Census could threaten accurate homeless population count

NATIONAL AFFAIRS: Counting a city’s homeless population for the census has been historically difficult, but undercounting is likely to worsen amid a pandemic

Illustration of people standing in front of homeless encampment
Emily Bi/Senior Staff

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Counting Berkeley’s homeless population census has rarely been as difficult as it is now. This year involves public health-related obstacles due to COVID-19, or the coronavirus, pandemic. Without proper protective equipment and an extension to the census’ deadline, California’s outreach efforts will significantly undercount the homeless population. Since Berkeley’s homeless population has skyrocketed by 14% since 2017, it is imperative that the state accurately counts the homeless population to secure the financial resources necessary for improved services.

Census advocates should educate the homeless population as much as social distancing will allow. While this is an indisputably difficult task, motivating the homeless population to fill out the census is vital, and educating the populace is the first step toward ensuring an accurate count. Fears and misinformation are rampant surrounding the federal census. For example, reassuring undocumented individuals that they won’t be reported to law enforcement or face punitive measures for filling out the census might help lessen the workload of enumerators who will eventually be deployed to count people in person.

For the past couple of years, counties throughout California have been conducting their own outreach efforts to obtain an accurate count of the state’s growing homeless population. The homeless population, however, has been difficult to track for myriad reasons. Coronavirus has exacerbated this existing issue by inciting mass migrations of the homeless population, which will only make gathering an accurate count all the more difficult. Sending thousands of enumerators to local soup kitchens, shelters or other areas may have helped solve some issues before the pandemic. Now, though, the absence of in-person enumerators coupled with measures to house the homeless population makes this process extremely tedious.

Additionally, a significant portion of the homeless population does not have access to technologies needed to fill out the census, so an in-person count in cities with significant homeless populations will be all the more instrumental in gathering an accurate count. Going to encampments to talk to people directly requires extensive protective equipment that the federal government should provide.

If California stands to gain adequate financial resources and political representation, both vital in supporting the state’s homeless population, local census committees need to urge the federal government to supply these resources. But since health care institutions are currently facing a shortage of supplies and take precedence over other protective equipment, it would be wise to further delay census outreach efforts until all enumerators have access to the appropriate protective equipment. The U.S. Census Bureau’s requested four months might be just enough time to assess census activities in relation to the pandemic, maybe even to begin in-person counting.

The bottom line is that the Census Bureau must develop methods to count the homeless population with a focus on safety as well as accuracy. The census’ effectiveness depends on it.

Editorials represent the majority opinion of the editorial board as written by the spring 2020 opinion editor, Simmy Khetpal.