SEATTLE – Thousands of U.S. Census workers have fanned out to soup kitchens, city streets and homeless shelters this week in an attempt to count the nation's homeless, an operation that officials are hoping yields the most accurate count yet.
The Census Bureau mobilized a small army of enumerators — the people that count — for the three-day operation that wraps up Wednesday. In San Francisco alone, 800 people canvassed 1,700 streets, said Michael Burns, deputy regional director for the Seattle region. In the Puget Sound area of Washington state, 700 workers are being dispatched. Enumerators hit both city and rural streets.
But counting the nation's homeless population remains challenging for the Census, which uses home addresses to send its decennial questionnaire to U.S. residents. Moreover, the actual questionnaire doesn't have an option for people without a home.
There's also no agreed definition of homelessness among federal agencies, Burns said.
Because of that, for the second census in a row, the bureau partnered with service providers — faith-based soup kitchens, advocacy groups, shelters and others — across the country to reach out and pinpoint areas where the homeless gather.
In Seattle, information booths have been set up in hygiene centers, for example. And even after the three-day operation ends, some more outreach will be conducted.
"That close alliance, working with people at the grass roots levels ... I think it's definitely going to make for a more accurate count. We're working with people who know where (the homeless) stay at night," Burns said.
The bureau goes beyond the questionnaire to tally the number of people with no home, and it keeps a separate data set for it.
Reta Stevenson, who was enjoying a game of pinochle at the Family & Adult Service Center in Seattle, said she had turned down the census workers four times, but "I figured if I'd do it, they would leave me alone."
The 45-year-old, who has been homeless since 1984, said the worker didn't really explain why she needed to be counted, besides saying she needed to be counted. She also got a free mug.
Behind the count is money. More than $440 billion will be distributed based on the Census data. More than $20 billion will go to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, according to an analysis by the Brookings Institute. HUD often works with people with no permanent shelter.
The history between the Census and the homeless, though, is not without controversy. The last two censuses yielded complaints about how the government handled the count.
In 1992, Baltimore and San Francisco and a group of homeless advocates sued, wanting the Census to recount. They charged that the bureau deliberately failed to count thousands of homeless people, when its tally spanned just one night, in order to reduce the federal aid available to the homeless.
After the 2000 Census, lawmakers demanded that the Census say exactly how many homeless people it found, instead of grouping them into a less specific category called "other noninstitutionalized group quarters."
Some of the tensions have not eased, said Neil Donovan, executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless. "Not at the level of decision making, not at the national level where the resources are, where the resources are committed," Donovan said.
His group's concerns with the 2000 Census included that drop-in centers, health care facilities and outreach programs were not included. He said the Census has promised improvement this time around, but that won't be seen until a year or more from now, when the data is tallied and released.
Undercounting remains a concern for Donovan. He said homeless advocates, HUD and others have estimated higher homeless populations than what the Census has tallied.
But in Los Angeles, Herbert L. Smith, president and chief executive of the Los Angeles Mission in the city's Skid Row district, praised the Census Bureau's efforts to count members of the city's homeless population.
"They heard the criticisms from the last go-around and I think they're trying to address these as best they can," Smith said. "They have really touched all the bases in trying to make the count as accurate as possible."
The bureau was also hiring former homeless people who graduated from the Mission's addiction programs to guide census takers through encampments later this week, Smith said.
Back in Seattle, one thing remained certain to Alison Eisinger, whose Seattle-King County Coalition on Homelessness has conducted an annual one-night count for the past three decades.
"We know by that experience you'll always have an undercount," she said.
Associated Press Writer Jacob Adelman in Los Angeles contributed to this report.