Who Counts?

It’s that time of the decade – census time.   Time to stand up and be counted!  You might wonder, at least you might if you are in my situation, does the census count the homeless and if so, how do they do it?  I spent a little time looking into that question and it turns out that the homeless are actually counted more frequently than the rest of the country!  The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) demands a count at least every other year from cities and counties across the country so it can allocate money and services designed to combat homelessness. This means that there are already methods in place to conduct counts of people without a fixed address that census workers can use.  Do these methods work?

In Minnesota census ‘enumerators’ (why does that sound like a role for Arnold Swartzenegger?) try to count the homeless over a period of 3 days.

  • On the first night, enumerators will count persons residing in shelters and temporary arrangements.
  • On the second day, enumerators will interview persons at regularly scheduled mobile food vans and persons at soup kitchens. If individuals at the mobile food vans and soup kitchens report a “usual residence,” they are not included in the SBE operation and are instead included in the general population count.
  • On the third night, enumerators will count persons at pre-identified targeted nonsheltered outdoor locations.

They’d still miss us.  The article points out that counting the homeless isn’t easy because ‘some homeless people don’t want to admit they are homeless, and the homeless are not uniquely identifiable as such by any physical characteristic, and thus cannot be identified easily.’  That’s right; we aren’t all unkempt slovenly individuals shuffling along the sidewalk talking to ourselves or asleep under newspaper blankets on park benches!

Similarly in San Francisco they too will spend three days attempting to count the homeless at shelters, soup kitchens, parks and highway underpasses and the census in Washington D.C. will include people in transitional housing and emergency shelters, on the streets, and in parks and camp sites, along with formerly homeless people now in permanent housing where they receive assistance from case workers. It does not, however, include those who are doubling up with relatives and friends, sleeping on couches and floors, one step from a shelter or worse.

Because the HUD count, and now the census count, methods are aimed at what I consider the traditional class of homeless – as described above, those in shelters, attending soup kitchens, at campsites, etc. – I wonder if it will accurately capture the numbers of the new homeless, those formerly middle class, now unemployed and cast from their homes by this Great Depression.  We don’t frequent food pantries or hang out under bridges.  We (I’m speaking generically here) stay with friends and family, move from motel room to campgrounds, sleep in our cars and RVs.  And we are probably amongst those who do not want to admit we are homeless. Would you want to be memorialized as homeless in the census for future descendants and genealogy buffs to see?  And we probably won’t benefit from the funds for homeless services.

Yesterday we arrived home and amidst the commotion of unloading kids and homework and groceries and releasing the dogs from captivity for their mid-day walk, a young woman approached.  She was wearing a name badge around her neck, carrying a clipboard in her hand.  “Hello,” she said.  “I’m from the US Census 2010.”

We were counted. But I don’t know if we count.

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14 Responses to Who Counts?

  1. Lisa M. says:

    I don’t think you’re a failure. I think you (and thousands of others) are victims of circumstance (or however you choose to characterize the arbiters of our current bad economy). I think you’re amazing, actually – I haven’t been reading very long. I was alerted to this blog by bitchphd, but I think you’re handling these terrible circumstances with such grace.

  2. Little House says:

    I’m confused. I would think that living in an RV isn’t “homeless.” You have a home, it is just an alternative living situation (even if it is temporary). What about people who choose to live in a home such as a Tumbleweed house? It is a very tiny home on wheels. Is that a person who is homeless, or just choosing an alternative living arrangement? I guess I’m perplexed by the term “homeless.” Maybe the census bureau should define the idea of a home or dwelling.

    My husband filled out our form, so I’m not even sure what the question was on the housing part.

    Good luck on your article submission!

  3. Narya says:

    We’re going to have census workers in the health center to help count the people experiencing homelessness who come here for health care.

    And, actually, may well benefit from being counted as homeless–one of the ways funds get allocated to provide health care for people experiencing homelessness is to know how many there are, and the definition includes, for example, people doubling up, or who lack stable permanent housing.

    Thus, you would probably qualify for health care services (in my area, you could be served for free, or nearly so); there is a sliding fee scale that discounts services up to 300% of the FPL.

    If you need more info on the health care issue, let me know.

  4. anonymous says:

    I worked for the Census last spring when they did the address canvassing operation. Because you live in an RV, they do consider that a housing unit. We were advised to watch out for campers parked in driveways or in backyards so that they would get a separate Census form from the main address.

    There is no long form this year. Only a short form. If you received a long form, it’s from an umbrella organization within the Dept of Commerce (Census Bureau). The short form is the only 2010 Census going out for the decennial Census (every 10 years per the US Constitution.)

