Count People Where They Are

Census Miscounts Undermine Essential Funding for Homelessness Prevention

The U.S. Census Bureau must address past and current operational challenges to ensure that decennial censuses to come can better address homelessness and provide support for lifesaving programs.

In this article
 (The tent of a person experiencing homelessness sits on a bridge with the Los Angeles skyline in the background, January 2014.)
The tent of a person experiencing homelessness sits on a bridge with the Los Angeles skyline in the background, January 2014. (Getty/Citizen of the Planet/Education Images/Universal Images Group)

Author’s note: CAP uses “Black” and “African American” interchangeably throughout many of our products. We use “Native American” and “American Indian” interchangeably in this report as many reports referenced include either or both terms in their data collection. We also use the term “Latinx,” which includes a person or group of people with origins in Latin American. This term is preferable to “Latino,” which is not gender-inclusive.

Introduction and summary

In conducting the decennial census, the U.S. Census Bureau endeavors to fulfill a constitutional mandate to enumerate every person residing in the United States.1 The census is a large, vast, and complex operation undertaken by the federal government; while the Census Bureau continually innovates to improve the count, the bureau has historically missed and miscounted certain individuals and households. Given that the census data are used for the apportionment of seats in the U.S. House of Representatives,2 redistricting at all levels of the government,3 and the allocation of more than $1 trillion in federal funds annually,4 among other uses, the undercount of diverse populations deeply undermines the fairness and accuracy of the census and puts undercounted communities at greater political and economic disadvantage. Without accurate representation and funding, many already experiencing multiple hardships may be ignored in efforts to provide crucial and lifesaving services.

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People experiencing homelessness have been historically undercounted in the decennial census. For the 2020 census, the bureau has two primary operations for counting people experiencing homelessness:

  • Service-Based Enumeration (SBE): SBE involves census workers counting people at the places they receive services, such as food pantries. SBE also includes counts at Targeted Nonsheltered Outdoor Locations (TNSOL), which involve census workers counting people experiencing unsheltered homelessness.
  • Enumeration at Transitory Locations (ETL): This operation endeavors to count people living at places such as hotels and campgrounds.

People experiencing homelessness may also participate in the census through other operations such as by responding online, by phone, by mail, or through the Group Quarters Advance Contact (GQAC) operation, as well as through the Nonresponse Follow-Up (NRFU) operation. During the NRFU, census enumerators follow up in person with households that did not self-respond.

Due to myriad unprecedented challenges and risks facing the 2020 census, however, based on the bureau’s estimates of omissions, net undercount, and differential undercount rates by demographics and geographical characteristics, people experiencing homelessness may be undercounted and miscounted at higher rates than in previous decades. In particular, key operations such as SBE and ETL have experienced lengthy delays and operational challenges due to the disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, including truncated timelines for data collection. The pandemic and resulting economic recession make data on homelessness especially important. These crises are expected to make homelessness more common, deepen the challenges faced by people experiencing homelessness, and increase the need for lifesaving public programs. This report looks at the diverse circumstances of people experiencing homelessness, shedding light on how the Census Bureau miscounts them and on some of the federally funded programs that are essential to meet their needs. The bureau must address past and current challenges and take action going forward to more accurately count people experiencing homelessness.

Experiences of homelessness are diverse

People’s experiences with homelessness can be temporary, episodic, or chronic, and living situations can change daily. People experiencing homelessness sometimes live in a street encampment, in a wooded area, in a shelter, in a short-term lease such as a motel, with friends or family temporarily, or in a number of other arrangements.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) defines homelessness as lacking regular and adequate shelter meant for human habitation or sleeping at night; living in temporary living arrangements; or exiting a temporary institutional residence.5 The Department of Education, the Violence Against Women Act,6 and the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act7 expand this definition to include families who double up in a single-family unit or leave a home situation to escape abuse. The lack of a clear and consistent definition and standards for measuring homelessness at the local, state, and federal levels makes qualifying the prevalence of homelessness difficult and quantifying it a challenge.

Almost 30 million people are living in inadequate or unhealthy housing,8 such as in a unit without adequate water or electricity or unsafe building conditions. Meanwhile, almost 570,0009 individuals experienced homelessness on any given night in the United States, according to a point-in-time count conducted by continuums of care—local planning bodies responsible for coordinating the funding and delivery of services for people experiencing homelessness. During the 2016-17 school year, 1.4 million children ages 6 to 18 experienced homelessness.10 As the federal moratorium on evictions along with the unemployment assistance established in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act expired in July, as many as 28 million to 40 million people were expected to be faced with eviction from their homes in the coming months or year, unless additional measures were taken.11 By comparison, 10 million people were evicted from their homes during and following the 2007–2009 financial crisis.12 In September, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention declared a halt on residential evictions for households facing financial hardship due to the COVID-19 pandemic.13 However, without rental assistance, many are expected to face eviction after this and local moratoria on evictions do expire. While not everyone who is evicted will face homelessness, evictions are a cause of homelessness—whether a “direct and immediate cause” or one factor that increases a person or family’s risk of future homelessness.14 Estimates are not available for how much homelessness may increase in 2020 based on expected evictions. However, one researcher at Columbia University estimated that the number of people experiencing homelessness in the United States could grow by an estimated 40 percent to 45 percent by the end of the year—an increase of about 250,000 people from prior to the pandemic. The analysis relied on unemployment projections for July 2020 and past impacts of unemployment increases on homelessness; unemployment is also both a cause and consequence of evictions.15

Marginalized groups are likely to be most affected by increased homelessness and therefore a census undercount. Historic and current discriminatory policies and practices have created disparities in education access and attainment, income, access to public services, and other factors that contribute to financial security. People of color,16 LGBTQ people,17 veterans,18 former foster youth,19 formerly incarcerated people,20 people with disabilities,21 families with no and low incomes,22 and other disenfranchised people experience homelessness at higher rates than the general population. For example, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, people who are Black, Native American, and Pacific Islander experience significantly higher rates of homelessness than white people.23

The 2010 census undercounted Black people in the United States by 2.06 percent; American Indian and Alaska Natives by 0.15 percent; and Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islanders by 1.02 percent, while white people were overcounted by 0.54 percent.24 People of color are undercounted in decennial censuses for a variety of reasons. For example, Latinx;25 Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander;26 Black;27 and American Indian and Alaskan Native28 people disproportionately live in hard-to-count census tracks—meaning hard to locate, contact, interview, or persuade.29 Middle Eastern and North African people are categorized as “white”30 and practically not counted at all. Within these groups, many communities of color face continued language barriers,31 distrust of the government,32 and housing instability,33 making accurate counts more difficult. As a consequence, decision-makers may have underestimated the need for assistance, both emergency and long-term, and inadequately resourced crucial programs and services. Moreover, as a result of the pandemic, millions more people may look to assistance programs to meet their basic needs—programs that use decennial census data to determine funding and where to allocate resources regionally and programmatically.

