BENNINGTON — Census takers are preparing to count homeless people before the 2020 census ends in September even as various groups are asking the courts to extend the data collection period by a month.
The U.S. Census Bureau is partnering with local social service organizations to find people who are experiencing homelessness on Sept. 22-24. This involves identifying the outdoor locations where they sleep and the places where they receive assistance, such as emergency and transitional shelters, soup kitchens and mobile food vans.
The census bureau confirmed that locally, it is working with the Bennington County Coalition for the Homeless. The agency declined to name other local partners, saying it couldn't provide details about this portion of the census.
The count of homeless people was originally scheduled to take place March 30-April 1. It has been postponed to later this month after the coronavirus pandemic disrupted the once-a-decade national population count, which widely started in March.
The new enumeration schedule apparently has brought challenges, with more homeless people living outdoors in the warmer weather.
"Would I be happier if we were doing this as it was scheduled back in March, when it was still cold out? Absolutely," Bob Stock, census bureau liaison to the Vermont Complete Count Committee, said during a committee meeting in August.
"It's gonna be more of a challenge this time around because there are more camps because the weather's better," he said.
Homeless people are among the population groups that the bureau considers "hard to count," because they can be hard to locate and contact. Advocates believe these factors lead to their being undercounted in the census.
"It is just not possible for the census bureau to contact everyone experiencing homelessness," said Renee Weeks, co-chairwoman of the Vermont Coalition to End Homelessness. "Many people are staying in places not meant for human habitation or are couch surfing."
The census aims to count everyone living in the U.S., with April 1 as the reference point for responses. The results determine how many congressional seats each state gets and how $675 billion in federal program funding is distributed.
Jason Broughton, chairman of the state complete count committee, said getting an accurate population count of homeless people is crucial to the delivery of public services. An undercount, he said, would overwhelm systems that depend on census data in their program planning, such as emergency medical services, law enforcement agencies and schools.
"They are there, but nobody really counted them properly," Broughton said of uncounted residents.
The census bureau's latest count of Vermont's total homeless population isn't easily accessible. The agency's online database publishes only the number of people who were found living in emergency and transitional shelters with sleeping facilities: 506 people statewide as of 2010.
An annual statewide survey, meanwhile, saw 1,110 Vermonters experiencing homelessness on Jan. 22. The Point-in-Time Count gathers data within just one day each year; the census specifically counts people depending on where they live and sleep for most of the year.
As of Thursday, just over 87 percent of Vermont households have participated in the census, according to the census bureau tracker. The rest have less than a month left to be counted.
CALL FOR EXTENSION
Meanwhile, a coalition of cities, counties and civil rights groups is trying to prevent the bureau from ending the census data collection on Sept. 30.
The coalition asked a federal judge in San Jose on Thursday to issue a temporary restraining order and restore the agency's previous deadline to the end of October.
The door-knocking phase of the 2020 census didn't start for most of the U.S. until the beginning of August, so winding down operations in September will lead to an inaccurate count that overlooks minority communities, the coalition's court filing said. During the door-knocking phase, census takers go to households that haven't yet answered the census questionnaire online, by phone or by mail.
The lawsuit contends the census bureau changed the schedule to accommodate a directive from President Donald Trump to exclude people in the country illegally from the numbers used in redrawing congressional districts.
The lawsuit was brought by the National Urban League, the League of Women Voters, counties that are home to Houston and Seattle, and the cities of Los Angeles, San Jose and Salinas, California.
Government attorneys on Friday said in a court filing that they would offer a more detailed argument against the restraining order but disagreed with statements in the coalition's position. Arguments aren't scheduled until the middle of the month.
More than a half dozen other lawsuits have been filed in tandem across the country, challenging Trump's memorandum as unconstitutional and an attempt to limit the power of Latinos and immigrants of color during apportionment.
Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.
Contact Tiffany Tan at firstname.lastname@example.org or @tiffgtan on Facebook and Twitter.