Census 2020: Tips and FAQs for Counting those Experiencing Homelessness and Hardest to Count

How Can We Ensure Those With No Address of Their Own Are Counted?

Last week, I had the opportunity to speak with Peter Chen, Policy Counsel with Advocates for Children of New Jersey, about the critical importance of ensuring that individuals experiencing homelessness are counted in the 2020 Census.

Advocates for Children is part of the Census 2020 NJ Coalition.  The Census 2020 NJ Coalition is a statewide outreach and awareness campaign to coordinate nonprofit and community-based efforts to ensure an accurate 2020 Census count for our state.
The Census 2020 NJ Coalition is working together with the State of New Jersey Complete Count Commission and the U.S. Census Bureau to make sure the public has clear, accurate information about the importance of the upcoming Census 
Chen shared with me that counting individuals experiencing homelessness is one of the least understood parts of the Census.  The population experiencing homelessness that “couch surfs” staying with family and friends and moves around frequently is very difficult to count.  While there is a “probe question” that specifically asks Census responders about people that might be staying with them, many answering the Census questions do not think to share information about non-permanent residents who are temporarily living with them.
Soup kitchens and food pantries can be excellent place to survey those experiencing homelessness.  The Census asks for a residential mailing address which may be a difficult for those experiencing homelessness to share.   But someone can fill out the address portion of the form by giving a city of residence.
A person that has no home and wants to fill out their census form at a library or shelter, will need to go through the non-ID process.  When completing the census, they would select that they do not have their Census ID and a prompt for entering their address would appear.  As understand at this time, an option would appear for city-style address, rural address or other.  In this situation, they could select “other” and then enter their city or town and state and enter any additional information as well.
How can those serving individuals experiencing homelessness clarify what the Census does and does not do to the homeless population?  You can let people know that the Census does not ask in-depth, specific questions about details about someone’s life history such as “What is your annual salary?”  Instead, you can explain that the census just wants to verify that you are a person and that you have an address.  Responding to the Census is easy, important and safe.
Why is an accurate Census count so critical?  The goal of ensuring that the Census take an accurate count of those experiencing homelessness is having an accurate count by Census block.  One of the reasons why it is critical to get an accurate aggregate count by Census block is to ensure that fair political representation.  And programs that serve those experiencing homelessness rely on accurate census counts to fund efforts to end homelessness through federal funding that comes through U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) programs and Medicaid.
Chen advises that anyone who serves individuals experiencing homelessness should think about a plan for Census 2020.  What will your agency or organization do in March or April to encourage census participation among those experiencing homelessness?  Once you determine those activities, you can work backwards to plan a timeline that leads up to your participation.  What activities have to happen before March and April Census participation?
The Service Based Enumeration will take place over the course of three-day period from March 30 to April 1, 2020. Census takers will use paper census forms and contact interviews on a day or night within the 3-day period.  And the Enumeration at Transitory Locations (ETL) will take place from April 9 to May 4, 2020.
  • Educate those you serve about what the Census
  • Ensure that Service Based Enumeration sites such as food pantries and soup kitchens will have WIFI so that individuals can respond to the Census on tablets.  Can you partner with a local library to borrow WIFI hotspots to provide WIFI access? 
  • Ask the New York Regional Census office to send partner specialist staff to your agency or organization to offer Census support Plan a Census event for March or April 2020 and invite Census staff to attend the event
  • Offer incentives such as “free shops” at food pantries– an extra time to come in and shop for food in exchange for filling out the census?
  • Work for the overnight count of the homeless that takes place at the end of March –   Homeless outreach staff make great census workers as they know where to find those experiencing homelessness in their community who do not reside in shelters
Do you have questions about how to work towards the most accurate possible count of the homeless through the Census?  You can contact Peter Chen at Advocates for Children at NJ at pchen@acnj.org.