    No matter what kind of changes they make to the race or ethnicity, someone is not going to be happy. I agree that “White” is not a race, it’s a color. I was tempted to put “Irish” in the other section, but did not.

    The Census only gathers information for statistical purposes. No individual details are released for 72 years. The IRS has challenged this before the Supreme Court and always been denied.

    I also worked for the Census this year in another operation, part of which was to locate and map homeless encampments, TNSOLS (tan-sauls; Targeted Non-sheltered Outdoor Locations), for the homeless counting operation that is going to take place on the 29th and 30th. I drove around and looked for signs of habitation such as shopping carts, tarps, blankets, etc. I looked in drainage pipes, near railroad tracks, behind walls and fences, etc. It does not mean that those people I saw will be there next week (I did this the first week of Feb.).

    I just got a (lousy, low-paying) job, so I do not have to do the homeless night-count from midnight to 7am on the 29/30th. They will be going out in groups of six to count the homeless. Frankly, I found the idea frightening–why they think the middle of the night is the best time to sneak up on homeless folks to count them is beyond me.

    Any other questions, Boxcar, you can e-mail me.


  5. Rockzann says:

    It was good to see your post. I was getting worried about you and the kids.
    I absolutely agree with the others that you count. There is nothing to be embarrassed about in your situation and future generations may just find you on a census and be delighted just to have found you. In the electronic world you are leaving a legacy behind as well. Someday far into the future a granddaughter or grandson may find your blog and realize what a remarkable family they are a part of. Hold your head high!

  6. Bri says:

    It is interesting to see how the US census count differs from that here in Australia. I worked with people in housing crisis at the time of the last census here and it was very interesting to see how my clients were counted (or not). It also sounds like the meaning ‘homeless’ differs between here and the US, although I think most Australian’s probably wouldnt realise that people who ‘couch surf’ are considered by official channels to be homeless, not to mention all the other variations of homelessness.

  7. Sheri M says:

    We’ll probably be counted TWICE. I got the long form to answer in December, and the short form this month. The choices of “race” infuriated me – “white” is a COLOR, not a race. “Asian” wasn’t an option. And, why did I have to specify whether my kids are biological or adopted? I’ve talked to a couple of other people with issues over answering these questions – one guy put “Celtic” down as his “race” in protest over the choices.

    • Sheila says:

      I wanted to put “American” in the “Other” spot. Born here-raised here – seems like it would fit. When will “American” become an ethnicity? Or Native American because I was born here? There is some Native Canadian Cree Indian way back but not enough to carry a card or get free education so does it just not count? My grandparents came from Canada so should I have put Canadian? Or Native American because I was born here? Seems like it should be limited to “Legal here” or” Pending status” cause “not legal/illegal” wouldn’t fly in the politically correct USA.

  8. Becky R says:

    If you are staying with friends they have to put you on there census.

    I wouldn’t consider you homeless, as you have the rv. Some families chose to live in RV’s just because.
    I know that you would prefer to live in an apartment or home, but you still have the rv.

    And of course you count. God cares about you. He loves you.

    You also are adding to my life by reading about your family!

    I sure bet your kids think you count too!

  9. bitchphd says:

    I was surprised to see that the census form actually *does* ask if there are people living at X residence temporarily–and afterwards there’s a question about whether they are visiting temporarily and have a permanent residence of their own, or whether they are staying there because they don’t have another residence right now. So they have figured out how to count people staying with friends/family.

  10. Sarah says:

    If the forms are filled out correctly, people staying with friends/ family will be counted on their forms. But yes, a lot of people are missed if they don’t have a permanent address.

    • We didn’t get to see (or fill out for ourselves) the form, just answered the questions put to us by the census worker and she didn’t ask if anyone was sleeping on our couch.

      • Lisa M. says:

        How interesting that you couldn’t fill out the form yourself. I’m wondering about what information the census worker asked you for, did she ask you if this was your preferred accommodation, and did she ask you how long you had been in the RV? Did she make the distinction about adopted vs. biological kids? I’m wondering if they collect different kinds of information from homed/homeless, and I’m also wondering if the info they collect from teh homeless is actually intended to fight homelessness. I feel cynical.

        I filled out my census form last night, and I was uncomfortable/mad about the race/ethnicity questions. Why should they care about this? My only thought is that they want to know about segments of the population so that they can send money in proportional amounts to different services aimed at those different segments. I would rather that all money/services be aimed equally, no matter your color/ethnicity. I wish I had said “celtic”.

      • She asked whether we had any other place to live and whether we owned or rented, but not how long we have lived here. Asked if the kids were adopted and what were our ages and ethnicities. Don’t recall if she asked my marital status. I do feel like a failure but suppose it will just be an interesting tidbit to future generations like the bits of ancestral lore are to me now!

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