DC Executive Director. “The disastrous impact of this pandemic is likely to raise that number even higher, which is why we need to make sure there are enough resources to address the needs of the most vulnerable. A lot more new people are queuing up for food assistance. We cannot underestimate the economic impact of this public health crisis.”
The systemic inequities that plague our society are reflected among the homeless population, which is why it is even more critical to capture the data and ensure there are services in place. For example, according to Census Count, in 2010 African American family members were seven times as likely to be in a homeless shelter as white family members. Veterans were also disproportionately represented among those experiencing homelessness, making up about nine percent of homeless adults in 2016. While addiction and mental health conditions are common.
Persons experiencing homelessness or housing insecurity are included in the “hard to count” group identified by the Census with some of the lowest response rates. Not having a permanent mailing address or access to the internet are some of the barriers that make it especially difficult to count this population. As is residing in hard-to-reach places, such as emergency shelters, transitional housing or being in the streets. Young children are traditionally hard to count and, according to Census Counts, about 22 percent of people experiencing homelessness are children.
“Before Covid-19 forced us to reduce our onsite programs,” continues Horton, “we had planned a series of educational workshops for clients on the importance of being counted by the Census. Our computer room was also open, so they could fill out the survey online. All our plans went out of the window when the pandemic hit us, and we had to pivot to adjust to a new reality.”
The good news is that the Census 2020 data collection effort has been extended from July 31 to October 31. How best to count the homeless population in light of Covid-19, is still under review but there is increased coordination with all stakeholders who interact regularly with this population. On our part, we will continue to educate our clients on the need to get counted and find ways to facilitate that process through sister organizations that manage shelters and transitional homes. Our mission is to ensure no one falls through the cracks and the Census is one way to do that. Do your part. Get counted.
The Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality has compiled some of the information contained above and more in Counting People Experiencing Homelessness: Guide to 2020 Census Information.