People experiencing homelessness have likely been undercounted in the decennial census for decades

A variety of factors may have contributed to the Census Bureau likely missing and miscounting people experiencing homelessness for decades.34 These undercounts result in unequal political representation and the misallocation of crucial federal and state resources for programs. In particular, programs that serve people experiencing homelessness and their communities, such as housing vouchers and rental assistance programs, help prevent homelessness.

Traditional census enumeration methods may not reach many people experiencing homelessness. The decennial census primarily relies on attempts to count people by reaching out to the addresses of all the housing units and group quarters known to the Census Bureau.35 As a result, these traditional methods are likely to miss people without conventional housing, such as individuals who may be staying in cars, abandoned buildings, or public parks. Furthermore, people experiencing homelessness or who are at risk of homelessness may be inadvertently left out of a household’s census response, as the householder who fills out the form may not think to include them as a part of their household. In 2019, 25.2 million households were estimated to be living doubled up.36 It may not be clear to households with multiple families or relatives, such as adult children, living together temporarily who should be included in the household’s census forms. Consequently, the 2010 census included an item prompt that listed an option to include nonrelatives and people residing in the household temporarily,37 and the 2020 census forms have included a prompt asking respondents about additional people in the household, nudging them to include people who are staying for a short or indefinite period of time by asking if the person usually lives or stays somewhere else.38

In an effort to improve the count of people missed by traditional census methods, the bureau has relied on special enumeration operations such as SBE, TNSOL—a suboperation of SBE—and ETL. Broadly, these operations seek to count a portion of the population experiencing homelessness by locating them at places where they receive services, such as shelters and meal centers, and at outdoor locations, as well as by counting individuals at transitory locations, such as campgrounds, motels, and marinas.39 The 2010 census counted almost 422,972 people through the SBE, including TNSOL, operation.40 (see Figure 1) For the 2010 census, the bureau combined the count of people enumerated through the ETL operations with the count of people living in housing units; a separate figure of the number of people counted at transitory locations is not available.41 The 2020 census will be the second decennial census in which ETL is conducted separately from the Group Quarters Operation.42

Figure 1 

While the bureau has made improvements since the introduction of the first nationwide effort in the 1990 census to count people at emergency and transitional shelters and certain outdoor locations,43 fundamental challenges remain. Potentially as a consequence of the criminalization of homelessness and police harassment,44 some people experiencing homelessness may remain distrustful of and avoid government workers—including census takers—making a complete and accurate count more difficult. Others may choose not to participate in the census due to concerns that their responses may adversely affect their access to public services and benefits.45 When deciding whether to participate in the census, people may not be aware that the Census Bureau is bound by law to keep census responses confidential.46 Within its operations, it is important that the Census Bureau strives for transparency, cultural competency, and trust with people living in various circumstances and with different needs.

Additionally, the bureau’s point-in-time methodology provides only a limited snapshot of the number of people served at the various service, outdoor, and transitory locations. The bureau may not exhaustively identify all possible locations where people experiencing homelessness are staying, and not everyone at the identified locations may be counted or counted accurately. Even when counted, a percentage of people experiencing homelessness may not be “data-defined”—meaning they may have only one or zero characteristics recorded. In particular, unsheltered people are more likely to not be data-defined: In the 2010 census, 13.5 percent of people counted at outdoor locations were not data-defined, compared with 1.3 percent at shelters and 2.4 percent at meal centers.47 When people are not data-defined, it can be more difficult to assess disparities by various characteristics and may undermine the perceived need for programs promoting equity.

Current challenges and operational concerns

As a result of uncertainty about transmission risk associated with COVID-19, the Census Bureau delayed by six months in-person operations that are key to counting people experiencing homelessness. Due to a number of factors, the bureau has also shortened the duration of some key operations. (see Table 1) The timing of these operations will make full and competent staffing for these operations difficult. The bureau will also need to count more people using these operations than anticipated as a result of the economic impacts of the pandemic.

Table 1

The landscape of SBE and TNSOL has shifted

In February 2020, the bureau launched its GQAC operation, during which it contacted all known group quarters facilities to “explain the enumeration process and collect certain information about their group quarters.”48 The SBE and TNSOL operations are a subset of the Census Bureau’s Group Quarters Operation49—which also includes GQAC, which prepares for enumeration; Group Quarters Enumeration, which includes all group quarters such as nursing homes and jails and prisons; and Maritime and Military Vessel Enumerations—through which the bureau attempts to enumerate all people living in congregate settings, such as residents of nursing homes, students living on college campuses, and people living in military barracks, prisons, and jails.

