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

Online Program

Ethnographic Research on Homeless Populations

*Irene Glasser, Center for Alcohol and Addiction Studies, Brown University 
Eric Hirsch, Providence College 

Keywords: homeless, ethnography, census coverage, homeless shelters

In our study, Ethnographic Research on Homeless Populations (US Census Bureau, 2010) we sought to discover what type of census coverage for homeless populations would lead to the most complete and accurate count of homeless populations. This research was carried out as part of a larger U.S. Census Bureau study designed to develop optimal methods for a coverage measurement study for the type of living arrangements known as “group quarters”. This includes correctional and skill nursing facilities, college residence halls, military quarters, and homeless violence shelters. Six researchers conducted the larger research simultaneously during the 2010 census environment. This study will report findings on the homeless population. We conducted ethnographic observations within sites that serve the homeless populations in three cities in a Northeastern state. These sites included single and family shelters, soup kitchens, and a day center and group home for mentally ill. We were able to unobtrusively observe the population’s coming and going in the shelters, the actual census enumeration in two soup kitchens, and the American Community Survey (ACS) in a transitional housing program for formerly homeless persons. We conducted two post enumeration focus groups that asked homeless people how they had experienced the census and how the census could be improved. We had numerous discussions with staff of homeless service sites regarding the census, both before and after the enumeration. We gathered demographic information on over 50 homeless individuals and families with whom we spoke. We analyzed some of the social dynamics and factors most likely to affect census coverage. This work led us to recommendations to insure more complete census coverage, especially as people transition between shelters, the street, and living very temporarily doubled up with a host family who is often also in poverty.

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