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To count everyone, census takers head to homeless shelters, outdoor camps

To count everyone, census takers head to homeless shelters, outdoor camps

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LOS ANGELES (AP) — Starting this week, census takers are grabbing reflective vests, face masks, bug spray and flashlights and heading out at night in groups of four to track down one of the hardest populations to count in the 2020 U.S. Census — the homeless.

Over three days and nights this week, census takers will fan out to shelters, soup kitchens, mobile food van stops and other places across the U.S. where people experiencing homelessness often gather. They will follow that with overnight visits to encampments, under bridges, transit stations and other places where people live outside.

Delayed for six months by the global pandemic, it's one of the hardest logistical operations the U.S. Census Bureau undertakes.

Some 49,000 locations have been identified across the U.S., including more than 33,000 outdoor encampments, almost 10,000 shelters and 5,000 soup kitchens, Al Fontenot, the bureau's associate director, told an advisory committee last week.

"We are making every effort to make sure that no one is left out of the count," Fontenot said.

The relatively warm weather, as well as the fact that most homeless shelters are only operating at 25% to 50% capacity because of coronavirus precautions, has some homeless advocates worried that the Census Bureau won't get an accurate count of the homeless population.

The census takers need to drive down every street, count people living under overpasses, in doorways, behind bushes and in tents, said Mike Arnold, president and CEO, of the Midnight Mission, which provides beds, meals and drug rehab on Los Angeles' Skid Row.

"When it's warm outside, people are dispersed. There tends to be less density around homeless shelters and where people get services," Arnold said. "The best time to count is when it's cold and when it's dark.''

Trying to count people living outdoors will be the toughest part of the homeless enumeration, said Beth Shinn, a professor at Vanderbilt University who researches homelessness.

"People have good reason to be hidden when they're outdoors, for safety reasons," Shinn said. "People find places to be that aren't necessarily visible to passersby."

Census takers continue knocking on the doors of people with homes who have not yet responded to the 2020 census, which helps determine $1.5 trillion in federal spending annually and how many congressional seats each state gets.

With the number of U.S. households counted topping 95%, there is no reason for a judge to order the U.S. Census Bureau to extend the count from Sept. 30 to Oct. 31, government attorneys said in court papers Tuesday.

A coalition of cities, counties and civil rights groups is suing the Census Bureau and the Department of Commerce to extend the count, saying in court papers Tuesday that the decision to shorten the schedule was forced on the bureau.

A court hearing on the matter is pending.

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