In-person census operations were suspended in March, before the originally scheduled SBE and TNSOL operation occurred. Since that time, the landscape of services and supports for people experiencing homelessness has changed dramatically. Many homeless shelters have closed completely, while others have closed to new clients or have significantly reduced the services offered on-site.50 At the same time, new temporary shelters and services have opened in areas that have never before offered coordinated care as communities recognize the heightened health risk for people experiencing homelessness in their regions.51

Aware that the SBE and TNSOL landscape has shifted since February, the Census Bureau is conducting a second round of GQAC operations in advance of the new group quarters enumeration dates.52 Unfortunately, reports from census and housing advocates and city census leaders across the country indicate that this round of GQAC is being conducted inconsistently and that individuals are receiving conflicting information about how SBE and TNSOL operations will be conducted in their area.53 For example, it was revealed in late September 2020 by the House Oversight Committee54 that on September 3, 2020, just before the onset of SBE and TNSOL enumeration, census employees were instructed to “[o]nly enumerate the locations in your workload. The deadline for adding potential SBE locations to the workload has already passed.” This conflicted with the guidance given to advocates that stated that SBE locations could be added as late as September 21, 2020.55

Recently, Census Bureau staff have made clear that the responsibility for adding new or temporary shelters or services—such as the scores of shelters and food pantries that have opened since the start of COVID-19—to the GQAC workload rests with service providers. As a result of low staffing capacity at many of these shelters and services, proactively reaching out to the appropriate staff person at the bureau is likely a low priority; many new or temporary shelters that have not participated in a prior decennial census may also be unaware that the Census Bureau expects them to make contact with the bureau in order to be included. Because of the miscommunications about the operational plan and the passive structure of the GQAC operation in 2020, it is likely that the renewed GQAC operation is successfully eliminating closed shelters from its workload but is not adequately connecting with new shelters and services not in the original GQAC universe.

Staffing concerns

The Census Bureau’s current operational plan for SBE and TNSOL calls for hiring a dedicated workforce of approximately 45,000 enumerators focused on these operations.56 Early reports from geographies with NRFU operations have begun to indicate that the bureau is having difficulty recruiting, hiring, and retaining staff for the standard enumeration operations.57 If that trend continues, the bureau may not be able to meet its goal of hiring an additional 45,000 enumerators for the SBE and TNSOL operations.

Even if the bureau successfully meets its hiring and retention goals, staffing may be insufficient to conduct a robust SBE and TNSOL operation given the rapidly expanding population of people experiencing homelessness and housing instability. In 2010, the Census Bureau approved hiring up to 60,000 enumerators for this operation; the authorization for this number was based on a higher-than-expected number of TNSOL locations identified in the GQAC operation.58 Despite an expanded workload, however, the number of enumerators proposed for this operation has decreased by 15,000 for the 2020 census. While technological improvements such as efficiency in route mapping and mobile internet response capabilities have been cited as a reason for decreases in overall staffing for the 2020 census,59 it is unlikely that those improvements will be adequately consequential to the SBE and TNSOL operation.60 Moreover, given that the bureau is understaffed across operations,61 it may need to devote less time to training and quality check activities, both of which would undermine the efficacy of the operation and the quality of resulting data.

Reduced support from community partners

In 2010, the Census Bureau relied heavily on its community partners to assist in identifying where encampments were located, to identify language skills needed for these operations, and to function as cultural facilitators.62 The bureau provides guidance for community-based organizations looking to engage in get out the count campaigns that includes a toolkit that highlights best practices for outreach, cybersecurity, media, accessibility, and more.63 Since 2010, the bureau’s Partnerships Program has worked to maintain and expand its partnerships network, working with thousands of advocacy organizations, service providers, and businesses across the country to build support for the 2020 census—including many organizations and providers that serve people experiencing homelessness and housing instability. Had the SBE and TNSOL operation been conducted on its original timeline in March and April 2020, it is likely that many of the organizations involved in the bureau’s Partnerships Program would have played a role in the SBE and TNSOL operation that mirrored their involvement in 2010. Unfortunately, the delayed timeline and the presence of COVID-19 likely makes that level of involvement more difficult for many organizations.

First, many service providers have reduced capacity due to the pandemic: Not only is there a higher need for services, but many providers report a significant reduction in staffing and volunteers due to quarantine or social isolation.64 In a recent study for continuums of care that reported staffing data for homelessness assistance programs, 60 percent reported staff shortages, 88 percent reported shortages in front-line shelter workers, 58 percent reported shortages in street outreach workers, 63 percent reported volunteer shortages, and 46 percent reported shortages in social workers.65 Because of their reduced capacity, conducting additional activities outside of their core services—including census outreach—is likely a more difficult proposition. Second, the landscape of organizations providing services and support to people experiencing homelessness has shifted significantly since the start of the year, so the Partnerships Program may not have relationships with many organizations that are equipped to support the SBE and TNSOL count.66 Finally, because of the forementioned capacity shortages, the Census Bureau is currently off-boarding partnerships specialists—bureau employees responsible for building relationships with partnering organizations. As this off-boarding occurs across the country, including in areas with high rates of homelessness and housing instability, it may be difficult for the bureau to manage the workload of SBE and TNSOL without the relationships built by the Partnerships Program.

Mitigation strategies are less accessible during the pandemic

All these gaps in the Census Bureau’s operational plans for SBE and TNSOL could be mitigated by a strong push for people experiencing homelessness to self-respond to the census. However, that mitigation strategy is more difficult in 2020 due to operational changes to the census and an increased reliance on the internet response option. In 2010, the Census Bureau made blank census “be counted” forms available to people in public spaces such as libraries, community centers, and census questionnaire assistance centers.67 In 2020, the Census Bureau chose not to make these blank forms available to people, instead relying on a Mobile Questionnaire Assistance (MQA) model that would make internet response available to people at public events that draw a large audience of historically undercounted people.68 When the bureau suspended in-person activities, the MQA program was also suspended.69 At the same time, many libraries,70 community centers,71 and other public spaces closed their doors, leaving many people experiencing homelessness without reliable internet access. Though many advocates are working to conduct outreach to people experiencing homelessness to supplement the Census Bureau’s operational plans, the lack of blank census response forms and increased reliance on the internet response option makes that supplemental mitigation strategy more difficult.

