Sonny Lê’s first home as a Vietnamese refugee in America was a studio apartment on Hyde and O’Farrell streets, populated by 11 people across three families.
His family continued to double up with others around the Bay Area and got missed by census workers for decades. He wasn’t counted until 2000, after he became a census worker himself.
“That’s the challenge we face in San Francisco,” says Lê, now a regional Census Bureau partnership specialist. “The housing crisis has caused people to live with related or unrelated family members. The houses don’t belong to them.”
Families like Lê’s are especially tricky to count during the decennial census. When the 2020 Census is ready for people to respond online next March, most households will receive an invitation in the mail. But what happens when you have no home, or fly under the radar out of survival?
That’s where a special team of census takers, known as enumerators, come in. Over three days in spring 2020, they’ll bring questionnaires directly into shelters, encampments, domestic violence homes, and soup kitchens hoping to count as many folks as they can.
Correctly counting the number of people experiencing homelessness has a number of difficulties and the number can shift depending on who does the counting. The city of San Francisco, for example, has an expanded definition of homeless that includes people doubled up at a friend or family member’s house, living at a Single Residency Occupancy (SRO) unit, staying in jails, hospitals, or rehab facilities.
But for its Point-In-Time count this January — which is conducted over one day — the city submitted numbers according to the simple federal definition of people living outside a traditional house or in a shelter. As a result, 8,011 people were reported as homeless to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development instead of 9,784 people counted under the local definition.
In its 2020 count, the census enumerators will simply count someone without a home as homeless.
San Francisco is one of the census’s hardest-to-count counties nationwide not just due to its notable of homeless population, but because of the high amount of renters, immigrants, low-income residents, and young children. Lê’s family is far from the only one to touch many of these categories.
During the last census, Lê estimates they had at least 150 people to count the San Francisco homeless population. The amount of staff dedicated to including people experiencing homelessness has yet to be finalized but Lê anticipates many more will be needed.
“Because of the explosion in the homeless population, you can just surmise it’s going to be bigger and it’s going to be more complicated than in 2010,” Lê says. “That landscape has completely changed.”
The United States is constitutionally required to count every person residing in the country every 10 years. The census determines congressional seats and doles out federal funds for transportation, healthcare, infrastructure, and other services for the next decade.
The Census Bureau isn’t just waltzing into shelters and knocking on the windows of vehicles with people sleeping in them. Every census count requires heavy lifting from local community groups that have built up trust as they provide services, from handing out toothbrushes to immigration counseling.
San Francisco has already chosen 30 partners like SF Rising and Code Tenderloin to inform the city’s hard-to-count populations about the census. Catholic Charities, another partner, has already begun training staff and handing out flyers for its various programs. They’re also already prepared for incentives, like a $5 Safeway gift card, to bring them through the doors, to account for most of their census costs.
“We have to tailor the message to our population — you need to count so we can continue to provide you and other people services so we can help you,” says Colleen McCarthy, director of contracts and grants for Catholic Charities San Francisco. “If they don’t feel like it doesn’t affect them, it doesn’t matter.”
In the next month or two, the local census office will have a more concrete plan hammered out so they can determine the amount of staff needed and train them according to which groups they’re assigned to count.
The count won’t be final until the end of 2020 and results won’t be released to the public until spring 2020.
“We are nowhere close to having that full picture of what it will look like,” Lê says.