BOISE, Idaho — Counting every person in America is a daunting task, but documenting those without a home of their own requires a special strategy.
At the end of March, the U.S. Census Bureau will launch its once-in-a-decade process to document as many Americans where they live as possible. This decennial survey is one of the cornerstones deciding how the federal government will dole out much of its funding over the next 10 years, and neither federal officials or local community members want Boise’s homeless community to be left behind.
People experiencing homelessness do not have a permanent address, so Census workers will go to them. On March 30, census workers will count everyone staying in an emergency shelter, such as Interfaith Sanctuary or the Boise Rescue Mission. The next day workers will then head to popular locations where those experiencing homelessness receive services, like Corpus Christi House day shelter.
Interfaith Sanctuary Executive Director Jodi Peterson-Stigers said counting those experiencing homelessness is made easier because many of them are located in a few centralized places.
“On any given night, you know where 164 of our homeless are at Interfaith Sanctuary, and we know program-wise when Corpus Christi is open, so they’re more visible,” she said. “You know where they are and you can go talk to them, but the census for people who are housed you have to rely on them doing this process on their own first.”
If a person is not counted on either March 30 or 31, they still have a chance. On April 1, U.S. Census workers will go out to several locations where those experiencing homelessness will gather to be surveyed. Maureen Brewer, Boise’s administrator for the Our Path Home program, said she provided a list of locations with detailed instructions for where to find residents.
This is similar to the annual process to count those experiencing homelessness on a single night to report back to the federal government, called the Point In Time count. However, one issue Brewer is concerned about is that census workers will not have a relationship with those experiencing homelessness like social workers or other volunteers who often conduct the PIT count do.
“Especially when it’s someone approaching you with a clipboard, they’re thinking, ‘Why are you asking me this information?’” she said. “There’s a lot of folks experiencing unsheltered homelessness that have untreated or undiagnosed mental health disorders and they’re living and experiencing complex trauma, so the last thing some of them care about is the importance of being counted. And we need to let them know it’s no black mark against you and it won’t have any negative consequence.”
The census form for those experiencing homelessness is shorter than the form for housed Americans. There is no address, so they will only be providing their name, phone number, age, date of birth and race.
Federal funding amounts to $1,473 for each person counted in the census. This goes to a variety of services, including after-school programs and food assistance.
Normally the census is accompanied by a massive marketing campaign pushing residents to fill out the mandatory survey, but that budget has been significantly reduced under President Trump. To make up the difference, the city of Boise invested $100,000 last fall for its own marketing campaign including social media posts, billboards, and other advertisements.
“We’re trying not to just have the standard cookie-cutter approach where we’re talking to the each person the same way,” Boise Associate Comprehensive Planner Tom Laws said.
Boise’s efforts included forming a complete count committee, which is a collaboration of community leaders from a variety of areas to find ways to make sure as many people are counted in the census as possible.
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