The Importance of the 2020 Census for People Experiencing Homelessness

People experiencing homelessness are among the populations deemed “hard to count” by census officials, putting them at a higher risk of not being fully counted in the 2020 Census. The needs of this diverse population and the communities where they live may not be represented or prioritized according to their real share of the population.

Being hard to count can lead to being denied a full voice in policy decision-making. Undercounting people experiencing homelessness in the 2020 Census could also impact how federal funding is allocated to states and localities. Many programs benefiting people experiencing homelessness are funded based in whole or in part on census-derived data. It is therefore important to inform people experiencing homelessness and those who provide them services about the census so that they can be included on the census form for each household.

People experiencing homelessness are difficult to count for a variety of reasons. One is that they are often temporarily doubled-up with family or friends. It is important to inform those who are homeless and those offering people experiencing homelessness a place to stay that everyone should be included on the census form for that household. The person filling out the census form for the household should include all people living in the household on April 1, 2020, even if some of the people are not always part of that household, no matter how long they have been staying in the home.

The Census Bureau has a “probe question” on the census form to prompt the person completing the form to include all of the appropriate people in the count. The 2020 Census form will specifically ask about people staying at residences temporarily to prompt respondents to include them. That probe question is illustrated on a resource provided by the Economic Security and Opportunity Initiative at the Georgetown Law School’s Center on Poverty and Inequality.

Another reason people experiencing homelessness are difficult to count is that many are living in emergency shelters, transitional housing programs, safe havens, tent cities, cars, abandoned buildings, and on the street. In localities with ordinances prohibiting panhandling or sleeping on the street, people might seek out inconspicuous locations to take shelter, or they might fear census-takers could report them to law enforcement.

People experiencing homelessness may also be concerned their census responses will adversely affect their access to public benefits. For example, people living with friends or family in violation of public housing rules might fear the Census Bureau will share answers with a public housing agency, which could result in eviction. In fact, such data-sharing is unlawful.

The Census Bureau will use its Service Based Enumeration (SBE) operation to count people who are experiencing homelessness based on the services they use such as shelters, soup kitchens, and regularly scheduled mobile food vans and by visiting certain targeted outdoor locations. The SBE operation will run for three days, March 30 to April 1. Service providers may choose the day or night for SBE visits, while non-sheltered outdoor locations identified in advance will be counted on April 1. Census Bureau officials will rely on input from local authorities and community-based organizations to ensure everyone is counted using this method. SBE census takers will conduct in-person interviews with individuals using paper census forms.

The Census Bureau will also count people experiencing homelessness through the Enumeration at Transitory Locations (ETL) operation, which counts people in transitory locations who do not have a stable home elsewhere; such locations include hotels, motels, and campgrounds. The ETL operation will take place from April 9 to May 4.

The Economic Security and Opportunity Initiative and the 2020 Census at Georgetown Law School’s Center on Poverty and Inequality has many resources about the 2020 Census and various hard-to-count populations at:

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights has a 2020 Census webpage at:

The Leadership Conference also has a special Census Counts webpage with fact sheets, webinars, and other materials about the 2020 Census, including a fact sheet “Will You Count? People Experiencing Homelessness in the 2020 Census.”