Missed opportunity to enumerate marginally housed people through SBE and TNSOL

The operational concerns identified above may imply that SBE and TNSOL are primarily intended to count people experiencing homelessness. However, these operations have the potential to capture many people who are marginally housed as well. Researchers focused on the count of young children in the census have found it difficult to convince people to include unrelated or temporary household members on their census forms.72 In 2019, about 20 percent, or 25.2 million households,73 were estimated to be living doubled up due to economic insecurity, a rise from previous years. In 2020, doubling-up rates have risen during the pandemic and recession.74 Many people who are living doubled up because of economic insecurity75 receive services from providers in the SBE universe. The SBE operation therefore has the potential to capture people missed in the broader NRFU operations if the Census Bureau takes a more robust approach to the operation and accounts for changes in household living experiences over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Census data affects federal funding for lifesaving programs for many groups of people

More than 300 federal programs that allocate funds based on census data affect individuals and families who experience or are at risk of homelessness across circumstances and their intersections. Though program support is affected by various practices and actions, undercounts and miscounts of households and people experiencing homelessness contribute to underestimates of the need for programs that benefit millions and could help people maintain a decent standard of living. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), for example, helped 3.2 people achieve a standard of living above the poverty line in 2018,76 while Supplemental Security Income (SSI) helped 2.9 million people, and rent subsidies helped 3 million people.77 These programs help to stabilize the lives of many people experiencing or at risk of experiencing homelessness. Accurate census counts of people experiencing homelessness will not only provide better data to combat the current crises but will also facilitate more robust preparation for future crises.

Low-income households and households facing eviction

The expected wave of newly homeless families may not be accurately counted in the census, undermining funding allocations for housing support programs. Low-income housing was already in short supply before the COVID-19 pandemic.78 In 2018, almost half of all renter households were cost burdened,79 paying more than one-third of their income on rent and utilities. During the COVID-19 pandemic, up to 1 in 5 households report not being able to pay rent in a given month.80 A recent analysis of Census Bureau Household Pulse Survey data estimates that between 30 million to 40 million people81 may be at risk of losing housing by eviction during the pandemic and in its immediate aftermath. Low-income housing programs that help to prevent spikes in homelessness will require robust funding in both the immediate and long terms.

Beyond measures and estimates related to public assistance program involvement, accurate counts of people experiencing homelessness serve as estimates of need for short- and long-term housing programs. In response to lost jobs and wages, the CARES Act, signed into law in March, instructed the Treasury Department to use census data to aid in distributing emergency response funds82 to states, territories, and Washington, D.C.83 Housing and homelessness programs that received additional funding in the CARES Act, including the Emergency Solutions Grants program under the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, relied on decennial census data prior to the pandemic. In fiscal year 2020, HUD allocated $2.8 billion to McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act programs.84 In 2016,85 decennial census data and census-driven data were used to determine $19.4 billion in funding for the Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher program and $1.8 billion for the Public Housing Capital Fund through HUD, as well as $1.3 billion in Rural Rental Assistance payments through the Department of Agriculture. Due to the massive job losses and predicted loss of housing, accurate counts of those facing housing insecurity are even more crucial for estimating program needs as the nation recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Children and youth

While families with children are especially likely to experience financial insecurity, children younger than age 5, securely housed or not, are undercounted in the census at the highest rate of any age group,86 with an estimated 2.2 million young children not counted in the 2010 census.87 Housing, food, child care, and education programs that receive funds based on census counts have significant impacts on the well-being of young children, and their families, experiencing homelessness. Child care costs are out of reach for many families, especially those experiencing homelessness,88 with the typical licensed child care costing from $180 to $265 per week, depending on the age of the child.89 The more than 1 million children younger than age 6 who experience homelessness each year are automatically eligible for Head Start and Early Head Start programs; however, an accurate count is needed to make sure that these programs are not underfunded even more than they already are.90 In fiscal year 2016, census data were used to allocate $2.6 billion and $8.6 billion to Child Care and Development Block Grants and Head Start programs through the Department of Health and Human Services, respectively. An additional $22.5 billion91 was allocated to the School Breakfast Program, National School Lunch Program, and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) through the Department of Agriculture, providing millions of children in low- and no-income families with food and nutrition services.

One in 5 people experiencing homelessness are younger than age 18,92 with an estimated 1.4 million children ages 6 to 18 facing homelessness during a given school year.93 Of these children, about 4 percent are living unsheltered. There are also 3.5 million youth ages 18 to 25 experience homelessness each year.94 LGBTQ youth and young people are 120 percent more likely to experience homelessness than their heterosexual and cisgender peers.95 In fiscal year 2019, the Runaway and Homeless Youth program received $127 million96 in federal dollars to support emergency and long-term shelters and essential outreach and an additional $25 million through the CARES Act.97 These programs are essential and lifesaving. Accurate census counts of children and youth experiencing homelessness are crucial for securing the full extent of funding needed for these programs.

Youth transitioning out of foster care

More than 17,000 foster youth age out of care or are emancipated every year.98 Among these 18- to 21-year-olds transitioning out of foster care, experiences with homelessness are widespread. By the age of 26, between 31 percent and 46 percent of former foster youth experience homelessness at least once.99 Homelessness prevention and financial stability is especially crucial during these transitory and developmental years.100 Unemployment is high among foster youth when they exit state support, and employment outcomes remain poor beyond young adulthood,101 with yearly earnings under the poverty level and slower advancement in the labor market.102 Foster youth older than age 18 with disabilities often depend on SSI,103 which can provide stability and aid in supporting the transition into financial independence,104 and many adult foster youth may turn to other financial assistance programs.

The census is critical for estimating the needs of former foster youth who may be experiencing homelessness. While many foster youth age out of care at 18 years old, in 2016, 26 jurisdictions approved Title IV-E105 assistance for youth beyond their 18th birthday.106 Funding for the Title IV-E Foster Care program, such as the John H. Chafee Foster Care Program for Successful Transition to Adulthood,107 is dependent on census data. In fiscal year 2018, $5.5 billion108 was allocated based on census-driven data to Title IV-E foster care programs through the Department of Health and Human Services. These programs provide support for higher education, job training, housing, and more for transitioning foster youth from as young as age 14 to as old as age 21, and their benefits extend into adulthood.

