LAS VEGAS (AP) — City and state officials are raising concerns that perhaps thousands of homeless individuals in the Las Vegas area might have gone uncounted during the 2020 U.S. Census.
If true, the undercount would affect federal funding to the state for essential community services, including homeless programs, because the census informs how money is distributed to each state. Local officials estimate that about $20,000 over a decade is lost to another state for every person not counted.
“We could be undercounted by several thousand people in the city population,” City Manager Scott Adams told the City Council at a recent meeting.
The Las Vegas Review-Journal reported that Adams said officials responding to a community member’s concern have been looking at whether the once-a-decade count accurately captured the number of people without homes.
On Oct 26, the Census Bureau said told the newspaper that counting was “successfully completed” overnight Sept. 23, with census staff following coronavirus social distancing guidelines and safety protocols while conducting interviews where they could.
Because of the pandemic, shelters and other facilities have been operating at reduced capacity to respect social distancing guidelines, which means more people have been out on the streets, Adams said.
Nevada Lt. Gov. Kate Marshall, who addressed city lawmakers by phone, said she understood that U.S. Census staff had been advised not to go underneath overpasses because of safety concerns.
Mayor Carolyn Goodman said she was “pretty convinced” that encampments in the city were not included in the count.
By local estimates, there are 6,000 homeless individuals living in Clark County at any given time. It was unclear this week how many the Census found in September.
To complicate matters, the pandemic and its dampening effect on tourism have pushed homeless people away from areas where they might panhandle or seek a cup of water, said Merideth Spriggs, founder of the homeless outreach agency Caridad, and city enforcement of a downtown camping ban has driven people into “extra hidden” spots.
“I don’t even know if census workers would know where to go,” she said.
The bureau processed submissions in February and August from community members, local governments and stakeholders, detailing which targeted non-sheltered outdoor locations its staff should visit for the count, it told the Review-Journal, adding that it could not by law reveal those locations.
In general, census takers set out to count people living outdoors and in places where they are known to sleep, including emergency and transitional shelters, according to a Census Bureau fact sheet that noted the pandemic delayed this specific count originally scheduled for late March.
But the count also does not inherently provide a tally of people experiencing homelessness, as such individuals are counted in a variety of living situations, the bureau said by email. That snapshot is provided in a yearly point-in-time census as required by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, it said.
Marshall said the state sent a letter expressing its worries that the Census Bureau count of the transient population in the state was insufficient.
But beyond that, she said, the state’s ability to intervene was limited.
Officials have been exploring whether the city can appeal to challenge census figures if necessary, but Marshall noted it was difficult to question numbers that she had not received.
Two weeks before the Sept. 30 deadline to fill out the census, Clark County reported 66 percent of households had done so, in line with state and national averages.