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Officials fear Clark County homeless undercounted in 2020 Census

Las Vegas and state officials are concerned that perhaps thousands of homeless individuals in Southern Nevada might have gone unaccounted for in the 2020 census.

If true, the undercount would affect how much federal funding is allocated to the state for essential community services, including homeless programs, because the census informs how money is distributed to each state. Local officials have said about $20,000 over a decade is lost to another state for every person not counted.

City Manager Scott Adams last week briefed the City Council on the potential problem: Prompted by a community member’s concern, officials have been looking into whether the once-a-decade count accurately captured the number of people living outside.

Pandemic affects count

On Monday, the Census Bureau said in an email that the operation was “successfully completed” overnight on Sept. 23, with census staff conducting interviews where feasible and following social distancing guidelines and safety protocols.

Because of the pandemic, shelters and other facilities have been operating at reduced capacity to respect social distancing guidelines, which means that more people have been out on the streets, Adams said.

Nevada Lt. Gov. Kate Marshall, who publicly addressed city lawmakers by phone during the meeting Oct. 21, said she understood that U.S. Census Bureau staff had been advised not to go underneath overpasses because of safety concerns. And 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. But it was unclear as of Tuesday what the Census Bureau found when it performed its count in September.

“We could be undercounted by several thousand people in the city population,” Adams said.

To complicate matters, the pandemic and its dampening effect on tourism have pushed homeless people away from once-viable areas for panhandling or just getting a cup of water, said Merideth Spriggs, founder of the homeless outreach agency Caridad. And the city’s enforcement against camping downtown, she added, has driven them into “extra hidden” spots.

“I don’t even know if census workers would know where to go,” she said.

Bureau worked with agencies

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 said, adding that it could not reveal those locations by law.

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, which noted that 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, it added, is provided in the yearly point-in-time census as required by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Concerns shared by state

Marshall, who shared the city’s concern that the way the Census Bureau handled counting the transient population in the state was “not sufficient,” said that she had been on calls with the bureau and that the state even issued a formal letter expressing its worries.

But beyond that, she said, the state’s ability to intervene was limited.

City officials have been exploring whether there is an appeal process in place to challenge the census’s figures if necessary, but Marshall noted last week that it was difficult to question those numbers because she had not received them.

A city spokesman said Tuesday he did not have any updates when asked if the city had received any further clarification about its concerns.

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.

Contact Shea Johnson at sjohnson@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0272. Follow @Shea_LVRJ on Twitter.