Survivors of domestic and intimate partner violence

While some survivors of domestic violence (DV) are able to leave their primary place of residence and escape abusive environments, not all can find new accommodations. Between 22 percent and 57 percent of women experiencing homelessness report DV as an immediate cause,109 and according to the U.S. Transgender Survey, 72 percent of respondents who experienced homelessness also experienced intimate partner violence (IPV).110 Moreover, experts have voiced concern that physical distancing and quarantine measures may lead to a dramatic rise in incidents of DV and IPV111 and increased housing insecurity and homelessness.112 Preliminary research suggests that, compared with the previous year, physical IPV may be on the rise during the COVID-19 pandemic.113 To ensure that survivors of DV and their families are counted, census enumerators will visit DV shelters and transitional housing as part of SBE. However, privacy and safety concerns related to divulging personal information might make survivors of DV reluctant to participate in the decennial census.114

An undercount in the census could lead to reduced funding for programs and community organizations that provide shelter, safety, and support services to DV and IPV survivors. For example, victim assistance programs (VAPs)—supported by the Victims of Crime Act—served nearly 2.5 million survivors of DV in 2016.115 The allocation of federal funds for VAPs are allocated to each state based on census-derived state population totals. These estimates guide federal funding for other crucial resources, including counseling, crisis hotlines, emergency shelters, court assistance, child care, after-school programs, and safety services that are funded through the Services, Training, Officers, and Prosecutors (STOP) Violence Against Women formula grants and Sexual Assault Services program.

Those reentering their communities after incarceration

Almost 10 million formerly incarcerated people are released from state prisons and county jails each year.116 Now, the disastrous rate of COVID-19 infections within carceral systems117 has led states and localities to push for the early release of thousands of incarcerated people.118

People with criminal records experience a number of barriers to housing, employment, public assistance, and more. According to an estimate by the National Institute of Justice, people with criminal records face more than 44,000119 collateral consequences. This extensive web leads to higher occurrences of homelessness for these people and their families. One study based on a point-in-time count of municipal homeless shelters in New York City found that 23 percent of people staying in shelters reported having been incarcerated in the state within the previous two years.120 Programs through the Department of Labor that depend on decennial census data aim to aid in providing pathways to employment post-incarceration. The Reentry Employment Opportunities program received $82.5 million, and Fidelity Bonding Demonstration grants received $5 million in fiscal year 2016121 to fund programs that assist formerly incarcerated people in gaining employment. Though these programs do not actively remove the tens of thousands of legal barriers people with criminal records face, they provide paths for many to navigate past these barriers and obtain stable income and housing.

The federal government has a constitutional responsibility to count everyone

The decennial census is enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, and it is the responsibility of the federal government to ensure that every person living in the nation is counted—and counted accurately. To better fulfil this constitutional duty, the Census Bureau has long employed cutting-edge methodologies and technologies to improve the accuracy of the count. These include the innovations in self-response starting in 1960 with the introduction of mail self-response and the online self-response portal in 2020.122 As these response methods minimize in-person interactions, the recent physical distancing measures required to stem the spread of COVID-19 have highlighted benefits of the new design of the 2020 census and have placed greater reliance on self-response methods.

Nonetheless, self-response methods cannot entirely replace in-person enumerations in the 2020 Census. As noted earlier in this report, many self-response enumeration methods were primarily designed to reach people living in housing units with known housing addresses. For the 2020 Census, the Census Bureau still relies on critical in-person enumeration operations of millions of people who may otherwise be left out in the design of the census. This includes people living in group quarters, in remote rural areas, and in unsheltered and transitory areas. The bureau has long-recognized the need for the in-person enumeration operations, such as SBE. After all, special in-person enumerations to count people experiencing homelessness developed in the late 1900s as an outgrowth of the bureau’s increasing reliance on mail self-response methods.123

Looking toward a more comprehensive 2030 decennial census

Subsequent decennial censuses need to take a deep look at past operations and complications faced by the 2020 census to take further action and develop programs to increasingly improve counts of people experiencing homelessness. These actions include the following:

  • Ensure that programs such as SBE, the bureau’s Partnerships Program, and blank canvas “be counted” form distribution are adequately resourced.
  • Allow more time for enumeration, imputations, and data processing to ensure that fewer people are missed during SBE, TNSOL, and ETL operations and give time to make sure people are accurately data-defined.
  • Further develop, implement, and regularly conduct coverage measurement, operation, and Partnerships Program evaluations by region.

A forthcoming report from this working group after the bureau’s completion of the 2020 census enumeration operations that aim to count people experiencing homelessness will focus on specific recommendations and strategies to improve the decennial census going forward.


A fair and accurate census is critical for all people, especially those experiencing greater hardship. The Census Bureau has historically struggled and continues to struggle to accurately count people experiencing homelessness. Efforts to do so need greater resources and should be expanded. Under- or miscounting individuals and families experiencing homelessness as a result of a history of discriminatory practices, personal circumstances, or the economic and public health crises the nation faces threatens to affect billions of dollars in federal funds allocation—and millions of lives.

Despite many of the unprecedented pressures and challenges placed on the Census Bureau, it remains the government’s constitutional duty to try to accurately count every person in the country. Key operations such as the SBE, the bureau’s Partnerships Program, and access to blank canvas “be counted” forms in key locations must not be canceled or be given further short shrift. While a groundswell of creative and effective campaigning to get out the count exists, local advocates and organizations cannot replace the bureau. As stated previously, throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, a number of new shelters have opened and were not included in original GQAC lists from earlier in the year. The Census Bureau cannot assume that new shelters that have never participated in the decennial census are well versed in protocols and programs or that they even know how to make sure that people who receive services from them are counted. As the United States navigates a time of compound challenges, census data collection is even more important in efforts to meet all people’s basic needs.

About the authors

Jaboa Lake is a senior policy analyst for the Poverty to Prosperity Program at the Center for American Progress.

Jae June Lee is a policy analyst at the Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality’s Economic Security and Opportunity Initiative.

Meghan Maury is the policy director at the National LGBTQ Task Force.

Cara Brumfield is a senior policy analyst at the Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality’s Economic Security and Opportunity Initiative.


The authors would like to thank Alexandra Cawthorne Gaines, Taryn Williams, Winnie Stachelberg, Mara Rudman, and Indivar Dutta-Gupta for their review; Justin Schweitzer and Areeba Haider for fact-checking; and the Art, Editorial, Executive, Women, Criminal Justice, Early Childhood, LGBTQ Rights, Democracy and Government, and Poverty teams at the Center for American Progress for their review.


