A small improvised home, part of a large encampment along 12th Street in West Oakland. Credit: Pete Rosos

The Trump administration’s mismanagement of the 2020 Census likely resulted in an undercount of the East Bay’s unhoused population, according to Oakland-based homeless service providers. Trump politicized the Census, threatened to exclude undocumented people, and attempted through the courts to end the count early. Hundreds of billions of dollars in federal assistance to states, counties, and cities is allocated using Census data, therefore if the 2020 Census is inaccurate, it will mean Oakland and Alameda County have less money to spend on homeless assistance programs.

Census officials originally planned to count the Bay Area’s homeless population toward the end of March 2020, but the count was postponed to September 23 due to the pandemic. That night, federal census workers canvassed the Bay Area with clipboards and flashlights. Managers of local shelters and food programs across the East Bay, however, said that the operation was poorly planned.

According to Casey Farmer of the Alameda County Complete Count Committee, working with the federal government to ensure an accurate count was an uphill battle. Alameda County invested in the committee to serve as a watchdog to make sure federal authorities did a thorough job. While the county couldn’t collect Census data itself, the Complete Count Committee tried to facilitate as much coordination as possible between federal authorities and community-based organizations. But despite their expertise on the local unhoused population, said Farmer, community based organizations were denied the ability to assist in the official unsheltered count.

“We reached out to every service provider in Oakland and tried to give them as many tools as we could so that they could help make this count work,” said Farmer. “We also gave a list of all of our service providers to the U.S. Census and followed up with them regularly to see if they had given everyone a visit. They refused to tell us whether they did or not. As the Complete Count Committee followed up with each organization, we asked them if the Census connected with them to count their people. Several service providers said they didn’t show up.”

The U.S. Census Bureau did not respond to several emails from The Oaklandside seeking an interview and information for this story.

“I don’t think [the count] is going to be accurate at all,” said Needa Bee, founder of The Village in Oakland, a group that works with homeless residents. “Our organization, as well as our sister organizations with the East Bay all put everything we had into making this count the best we could, but this thing was not well done and it’s going to come back to hurt our communities big time.” 

Bee’s organization participated in an Alameda County Complete Count subcommittee on counting the unhoused by reaching out to homeless people in Oakland to encourage them to participate in the Census. “We were left in the dark,” Bee said, about communications with Census staff. “We didn’t know when or if the count would even happen.”

Janny Castilio, the community outreach and services director of St. Mary’s Center of Oakland, said the Census was a needlessly confusing process. 

“All we had was incomplete information,” said Castillo. “We’d go into the camps time after time and say, ‘The Census count matters and it’s coming up soon,’ but we honestly didn’t know when it would happen.” As a result, Castilio’s team couldn’t give homeless residents accurate information about when they should make sure they were present in their camp to be counted.

Homeless service providers also warned federal authorities of design flaws in the homeless Census count methodology. Ami Rowland, the chief operating officer of Covenant House California, told federal authorities that due to the pandemic, shelters “had to decompress beds to practice social distancing.” She warned that going about the shelter count as if everything were normal would result in an underestimate. The federal authorities received this complaint in writing, but no counting methods were updated as a result. 

Candice Elder, executive director of the East Oakland Collective, helped write a letter on behalf of East Bay homeless service providers to the Census Bureau about methods that could be used to make sure the count was more accurate, but it appears the Census didn’t deploy these methods.

The Census’s plan was to send people into encampments in the middle of the night to count tents and vehicles. Elder and others insisted that was unprofessional because it treated homeless people differently than housed residents, and that it would also skew the count downward. “Schedule day-time appointments with homeless service providers who distribute food within the encampments to collaboratively conduct the count,” Elder suggested in the letter service providers sent to the Census Bureau. According to Elder, there could be many people sleeping even in small tents or cars who would go uncounted using the Census’s method.

“Being in the trenches, talking to people living curbside everyday, we see the reality. We know what the real numbers are,” said Elder. “I want the count to be accurate, but I know it won’t be. The unhoused have been disastrously undercounted.”

Federal authorities went ahead with their plan, visiting encampments in the dead of night and counting large tents as two people, and small tents as one person. Vehicles suspected of having people living inside were counted as 2.5 people. Farmer brought the letter homeless service providers wrote to the Census Bureau outlining their concerns, but federal authorities decided to stick to the method.

A small homeless encampment on the corner of Oakport Street and Alameda Avenue. Credit: Pete Rosos

“If anything, there was pressure from the federal authorities to not count the unhoused,” Bee said. 

Farmer agreed that there appeared to be resistance from the Census Bureau to methods that would more accurately count the homeless. Farmer also pointed out that by using the dead of night counting method, the Census entirely failed to collect important demographic information about the homeless, including their age, sex, gender, race, and ethinicity.

Farmer said that the county and service providers were willing to set up appointments with the encampments to ensure a safe way to conduct the count. But after repeatedly bringing up concerns, “our federal contacts stopped talking to us,” said Farmer.

Yesica Prado, an unhoused activist from Berkeley, spent several weeks going from camp to camp telling her unhoused neighbors about the Census. “If people see orange vests and a clipboard, the first thing they’ll do is hide,” Prado said, adding that people living in tents and vehicles are “scared about where their information may be going.”

When working for San Francisco-based homeless service provider Dolores Street Community Services during the 2010 Census, Kendra Froshman recalled there was a program that funded community guides to help with the count. People who live in residential hotels, public housing, or encampments were paid by the hour to help get their neighbors counted. The same program wasn’t funded in 2020.

The consequences of a homeless undercount are serious. Rowland of Covenant House warned that not only are we going to keep seeing a homelessness surge as the economy tailspins, but when recovery begins we may see homelessness peak. “Thousands of homeless children all across the state will start going back to school and for the first time get connected to housing and food programs,” Rowland said. This could amount to a “tidal wave of need” and “our systems may not have enough funding,” she said.

Furthermore, given the fact that Alameda County has decided not to count the homeless population in 2021, the City of Oakland may face an unprecedented level of homelessness with little if any data to combat the crisis. 

“If we don’t have a near accurate count, the funding we need won’t be allocated at the federal level,” Elder explained. “That means we won’t get the food assistance support we should be getting, we won’t get the Section 8 vouchers we should be getting, we won’t get the affordable housing development grants we should be getting.” 

Farmer said that for every homeless person not counted, Alameda County would lose roughly $10,000 in federal funding.

The housing crisis in California is “bad enough,” Prado said, and will only grow worse due to an undercount. “This is not going to be an easy hole to dig ourselves out of,” she said. “During this pandemic we are already on the ropes. The impact of this undercount may just push our whole state over the brink, unless we devote ourselves to investing in our community’s most vulnerable like never before.”