Counting the homeless a challenge for census workers

Glenn Johnson
Glenn Johnson, who was once homeless, has been hired as an enumerator with the 2010 Census. He also worked as an enumerator for the 2000 Census and he helped count the homeless population.
MPR Photo/Toni Randolph

The U.S. Census has launched a major public relations campaign to make sure everyone fills out the forms that arrived earlier this month, but it will take more than a good PR campaign to count people who don't have a permanent place to live, an effort census workers will spend three days trying to do.

Glenn Johnson knows how hard it is to count the homeless population. He was once homeless, and during the last census in 2000, he was one of the people who knocked on the doors of homes that had not returned census forms.

"The homeless population is hard to count because they do not have a door to knock on," Johnson said.

But Johnson, having been homeless himself, said he knew where to look.

"Under the bridges, under the viaducts, in bushes; everywhere where I -- because of me being homeless -- I was much aware that other people were homeless too and I knew where they stayed at," he said. "So I was able to go to the spots where they were and take the census."

On April 1, census workers like Johnson, who is an enumerator again this year, will be outside looking in similar spots for homeless people.

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U.S. Census 2010 form
Copies of the 2010 Census forms shown during a news conference Monday, March 15, 2010.
AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin

"We will send out enumerators in the morning from midnight to 7 a.m. to try to count them outside," said Randy Geurts, with the census office in Minneapolis. "And, again, especially for a state like Minnesota, where it's cold this time of year, we're not really sure how many people we'll find. It's a bit of a crapshoot."

Over the last year or so, census officials have asked local homeless service providers for lists of places where people sleep outside. Monica Nilsson, the street outreach director for St. Stephen's Human Services in Minneapolis, said that's not as easy as it sounds.

Nilsson is also the president of the Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless and said she was unable to provide census officials with the kind of list they wanted.

"Our clients are very mobile," Nilsson said. "We're not like some cities in the U.S. where they have tent cities or skid row and that you can find 100 people there every night."

Nilsson said there are people who sleep outside; her agency found 340 of them in its quarterly count in Hennepin County last January, But others are more precariously housed, sleeping in their cars or on the sofa at a friend's, feeding her worry that the homeless population will be undercounted.

Monica Nilsson
Monica Nilsson is street outreach director for St. Stephen's Human Services in Minneapolis. She's also president of the Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless.
MPR Photo/Toni Randolph

Nilsson said she spoke with the census director and other officials about her concerns during a recent meeting.

"I asked them, would enumerators go into boarded up houses and the answer was no," she said. "I asked if they would count the 50 people or so per night who Metro Transit would report seeking shelter on the buses and the answer was no. I asked if they would go into caves or places that are much more secluded and the answer was no."

Still, the census is being more aggressive with its count of the homeless this year than it was a decade ago. Then, census workers went out one night to try to count everyone. This year, the overnight count is the last part of a three-day effort by the Census Bureau.

On Monday and Tuesday of next week, census workers will be going to shelters, drop-in centers, soup kitchens, food shelves and other places that provide services for the homeless to ask people to fill out census forms. Officials say they believe most people will have heard about the census and will be cooperative in filling out the forms.

But some people, said the formerly homeless census enumerator Glenn Johnson, may not be so receptive, as he found during the last decennial count. He said people with warrants, for instance, were reluctant to take part. But he assured them the information the census collects is confidential.

Randy Geurts and Susan Jacobsen
Susan Jacobsen, Census field operations manager, and Randy Geurts, Census group quarters supervisor, in Minneapolis.
MPR Photo/Toni Randolph

"If you have a warrant, the government agencies are not going and check and see if you've got a warrant. All they're doing is counting people," he said. "They're not concerned of whether you're on the 10 Most Wanted list or you owe child support or something like that. They are more concerned about counting the number of people to get the adequate amount of funds, funding so people can get off the street."

Population figures are used to distribute $400 billion in federal funding to state, tribal and local governments. Census figures are also used to determine how many seats in Congress each state has.

State officials say overlooking as few as 1,000 residents could cost Minnesota one of its eight seats in Congress.