  1. U.S. Census Bureau, “Census in the Constitution,” available at (last accessed September 2020).
  2. Breanna Cea, “Potential Shifts in Political Power After the 2020 Census,” Brennan Center for Justice, March 27, 2018, available at
  3. Jae June Lee and Cara Brumfield, “Fulfilling a Constitutional Mandate: An Overview of How Census Data are Used to Apportion the House of Representatives” (Washington: Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality, 2020), available at
  4. Andrew Chatzky and Amelia Cheatham, “Why Does the Census Matter?”, Council on Foreign Relations, available at (last accessed September 2020).
  5. U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, “HUD’s Definition of Homelessness: Resources and Guidance,” March 8, 2019, available at; Reentry and Housing Coalition, “Homelessness – What We Know,” available at (last accessed September 2020).
  6. Legal Information Institute, “24 CFR § 576.2 – Definitions,” available at (last accessed September 2020).
  7., “Federal Definitions,” available at (last accessed September 2020).
  8. Jaime Raymond, William Wheeler, and Mary Jean Brown, “Inadequate and Unhealthy Housing, 2007 and 2009,” Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report 60 (01) (2011): 21–27, available at
  9. U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Financial Services, “Homelessness: Better HUD Oversight of Data Collection Could Improve Estimates of Homeless Population” (Washington: U.S. Government Accountability Office, 2020), available at
  10. Child Trends, “Key facts about homelessness among children and youth,” available at (last accessed September 2020).
  11. Michelle Conlin, “U.S. eviction bans are ending. That could worsen the spread of coronavirus,” Reuters, July 23, 2020, available at; Emily Benfer and others, “The COVID-19 Eviction Crisis: an Estimated 30-40 Million People in America Are at Risk,” The Aspen Institute, August 7, 2020, available at
  12. Annie Novo, “Looming evictions may soon make 28 million homeless in U.S., expert says,” CNBC, July 10, 2020, available at
  13. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Federal Register Notice: Temporary Halt in Residential Evictions to Prevent the Further Spread of COVID-19,” available at (last accessed September 2020).
  14. Tristia Bauman and Michael Santos, “Protect Tenants, Prevent Homelessness” (Washington: National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, 2018), available at
  15. Matthew Desmond and Carl Gershenson, “ Housing and Employment Insecurity among the Working Poor,” Social Problems 63 (1) (2016): 46–67, available at; National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, “Homelessness in America: Overview of Data and Causes,” available at (last accessed September 2020); Community Solutions, “Analysis on Unemployment Projects 40-45% Increase in Homelessness This Year,” May 11, 2020, available at Note: Estimates are based on July 2020 unemployment projections. Analyses were completed prior to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s declared halt on evictions for nonpayment of rent related to COVID-19 (see Endnote 11) and are not updated to reflect changes in unemployment or individual state-issued moratoria on evictions.
  16. National Alliance to End Homelessness, “Racial Inequities in Homelessness, by the Numbers,” June 1, 2020, available at
  17. National Coalition for the Homeless, “LGBTQ Homelessness” (Washington: 2017), available at
  18. Jamison Fargo and others, “Prevalence and Risk of Homelessness Among US Veterans,” Preventing Chronic Disease 9 (2012): 110–112, available at
  19. Amy Dworsky, Laura Napolitano, and Mark Courtney, “Homelessness During the Transition From Foster Care to Adulthood,” American Journal of Public Health 103 (2) (2013): 318–323, available at
  20. Stephan Metraux and Dennis P. Culhane, “Recent Incarceration History Among Sheltered Homeless Population” (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania School of Social Policy and Practice, 2006), available at; Reentry and Housing Coalition, “Homelessness – What We Know.”
  21. Tracey Ross, Chelsea Parsons, and Rebecca Vallas, “Creating Safe and Healthy Living Environments for Low-Income Families” (Washington: Center for American Progress, 2016), available at
  22. Family Promise, “Homelessness/Poverty Fact Sheet,” available at (last accessed September 2020).
  23. National Alliance to End Homelessness, “State of Homelessness: 2020 Edition,” available at (last accessed September 2020).
  24. Thomas Mule, “2010 Census Coverage Measurement Estimation Report: Summary of Estimates of Coverage for Persons in the United States” (Washington: U.S. Census Bureau, 2012), available at
  25. Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality, “Will You Count? Latinos in the 2020 Census” (Washington: 2017), available at
  26. Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality, “Will You Count? Asian Americans and Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders (NHPIs) in the 2020 Census” (Washington: 2017), available at
  27. Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality, “Will You Count? African Americans in the 2020 Census” (Washington: 2017), available at
  28. Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality, “Will You Count? American Indians and Alaska Natives in the 2020 Census” (Washington: 2017), available at
  29. U.S. Census Bureau, “Counting the Hard to Count in a Census,” July 2019, available at
  30. Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality, “Will You Count? Middle Eastern and North African Americans (MENA) in the 2020 Census” (Washington: 2018), available at
  31. Hansi Lo Wang, “For the First Time, U.S. Census To Collect Responses In Arabic Among 13 Languages,” NPR, March 31, 2019, available at
  32. Kyley McGeeney and others, “2020 Census Barriers, Attitudes, and Motivators Study Survey Report” (Washington: U.S. Census Bureau, 2019), available at
  33. National Alliance to End Homelessness, “Racial Inequality,” available at (last accessed September 2020).
  34. Mireya Navarro, “Census Peers Into Corners to Count Homeless,” The New York Times, March 21, 1990, available at
  35. U.S. Census Bureau, “Conducting the Count,” available at (last accessed September 2020).
  36. Jessica Semega and others, “Income and Poverty in the United States: 2018” (Washington: U.S. Census Bureau, 2019), available at
  37. U.S. Census Bureau, “2010 Census Questionnaire,” (last accessed September 2020).
  38. U.S. Census Bureau, “2020 Census Questionnaire,” available at (last accessed September 2020).
