Counting people experiencing homelessness is not an easy task during any census, and the coronavirus pandemic, wildfires, and hurricanes have made the process even more complicated in 2020.

Despite rigorous efforts by the Census Bureau to count everyone in the United States, many people experiencing homelessness are likely to be missed in the 2020 Census count. The Census Bureau had already identified people experiencing homelessness as a hard-to-count population because they have more difficulty accessing the typical modes of responding to the survey—by internet, phone, or mail—than people with a permanent address.1 Then the pandemic’s effects on everyday life delayed census field operations. The rescheduled dates to count people experiencing homelessness—Sept. 22-24, 2020—place count efforts in the middle of peak wildfire and hurricane seasons. This confluence of crises magnifies the challenge of conducting a complete and accurate count of an often-overlooked population.

Counting People Where They Sleep

The goal of the 2020 Census is to count everyone once, only once, and at their “usual residence.” Usual residence is defined as the location where a person lives and sleeps most of the time. If people do not have a permanent home, they should be counted at the location where they are on Census Day, April 1, 2020. For people experiencing homelessness, their location on Census Day may be unsheltered (including living in a vehicle), at a shelter or transitional housing, at a hotel or motel, or doubled up in another household.

People who are doubled-up on Census Day should be counted in the household where they are staying on that day, and the census questionnaire includes prompts to help ensure everyone is counted. But the Census Bureau has identified the doubled-up population as hard-to-count because, despite prompts in the questionnaire, they may still be missed.

For people staying at shelters and those who are unsheltered, the Census Bureau aims to count people at the locations where they receive services, like soup kitchens, shelters, and mobile food vans, and at targeted outdoor locations like parks, under bridges, at bus depots, and other areas. To identify such count locations, the Census Bureau uses a combination of internet research and outreach to local elected officials and advocacy organizations.

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, however, both service-based and outdoor count operations were delayed. Service-based enumeration, originally scheduled for March 30 to April 1, has been delayed to September 22-24. The outdoor count, originally scheduled for April 1, will now take place from September 23-24. Because of these delays, people will no longer be counted where they were on April 1 but rather where they are staying in September. This shift—and the reasons for it—raise questions: Are the same service locations open? Are the same people using those services? Are people avoiding services to reduce their risk of exposure to the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, making them even harder to enumerate? All of these issues complicate the count of people experiencing homelessness in 2020.

Counting During Crises Heightens the Risk of Undercount

The shift in operations has also moved the count into peak hurricane and wildfire seasons. Just as census enumerators are preparing to count people outdoors and at service-based locations, serious natural disasters are ravaging parts of the nation. Wildfires have led to hazardous air quality across much of the West Coast, forcing many people to stay indoors. Hurricane Sally, which hit the Gulf Coast on Sept. 16, 2020, has severely damaged infrastructure across several states. People who would normally be outdoors may not be in their “usual” locations, and services may be dramatically disrupted in areas that have been affected by disasters.

The closure of libraries and other community facilities further compounds the challenge of counting. If people experiencing homelessness are missed in service-based and unsheltered enumeration, they can still self-respond to the census through September 30. Public facilities such as libraries, schools, and community centers were expected to serve as outreach locations for 2020 Census self-response. At libraries, for example, people without access to the internet or a computer could learn about the census and use a computer to respond online. However, due to the coronavirus pandemic, many of these facilities are closed. Even if a facility is open, people may avoid public places to lower their risk of contracting the coronavirus.

Communities Could Lose Crucial Funding For Services

Official estimates of homelessness in the United States range from 568,000 to more than 1.5 million people (and both are underestimates). Given those staggering numbers, the Census Bureau faces a major challenge in enumerating this large, hard-to-count population. And because of ongoing natural disasters and the economic effects of the coronavirus pandemic, it’s likely that the number of people experiencing homelessness has increased in 2020.

The 2020 Census will be used to reapportion congressional seats, redraw voting districts, and allocate more than $1 trillion in federal funds each year—including funds that assist people experiencing homelessness. Data from the 2020 Census will be used by governments and nonproft organizations to determine needs for roads, hospitals, and other public services. An undercount of people without a permananent address would reduce funds for programs that serve the United States’ most vulnerable residents. Such an undercount will be magnified in local areas with large numbers of people experiencing homelessness and in areas where the count will be most disrupted. Communities hit the hardest by the pandemic and natural disasters could lose crucial funding.

As one of several vital nationwide operations destabilized by the coronavirus pandemic, wildfires, and hurricanes, the 2020 Census faces more challenges than usual in counting people experiencing homelessness. But a complete and accurate count is vital to supporting these populations and the communities that serve them.