In the last few years, Los Angeles officials spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to try to ensure an accurate count of the homeless in Census 2000.
The city hired homeless "ambassadors" who could train others in how to find and approach people living on the streets. Census officials were given a helicopter tour of hidden encampments. Winter shelters were kept open an extra night.
But those efforts may have been for naught: The Census Bureau says it will not release an overall homeless count and it will not provide numbers of the people it found living in parks, encampments and other non-shelter sites.
Local homeless advocates, who estimated they spent $300,000 to improve the census count, said the action robs them of accurate information and makes it harder to equitably distribute funds.
"This population doesn't have any large advocates," said Jessica Heinz, an assistant Los Angeles city attorney. "We need a good count in a place like L.A., where we have such a large homeless population."
Census Bureau officials said Wednesday that they did not want a repeat of the 1990 count, in which homeless advocates immediately blasted the agency's tally of the homeless, calling it drastically low.
The bureau, which had originally said it would issue homeless data as part of a state-by-state national population report this summer, said it will instead issue a separate report next year about its shelter surveys.
Census officials said they became concerned that the one-night shelter count done in April 2000, would not provide an accurate snapshot, said Edison Gore, Census Bureau deputy chief of the decennial management division.
The agency also said it will not disclose surveys of the "hidden homeless" counted in parks, under freeway structures and in isolated camps. The reason, Gore said, was to prevent homeless advocates from taking those numbers and adding them to the shelter reports to create a national homeless estimate. The Census Bureau believes no such total is accurate.
"That's the misinterpretation that occurred in 1990," Gore said. "So we decided we are not going down that road."
Much of the money for homeless services in the county comes from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, said Natalie Profant of the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority. Those grants are based on poverty and population numbers. But in some areas--Santa Monica, for example--the demographic profile of the city is not in sync with the actual demand for homeless services, so the census numbers would have been crucial, she said.
Profant said she was also disappointed that the bureau did not give adjusted shelter numbers, a plan that local Census Bureau officials had discussed with her.
In fact, many homeless people do not stay at shelters every night, said the Census Bureau's Preston J. Waite, associate director for the decennial census, and the bureau had planned to adjust the numbers. But too many of the responses on the census forms it received were confusing or unclear.
Gore and Waite said the bureau decided several years ago that it would not release an overall homeless number after the agency was assailed for its 1990 data.
"There is no way we can put out a number that you can construe as a homeless number," Gore said. "We never had a goal to produce a tabulation of how many homeless people are in the country."
Barbara Duffield, education director of the National Coalition for the Homeless in Washington, said her agency supported the bureau's decision to issue separate shelter numbers but no overall count.
The homeless are no longer viewed as a population that can be counted on one night, Duffield said. Any one-day count of shelters, camps and people living in cars would be inaccurate, she said. Many people drift back and forth from living on the streets to fixed abodes. She cited an Urban Institute study last year that said 3.5 million Americans will experience homelessness over the course of one year.
But other advocates, such as Heinz, said the Census Bureau's withholding of data will be a sharp blow to assisting the poorest strata of society.
"Why would we have spent these resources?" Heinz said. "It's shocking, unprofessional and a waste of taxpayer money."