Did undercounting of unhoused population cost CA a seat in Congress?

Illustration of census worker with homeless individual
Emily Bi/File

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For the first time in the history of the state, California will lose a seat in Congress following the results of the 2020 census. This political setback comes after a four-year-long battle with federal authorities who have criticized the Golden State on issues ranging from vehicular greenhouse gas emissions to the homelessness crisis. While some hail the coming loss of representation as the latest “kick me” sign taped to the back of a state in decline, the seat California lost is moreso a glaring example of what happens when vulnerable voices get ignored during a crisis. Given California’s sizable unhoused population and community-based reports of undercounting, it stands to reason that California might have kept a seat in Congress if the 2020 census accurately counted the unhoused population.

The Trump administration’s gross mismanagement of the 2020 census produced significant population undercounts in states such as California. Well before the results came out, a leading U.S. statistician warned that the census was being “sabotaged” by the Trump administration. That statistician was Robert Santos, president of the American Statistical Association, and newly appointed director of the U.S. Census Bureau under the Biden administration. Given former President Donald Trump’s efforts to politicize the census, threaten undocumented people and end the count early, it should come as no surprise that the 2020 census was a general undercount for California.

In my view, nowhere was the 2020 census more flawed than in the counting of the sizable California unhoused population. Working as a homeless service provider in the city of San Francisco, I witnessed the havoc COVID-19 wreaked on the work of counting California’s unhoused individuals in the 2020 census. Shelters across California had to lower the number of available beds to adhere to social distancing, making it difficult for homeless shelters to report an accurate count. Furthermore, with the closure of public libraries, computer access became restricted, and as a result, online census resources became all but obsolete.

At the onset of the pandemic, plans to count unhoused people were indefinitely paused while community programs were completely canceled. Several homeless service providers wrote to the Census Bureau about ways to resume the count safely and with greater accuracy. The census planned to canvas the streets in the middle of the night to count tents and vehicles, despite community-based criticisms.

Local homeless service providers offered to assist federal census authorities by scheduling daytime appointments at encampments or other large outdoor gatherings of unhoused individuals. The offers, however, were not taken up. Instead, the nighttime count occurred, utilizing a crude calculus of claiming large tents as 2 people, small tents as 1 person and vehicles as 2 ½ people. Furthermore, since the nighttime count involved no direct contact with unhoused people, no data could be gathered as to the age, race or gender of the unhoused population.

Without an accurate unhoused population count, huge losses for California were inevitable. Currently, California is set to lose even more than a seat in Congress; the state is poised to lose millions in federal aid allocated annually based on the census count. That translates to fewer Section 8 vouchers, fewer affordable housing grants and fewer workforce development dollars at a time when the state needs these resources the most. Census data is used by Congress to allocate federal grants to build and maintain roads, schools, hospitals and many more public institutions. According to Casey Farmer of the Alameda County Complete Count Committee, the county stands to lose $10,000 in public resources for every one person not counted in the U.S. census.

The census is conducted only once every 10 years, so hoping for a more competently conducted count next time around does little to remedy the negative consequences of the 2020 California undercount. Instead, we ought to leverage the political representation we still have to call attention to the mistakes made during one of the most inaccurate census counts in U.S. history. This means calling upon our local governments to register an official challenge to the results of the U.S. census, specifically in the context of the unhoused population count. This would require our local governments to collect and share counts of neglected populations such as the unhoused so these vulnerable voices can finally be heard.

Anthony Carrasco served as a founding member of the Homeless Services Panel of Experts for the city of Berkeley and as the external affairs and policy manager for Compass Family Services of San Francisco. He is currently pursuing a doctoral degree at UC Berkeley School of Law.