The Chicago Coalition for the Homeless (CCH) is on a mission to ensure that people experiencing homelessness are counted in the 2020 Census by increasing awareness that housing status does not bar census participation. Gloria Davis, CCH’s Census 2020 project manager, is leading outreach efforts with unhoused populations, despite COVID-19.
Her work at CCH is “trying to find a way to have [the census] be a fair and accurate count—because it really hasn’t been for us,” said Davis. CCH’s campaign, which is part of a joint effort across the state to reach hard-to-count communities, emphasizes the importance of census participation to accurately reflect this community’s visibility and increase funding for under-resourced programming in the future. According to Davis, years of undercounting has influenced the extent of present-day resource disparities, despite community needs.
Individuals are counted in the census regardless of their living situation. However, historical and contemporary challenges exist that make it difficult to reach an accurate count for individuals experiencing homelessness.
Davis said, “we [originally] organized our census around regular outreach,” but that has drastically changed. Before the stay-at-home order, Davis led in-person forums, hosting sessions at venues such as Old St. Patrick’s and Haymarket Center.
Often, within these sessions, individuals raised their hands to share their experiences of living disparities across the city. After listening, Davis would then explain the census’ impact on resource distribution and political representation for the next decade. Her goal was to help audiences experiencing homeless recognize that they shape this process through their direct participation.
CCH’s census outreach has taken a significant hit because of COVID-19. Outreach challenges remain as Davis’ team digitally organizes communities without consistent internet access and now a shortened census deadline. “We did not foresee the fact that we wouldn’t be able to go out to the masses,” Davis said. “This was discouraging to me…but I just had to shake it off, because it’s still going to happen.”
She emphasized her team’s dedication to continue fostering awareness. They have deployed additional strategies like taping posters at grocery stores and being intentional about spreading information through word of mouth. For example, “a great idea was, ‘I tell two people, you tell two people, and ask that person to tell two people,’” Davis said.
Davis and CCH’s development team are also utilizing social media channels and strategizing best practices for the upcoming in-person, census homeless count.
From September 22 to 24, there will be a census count at service-based locations like soup kitchens, shelters, and food vans. An outdoor count will occur from September 23–24. Individuals do not have to wait for this date, which is a last-ditch effort to count people who are homeless and may not have internet access. This in-person count date was delayed from March 30–April 1 and rescheduled due to safety precautions.
Davis is working with service providers who interact with individuals experiencing homelessness to determine the best timing for the service-based enumeration when people enter their facilities.
[Get the Weekly in your mailbox. Subscribe to the print edition today.]
According to Davis, individuals can also disclose that they are “doubling up” without fear of landlords gaining access to this information due to the census’s constitutional mandate around privacy. Davis said that for individuals who are doubling up or couch surfing with friends or relatives, everyone living in that household should complete the census together, as a single submission, not separately as their own family units or as individuals.
As a message for the community facing homelessness, Davis said, “You know you count. You go and make sure everyone knows you count.”
To complete the Census online, visit my2020census.gov or call 844-330-2020. If you are not living in a physical dwelling, your address can reflect the closest intersection to where you live, bridges, or nearby landmarks.
The Weekly’s reporting on the 2020 Census is supported by a grant from the McCormick Foundation, administered by the Chicago Independent Media Alliance.
Jocelyn Vega is a first-generation Latina and a tree hugger. She is a contributing editor to the Weekly and last wrote about how BIPOC activists are leading mental health justice during COVID-19.