It’s a crucial week for the U.S. Census, as the bureau’s workers attempt to count unhoused people at an estimated 49,000 locations nationwide, including shelters, campsites and meal programs around Nashville.
The effort was delayed six months by the coronavirus pandemic and is now playing out in a hurried three-day sprint.
One of Nashville’s major shelters, Room In The Inn, for example, already had plans and maps prepared to count homeless people in March.
“Everything kept getting pushed,” says Rachel Hester, executive director.
But on Wednesday, aided by Census Bureau employees, 129 people were counted at her facility. Also in Nashville, the Oasis Center says more than a dozen homeless youth were counted.
The rush is on because census field operations were scheduled to stop at the end of the month. Late Thursday, a judge ruled that operations must continue through October.
The Associated Press reports the bureau is working days and nights this week to visit some 33,000 encampments, 10,000 shelters and 5,000 meal sites, as well as transit stations and roadway underpasses.
Other organizations decided not to wait. Park Center, a Nashville mental health nonprofit, began counting at encampments over the summer.
“To make sure … we can know that they’re in our city,” says Ashley Blum, who directs homeless outreach for Park Center.
(Editor’s note: WPLN News contributor Tasha Lemley delivers groceries for Park Center clients on weekends, but was not granted special access for the reporting of this story.)
On a recent sunny day, Blum visited a campsite south of downtown with an electronic census form.
She helped Joseph Kittrell, who has impaired vision.
“She came out to, you know, kind of like guide me through,” he says, “so everybody can get the resources that they need.”
Blum’s agency added census-taking on top of all of its other services this summer. She says frontline nonprofits have built relationships with vulnerable people and established the level of trust needed when it comes time for the census.
With Kittrell, the process takes about 5 minutes, concluding with him attesting to the truth of his answers and pressing the blue “submit” button.
“You know, I don’t lie. What I said, I meant,” Kittrell says as he files.
“There we go,” says Blum. “Thank you for completing the 2020 Census.”
One more counted — and then Blum can shift to chatting with Kittrell about his long-term plans.