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A headcount of the homeless

The coronavirus makes a challenging aspect of the U.S. census even more difficult


A homeless man at an encampment near downtown St. Louis Associated Press/Photo by Jeff Roberson (file)

A headcount of the homeless

Census takers wearing reflective vests, face masks, and bug spray are spreading out in groups of four on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday of this week to count the U.S. homeless population.

The Census Bureau has identified 49,000 locations across the country where homeless people might congregate, Al Fontenot, associate director for decennial census programs, said. The census workers will begin at nearly 10,000 shelters, 5,000 soup kitchens, and other places like mobile food van stops. Then, overnight, they’ll look under bridges, go to transit stations, and visit nearly 33,000 encampments and other places people live outside.

In addition to determining each state’s congressional seats, the decennial census affects the distribution of about $1.5 trillion of the federal budget.

“We are making every effort to make sure that no one is left out of the count,” Fontenot said.

Including homeless people is one of the most difficult parts of counting the U.S. population. This year, census takers are hitting the streets six months later than originally planned because of the coronavirus pandemic. With the warmer weather, people tend to spread out rather than stay clustered around those identified locations, explained Mike Arnold, president and CEO of the Midnight Mission in Los Angeles. On top of that, many shelters are only operating at a quarter or half capacity to maintain social distancing guidelines.

Counters will go up and down streets to look for people living in doorways, behind buildings and bushes, or in tents. If they find someone sleeping, they will just include them in a headcount rather than asking for personal information.

As September draws to a close, the census takers also will finish counting people who live in transitory housing. That effort spanned more than 600,000 recreational vehicle parks, campgrounds, marinas, hotels, and motels. All census operations are scheduled to end on Sept. 30 if the federal courts don’t grant a month’s extension.


Rachel Lynn Aldrich Rachel is an assistant editor for WORLD Digital. She is a Patrick Henry College and World Journalism Institute graduate. Rachel resides with her husband in Wheaton, Ill.

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