by Kimberly Rivers
The messaging around the 2020 Census was to be counted. Getting an accurate count was a stated goal at every turn, and yet census workers in Ventura County report that when it came to counting the homeless population, it’s unlikely that an accurate count took place.
“It was done very poorly. I don’t think the homeless population of Ventura County got a good count,” said Dayana Huerta, a resident of Oxnard who worked on the 2020 Census count in Ventura County. She visited communities in Oxnard and was part of the four-person team that did a count of unhoused people on a single night in September. “I know we had a limited amount of time and limited workers, but we could have done a two-night count.”
Huerta explained that census workers did a preliminary look at homeless encampments in March, and then the actual count took place on a night in September. Most were vacant in September during the actual count.
“I don’t think they realized the homeless move around,” said Huerta. The group counted just six people in September. Based on what was seen in March, she estimated that the count should have been around 100 for those locations.
Another problem was that census workers were instructed to conduct the count from a car, rather than getting out and speaking with people.
“I was told four times not to talk to anyone in the media,” said Brandon Hutchinson, a resident of Camarillo, who was also hired for the 2020 Census count in Ventura County and was in the same group with Huerta during the nighttime count.
At first he thought he’d be part of something that was really trying to get a good count. Initially, he did some census work in residential communities. There “we were very much more focused on making sure to get as much information and details as you can for people living in houses. It was a stark contrast” from the process for counting unhoused people.
Hutchinson explained that for residential areas, census workers get very detailed information and that there is a lot of “oversight. If they don’t fill out” the forms completely the first time, “they keep sending census workers to their homes. There is so much effort, but then only one night for unhoused people.”
“Counting from a distance”
At first, Hutchinson thought the unhoused count would be done well. During the training he received, census workers were told they’d be going to locations already identified as areas where homeless people would be. They would deliberately go at night, as folks would be likely to be there.
Only those who were comfortable were assigned to the “unhoused enumeration” part of the local census count. One group went to homeless shelters and spoke to people in the shelter and staff. A second group would be trained to go out “into the streets, focused on areas where unhoused people were living,” outside of the shelters.
“We were instructed not to wake or disturb anyone, but if someone was awake already we should engage with them as long as they were willing to be engaged,” Hutchinson explained. They were told to complete the survey with them, “just like someone who lived at a home,” and that they could ask about how many people are usually in that area to get a more accurate count. “That is what we were trained to do.”
During training the group, made up of men and women, was also told to stay together. No one wanted a scenario where anyone felt unsafe.
But prior to the night count, Hutchinson said there was a call “with one of our supervisors,” and several other supervisors, who told census workers that they would be “disregarding most of” the training they’d received. “We were not going to be actually talking to anyone,” and the supervisors said “they don’t want to talk to us anyway.”
Hutchinson said he asked the supervisor “What are we doing if we are not actually completing interviews?” He was told he’d be “counting from a distance.” This raised questions for him about whether it was a “good representation” of the true number of unhoused people in the county. “It’s my opinion that you’re going to get much less accurate information without the interview, there’s no demographic information, you’re just counting bodies.”
On the night of the actual count he was again told “by two other supervisors, ‘don’t try to talk to anyone.’” He acknowledged that it was in the midst of COVID-19 but he didn’t think that was the main reason because the team all went together in the same car. They were told to “drive by the location, don’t stop the car unless we have to, count who we can see from inside the car.” The explanation they were given was that “they don’t want to talk to you and we want you to be safe.”
“Unlikely to be an accurate count”
Hutchinson didn’t think the new instructions had anything to do pandemic. When he pressed about the training they’d received that emphasized the importance of an interview, supervisors said he could get out of the car if he wanted to. And on the night of the count, he did. But he felt that the locations selected to count were not chosen well and they only tallied a few people.
He was surprised that they were sent to locations like a bus stop or park bench area. These were places where observers in March saw homeless people hanging out but “they were not making a residence out of that place.” He was expecting to do a count in the river bottom, but there was no counting done in that area.
The census group went to 10 locations in Oxnard that night. Hutchinson said they counted four people total at two locations. They had some Ventura addresses to visit but didn’t get to them. He doesn’t know if anyone counted locations anywhere else in the county.
Huerta said she was expecting a 12-hour shift, but they only worked for six hours. She said the census information is key to various groups getting access to resources and services.
“If I had just done the job I was being asked to do, it would have been a very easy way to get good money for doing nothing. They would have been happy [with us] just driving around and filling out paperwork, that’s really how it felt to me.”
Hutchinson was disappointed because he’s interested in the issue of homelessness and hoped the work would do some good. “It was really strange to be told to go against our training…it’s unlikely to be an accurate count.”