  39. Cara Brumfield, “Counting People Experiencing Homelessness” (Washington: Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality, 2018), available at
  40. Deborah Russell and Diane F. Barrett, “2010 Census Service-Based Enumeration Operation Assessment Report,” (Washington: U.S. Census Bureau, 2013), available at
  41. Kevin Deardorff, division chief, U.S. Census Bureau, and Judy Belton, assistant division chief, U.S. Census Bureau, personal communication with the authors via email, September 15, 2020, on file with the authors.
  42. U.S. Census Bureau, “2020 Census Detailed Operation Plan for: 16. Enumeration at Transitory Locations Operation (ETL)” (Washington: 2018), available at
  43. Annetta C. Smith and Denise I. Smith, “Emergency and Transitional Shelter Population: 2000” (Washington: U.S. Census Bureau, 2001), available at
  44. Brumfield, “Counting People Experiencing Homelessness.”
  45. Ibid.
  46. Personal information that the Census Bureau collects in census responses cannot be shared to other agencies and cannot be used against individual respondents or their families for purposes of immigration or law enforcement or for determining eligibility for government programs and services.
  47. Russell and Barrett, “2010 Census Service-Based Enumeration Operation Assessment Report”; Amy Symens Smith, Charles Holmberg, and Marcella Jones-Puthoff, “The Emergency and Transitional Shelter Population: 2010” (Washington: U.S. Census Bureau, 2012), available at
  48. U.S. Census Bureau, “Group Quarters Advance Contact,” available at (last accessed September 2020).
  49. U.S. Census Bureau, “Counting People in Group Quarters,” available at (last accessed October 2020).
  50. National Low Income Housing Coalition, “Shelter Closings,” available at (last accessed September 2020).
  51. Valeria Ricciulli, “NYC commits to housing more homeless individuals in empty hotel rooms,” Curbed New York, April 13, 2020, available at; Kaitlin Riordan, “New shelter bought with COVID-19 response money opens in Downtown Spokane,” KREM2, August 13, 2020, available at; Ariel Wesler, “First ‘Bridge’ Homeless Shelter Opens in San Fernando Valley,” Spectrum News 1, July 10, 2020, available at–bridge–homeless-shelter-opens-in-san-fernando-valley.
  52. Albert E. Fontenot Jr. and Timothy P. Olson, “Review of 2020 Operational Plan Schedule” (Washington: U.S. Census Bureau, 2020), available at
  53. For example, see New York Counts 2020, “Census 2020: Counting People Experiencing Homelessness,” available at (last accessed September 2020).
  54. Carolyn B. Maloney, “Letter to the Steven Dillingham,” U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Reform, September 24, 2020, available at
  55. U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Reform, “Operational Updates for SBE,” available at (last accessed October 2020); Meghan Maury, policy director, National LGBTQ Task Force, personal communication with the authors via email, September 24, 2020, on file with the authors.
  56. Fontenot Jr. and Olson, “Review of 2020 Operational Plan Schedule.”
  57. Mark H. Zabarsky, “2020 Census Alert: The Census Bureau Faces Challenges in Accelerating Hiring and Minimizing Attrition Rates for Abbreviated 2020 Census Field Operations” (Washington: U.S. Department of Commerce, 2020), available at
  58. Russell and Barrett, “2010 Census Service-Based Enumeration Operation Assessment Report.”
  59. U.S. Census Bureau, “Innovations for the 2020 Census: Interim Report” (Washington: 2020), available at
  60. Robert Goldenkoff and Nick Marinos, “2020 Census: Bureau Needs to Take Additional Actions to Address Key Risks to Successful Enumeration” (Washington: U.S. Government Accountability Office, 2019), available at
  61. Fontenot Jr. and Olson, “Review of 2020 Operational Plan Schedule.”
  62. Russell and Barrett, “2010 Census Service-Based Enumeration Operation Assessment Report.”
  63. U.S. Census Bureau, “Get Out The Count Toolkit,” available at (last accessed September 2020).
  64. Eric Rice and others, “Community-level Responses of Homelessness Assistance Programs to COVID-19: Data from May 2020” (Washington: National Alliance to End Homelessness, 2020), available at
  65. Ibid.
  66. Ibid.
  67. Geoff Jackson, Keith Wechter, and Susanna Winder, “2010 Census Be Counted and Questionnaire Assistance Centers Assessment” (Washington: U.S. Census Bureau, 2012), available at
  68. U.S. Census Bureau, “Census Bureau Launches Mobile Questionnaire Assistance to Help People Respond Online to the 2020 Census,” Press release, July 14, 2020, available at
  69. U.S. Census Bureau, “2020 Census Fieldwork Delayed by COVID-19,” available at (last accessed September 2020).
  70. American Library Association, “Public libraries launch, expand services during COVID-19 pandemic,” Press release, April 9, 2020, available at
  71. Chad Arnold, “’Bleeding money every day’: Community centers struggle to stay open amid COVID-19 spread,” Democrat and Chronicle, April 16, 2020, available at
  72. Laurie Schwede, “Complex Households and Relationships in the Decennial Census and in Ethnographic Studies of Six Race/Ethnic Groups” (Washington: U.S. Census Bureau, 2003), available at
  73. Semega and others, “Income and Poverty in the United States: 2018.”
  74. Lulu Garcia-Navarro, “U.S. Faces Rent Crisis As Pandemic Eviction Restrictions Get Rolled Back,” WFAE 90.7, June 21, 2020, available at
  75. Count All Kids, “Census 2020 Message Testing Results for Young Children,” August 2019, available at
  76. Liana Fox and Laryssa Mykta, “Supplemental Poverty Measure Shows Who Benefits From Government Programs,” U.S. Census Bureau, September 12, 2018, available at
  77. Danilo Trisi “Programs Targeted for Cuts Keep Millions from Poverty, New Census Data Show,” Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, September 10, 2019, available at
  78. Benfer and others, “The COVID-19 Eviction Crisis.”
  79. Joint Center for Housing Studies, “American’s Rental Housing 2020” (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University, 2020), available at
  80. Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, “Tracking the COVID-19 Recession’s Effects on Food, Housing, and Employment Hardships,” available at (last accessed September 2020).
  81. Benfer and others, “The COVID-19 Eviction Crisis.”
  82. Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act of 2020, Public Law 116–136, 116th Cong., 2nd sess. (March 27, 2020), available at
  83. U.S. Department of the Treasury, “The CARES Act Provides Assistance for State, Local, and Tribal Governments,” available at (last accessed September 2020).
