Detail from "the second line," a painting by Bob Graham. For more about the artist, click here.

Online Program

Reaching and Enumerating Homeless Populations
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*Irene Glasser, Center for Alcohol and Addiction Studies, Brown University 
Eric Hirsch, Providence College 
Anna Y. Chan, US Citizenship and Immigration Services - DHS 

Keywords: homeless, census, ethnography

The fundamental problem with counting homeless populations in the U.S. census is that the census is an address-based operation. This population may be captured if the individuals are in facilities that provide emergency shelter, or are contacted at services for the homeless(such as soup kitchens), or are staying in another household (doubled up) who include them in their census form. The homeless may also be counted in pre-identified targeted non-shelter outdoor locations. The goal of this paper is to identify the coverage issues and possible solutions to improve the census coverage for the homeless. We utilized ethnographic methods to provide an insider point of view of homeless populations at facilities located in three Northeastern cities. We conducted post enumeration focus groups with homeless individuals and informal interviews with staff at these facilities regarding their experiences with the 2010 census. We discovered that where homeless people stay is characterized by a great deal of fluidity and mobility, which impacts the census. We found important differences between single adult and family shelters. Homeless single adults often cycle, within a short period of time, between shelters, out of doors, and doubled-up households. Homeless families were most often living doubled up before their stay in homeless shelters. Homeless people who were living outdoors or staying with family or friends appeared to be unlikely to be counted. In focus groups only one third of the participants felt certain they had been counted. We will compare and contrast examples of successful homeless enumeration methods internationally. We will also review some of the literature on under counted populations that has been conducted by the US Census Bureau throughout the last two decades. The paper will conclude with specific recommendations for future censuses in the U.S. to insure more complete census coverage for people experiencing homelessness.

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