Bay Area Advocates Fear Census Homeless Count Will Come Up Short

Alameda County Census Outreach Manager Casey Farmer (R) and a member of her team set up shop at the West Oakland Senior Center on Sept. 16, 2020, part an effort to get more residents in the community to complete their census forms. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Census workers will fan out Wednesday night across the Bay Area, and in cities around the country, to count people experiencing homelessness — some of the hardest to reach residents in the nation’s once-a-decade population tally.

County officials and homeless service providers have been working with the U.S. Census Bureau for more than a year, providing lists of places where unsheltered people can be found. But some are now voicing frustration that the bureau is disregarding their advice and familiarity with the Bay Area’s homeless communities, and worry the count will be incomplete.

“When the bureau is sending out people to walk into encampments late at night, it’s going to be incredibly difficult because we’re not allowed to be there. We’re not allowed to leverage our relationships,” said Nicholas Kuwada, manager of Santa Clara County’s census outreach office. “It has made it incredibly difficult to plan and to work with the bureau.”

But census officials say they’ve counted the homeless before and they know how to get it done. As in the past, the count happens in a three-day blitz — Sept. 22-24 — and includes visits to emergency shelters and soup kitchens, as well as an overnight count of people living outdoors or in vehicles.

The staff of temporary “enumerators” were trained last week on safety and cultural sensitivity, and equipped with masks and hand sanitizer, said Tim Olson, the bureau’s associate director of field operations.

“This is my fourth census,” Olson said. “It literally does [all] occur during those three days. We have approximately 40,000 people doing this enumeration [nationwide].”

But the COVID-19 pandemic upended most planned census operations. The homeless count was originally scheduled for late March, but was postponed because most of the country was sheltering in place to prevent the spread of the virus. Even today, six months later, the ongoing pandemic continues to create major obstacles for getting an accurate homeless count.

Soup kitchens that used to serve sit-down meals in large halls, and where enumerators came to collect information from many people, now offer grab-and-go food. And local officials have been trying to move people out of group shelters and into hotel rooms, dispersing the population and making the count more difficult.

The changes make collaboration with local partners all the more important, said Casey Farmer, Alameda County’s census outreach coordinator. So she’s frustrated that census officials have not shared their plans, ostensibly to protect the privacy of the people they’re counting.

“We feel blind that you won’t tell us which encampments you’ll go to,” Farmer said. “Community groups have been asking, pleading, the local census office to set up appointments, so they don’t surprise folks.”

Olson said the bureau does still schedule its visits to organized shelters and meal providers.

But Farmer and others say encampments are another matter. And they are upset that the bureau is set on going out overnight to knock on tent flaps and the doors of RVs.

Oakland City Councilwoman Lynette Gibson McElhaney chats with West Oakland resident Albirtis Gaston during a 2020 census outreach walk on Sept. 16, 2020. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Candice Elder, executive director of the East Oakland Collective, which provides food and services to about 500 people a day across 30 Oakland encampments, said she consulted camp leaders early on about the census count.

“Hands down, they said, ‘This is a crazy idea, to come into an encampment during the middle of the night when people are sleeping or doing who knows what, and disturb people,’” said Elder. “No unhoused person was in favor of it.”

Elder said she wrote to the local census office and requested scheduled, daytime visits, but was denied.

“My fear is that people will not get counted and that will lead to really important resources not getting to the unhoused community,” she said. “The census data is what people rely on for the next 10 years. We want to have as accurate a count as possible.”

Bay Area advocates and county officials also question whether the Census Bureau has enough staff, after reports that it began laying off enumerators in early September.

And they say they wish census officials would allow homeless outreach volunteers to accompany the enumerators, to foster trust, as they did for the last census.

“In 2010, the Census Bureau allowed us to pair up enumerators with cultural facilitators or community partners in an escort system,” said Robert Clinton, San Francisco’s census project manager. “That is not the case this time around. I wrote to the bureau a year ago to ask, and they said absolutely not.”

Olson said new federal rules now require each person who works with the census to go through a full security background check and be hired as an employee, although he did explain why that change had been made.

Without being able to assist in that effort, homeless advocates and local governments have been hustling to get the word out in advance to unhoused populations: Census workers with badges are coming to ask you questions. It’s safe to talk to them. And it’s your constitutional right to be counted.

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But between the pandemic and the region’s housing crisis, nonprofits are swamped, said Jessie Hewins, a managing attorney at Homebase, a homeless advocacy organization with a state contract to prepare for the homeless count.

“It was always going to be a really hard count,” Hewins said. “It’s hard to count people experiencing homelessness, and it's incredibly hard to count people during a global pandemic.”

Still, she is cautiously optimistic, she said, despite the fact that California has more than 150,000 homeless people statewide, about 35,000 of them in the Bay Area.

One thing that’s helping: The state has spent almost $190 million on census outreach, and some local governments are supplementing that. Santa Clara County has devoted $7 million, according to Kuwada. That’s because an undercount could cost the state tens of billions of dollars in federal funding, and one or more congressional seats.

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California’s investment in the count — far more than any other state —is yielding benefits, said Olson, the census official.

“The result of their effort has really paid off,” he said. “You’ve got some of the highest self-response rates in the nation.”

The three-day homeless count comes just a week before the scheduled end of the census counting operation for the entire U.S. population and in the midst of a legal and political battle over whether the Trump administration can end the census early.

A federal judge in San Jose is due to rule shortly on whether to allow the census count to end Sept. 30 or require it to continue through Oct. 31, which was the original pandemic-adjusted plan. That ruling, however, is unlikely to have any bearing on the homeless count.

A report released Friday by the Office of Inspector General in the Department of Commerce, which oversees the Census Bureau, found that accelerating the schedule threatens the accuracy of the count.

As of Wednesday, more than 95% of American households had been counted, and even more in California, Olson noted.

“We’re going to have to continue working very hard to get to ‘done,’” he said. “The last 5% are the hardest … finding addresses, finding people willing to cooperate. We’re in the final stage and maybe the most challenging stage.”

Homeless advocates and county officials said they are not just depending on census enumerators to complete the job. This year is the first time the census questionnaire can be filled out online, at my2020census.gov. Officials in Alameda, San Francisco and Santa Clara counties all said they planned to send out crews with computer tablets and alcohol wipes, to follow up and invite homeless people to respond for themselves.

“We’ll mobilize a small strike team familiar with these communities, to comb through and see if they've missed anyone,” said Kuwada. “It only takes 10 minutes [to fill out], but there is no next year. It’s now or never.”

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