  84. National Alliance to End Homelessness, “Federal Funding for Homelessness Programs,” available at (last accessed September 2020).
  85. Andrew Reamer, “Counting for Dollars 2020: The Role of the Decennial Census in the Geographic Distribution of Federal Funds” (Washington: The George Washington University, 2020), available at
  86. Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality, “Young Children in the 2020 Census,” available at (last accessed September 2020).
  87. Eric Jensen, “Investigating the 2010 Undercount of Young Children – Examining Coverage in Demographic Surveys” (Washington: U.S. Census Bureau, 2019), available at
  88. Simon Workman and Steven Jessen-Howard, “Understanding the True Cost of Childcare for Infants and Toddlers” (Washington: Center for American Progress, 2018), available at
  89. Rasheed Malik, “Investing in Infant and Toddler Child Care to Strengthen Working Families” (Washington: Center for American Progress, 2019) available at
  90. Head Start Early Childhood Learning and Knowledge Center, “Children and Families Experiencing Homelessness,” available at (last accessed September 2020).
  91. Reamer, “Counting for Dollars 2020.”
  92. Census Counts, “Will You Count? People Experiencing Homelessness In The 2020 Census,” available at (last accessed September 2020).
  93. Child Trends, “Key facts about homelessness among children and youth.”
  94. Congressional Research Service, “Runaway and Homeless Youth: Demographics and Programs” (Washington: 2019), available at
  95. Voices of Youth Count, “Missed Opportunities: Youth Homelessness In America,” available at (last accessed September 2020).
  96. Congressional Research Service, “Runaway and Homeless Youth.”
  97. Family and Youth Services Bureau, “FY 2020 Coronavirus Supplemental Funding Guidance: ACF Reporting Requirement for the Family and Youth Services Bureau, Runaway and Homeless Youth Program” (Washington: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2020), available at
  98. Administration for Children and Families Children’s Bureau, “The AFCARS Report” (Washington: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2019), available at
  99. Dworsky, Napolitano, and Courtney, “Homelessness During the Transition From Foster Care to Adulthood.”
  100. Patrick J. Fowler and others, “Homelessness and aging out of foster care: A national comparison of child welfare-involved adolescents,” Children and Youth Services Review 77 (2017): 27–33, available at
  101. Laura Radel and others, “Coming of Age: Employment Outcomes for Youth Who Age Out of Foster Care Through Their Middle Twenties” (Washington: Urban Institute, 2008), available at
  102. Robert M. George and others, “Employment Outcomes for Youth Aging Out of Foster Care” (Chicago: University of Chicago Chapin Hall Center for Children, 2002), available at
  103. Laura King and Aneer Rukh-Kamaa, “Youth Transitioning Out of Foster Care: An Evaluation of a Supplemental Security Income Policy Change,” Social Security Bulletin 73 (3) (2013), available at
  104. Juvenile Law Center, Community Legal Services of Philadelphia, and Homeless Advocacy Project, “SSI for Youth Transitioning out of Foster Care: A Toolkit for Advocates” (Philadelphia: 2016), available at
  105. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Administration for Children and Families Children’s Bureau, “Title IV-E Foster Care,” May 17, 2012, available at
  106. Emilie Stoltzfus, “Child Welfare: An Overview of Federal Programs and Their Current Funding” (Washington: Congressional Research Service, 2017), available at
  107. Congressional Research Service, “Youth Transitioning From Foster Care: Background and Federal Programs” (Washington: 2019), available at
  108. Child Welfare League of America, “The Federal Fiscal Year (FY) 2019 Final Budget” (Washington: 2018), available at
  109. Family and Youth Services Bureau, “Domestic Violence and Homelessness: Statistics (2016)” (Washington: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2016), available at
  110. Sandy E. James and others, “2015 U.S. Transgender Survey” (Washington: National Center for Transgender Equality, 2016), available at
  111. Human Rights Watch, “Women Facing Rising Risk of Violence During Covid-19,” July 3, 2020, available at
  112. Robin Bleiweis and Osub Ahmed, “Ensuring Domestic Violence Survivors’ Safety: The Need for Enhanced Structural Supports During and After the Coronavirus Pandemic” (Washington: Center for American Progress, 2020), available at; Sierra Smucker, Alicia Revitsky Locker, and Aisha Najera Chesler, “After COVID-19: Prevent Homelessness Among Survivors of Domestic Abuse,” Rand Corp., July 2, 2020, available at
  113. Babina Gosangi and others, “Exacerbation of Physical Intimate Partner Violence during COVID-19 Lockdown,” Radiology (2020): 1–27, available at
  114. Technology Safety, “2020 US Census: Considerations for Survivors,” available at (last accessed September 2020).
  115. U.S. Department of Commerce, et al., Petitioners v. State of New York, et al., No. 18-966 (April 1, 2019), available at
  116. Patricia McKernan, “Homelessness and Prison Re-Entry: Examining Barriers to Housing,” Volunteers of America, available at (last accessed September 2020).
  117. The Marshall Project, “A State-by-State Look at Coronavirus in Prisons,” available at (last accessed September 2020).
  118. Prison Policy Initiative, “Responses to the COVID-19 Pandemic,” available at (last accessed September 2020).
  119. U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, “Collateral Consequences: The Crossroads of Punishment, Redemption, and the Effects on Communities” (Washington: 2019), available at
  120. Metraux and Culhane, “Recent Incarceration History Among Sheltered Homeless Population”; Reentry and Housing Coalition, “Homelessness – What We Know.”
  121. U.S. Department of Labor, “U.S. Department of Labor Announces $87.5 Million in Grants to Improve Employment Opportunities for Americans Exiting the Criminal Justice System,” Press release, April 10, 2019, available at
  122. In 1960, the Census Bureau introduced mail self-response as a primary method of enumerating the nation and expanded this method of enumeration in subsequent decades. In 2020, the Census Bureau once again took a major step to modernize response methods by inviting the public to participate in the census using an online self-response portal, while still offering opportunities to respond by mail and by phone.
  123. U.S. Census Bureau, “1990 Overview,” available at (last accessed September 2020).

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