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How We Count People Experiencing Homelessness

"Everybody in Our Community Really and Truly Counts."

A census taker crosses the street with their bag.


On the evening of April 1, 2000, more than 200 people gathered in the shadow of Dodger Stadium.

There, under clear skies, they made final preparations for the task at hand: counting people experiencing homelessness in parts of Los Angeles for the 2000 Census.

Together, they discussed how to count people respectfully and efficiently. They picked up maps and flashlights. They packed bags with questionnaires. They slipped on reflective orange vests.

And then, just like that, they were gone. Out into the night. Off to complete a critical task.

"Everybody in our community really and truly counts,” said Louis Avenilla, who was overseeing the effort as the local census office manager for downtown Los Angeles.

And each decade, the U.S. Census Bureau follows special processes to count people without conventional housing arrangements. 

In 2020, the Census Bureau will devote three days to counting people who are experiencing homelessness across the country, with checks in place to ensure that people aren’t counted more than once. These steps follow months of outreach and coordination with local census offices, partners, shelter directors, service providers, and others:

  • Step 1: Counting people who are in shelters.
  • Step 2: Counting people at soup kitchens and mobile food vans.
  • Step 3: Counting people in non-sheltered, outdoor locations, such as tent encampments and on the streets.

It was that final step that brought hundreds of census takers together in Los Angeles on that April night in 2000. They left the staging site in small teams to survey previously identified locations in parks, under bridges, in riverbeds and alleyways, and across downtown Los Angeles neighborhoods—conducting interviews, counting people.

The results of these efforts, across the country, are critical. Census data helps inform decisions about billions of dollars in federal funding for services such as shelters and soup kitchens, as well as for programs that assist with housing, nutrition, and transitioning from homelessness. From the Emergency Shelter Grants Program to the Special Milk Program for children, these programs depend on a complete and accurate count.

“You’ve got so many people who experience homelessness,” said Avenilla, who now works as a branch chief for the Census Bureau’s Center for Optimization and Data Science.

“It’s so important that they are part of the count. It really impacts the funds for their community, the services, the whole infrastructure. Their participation plays into all of that for the next 10 years—and beyond.”

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