Next week, census officials will mount an unprecedented effort across Montana to count the people who don’t live in homes and apartments and lack permanent residences — the homeless.
Montana has an estimated 4,000 homeless people, but seeks a more accurate count this year, said Christine Bell, network administrator for the Census and Economic Information Center in the state Commerce Department. The state agency has partnered with the U.S. Census Bureau to work on census matters.
From March 29 to March 31, shelters, soup kitchens, food banks and others serving the homeless will undertake an extra effort to count the homeless.
Bell and homeless shelter officials said it’s critical for several reasons.
“We want to let them know that their voice is important,” Bell said.
“My biggest thing is to give a voice to the homeless community, the people who don’t have anyone to stand up for them,” said Rachel Freeman, executive director of the Butte Rescue Mission.
Said Ellie Hill, executive director of the Poverello Center in Missoula: “We need to count the least among us, just like we need to count everyone else.”
Another important reason is that homeless shelters and soup kitchens often receive federal dollars allocated by population numbers from the census.
“This is an opportunity for those folks to give back in a way that is completely free and to continue help for those programs that are so helpful to Montanans,” Bell said.
Joe Wojton, co-shelter manager at God’s Love Shelter in Helena, agreed, saying: “It’s very important to us because if we don’t get an accurate count, it could affect federal funding and local funding for homeless efforts in the local area.”
As Hill said, “We have a vested interest in making sure our population is represented. It’s tied to our funding.”
Freeman said an accurate census will increase money available in Silver Bow County.
An estimated 14,390 total Montanans weren’t counted in the 2000 census, costing the state $43 million in federal funds over the decade. Bell didn’t know how many of the uncounted were homeless.
“If we miss the same number this time as last time, the stakes go up to $118 million,” Bell said.
To promote the count, the Commerce Department has distributed 5,000 postcards to shelters, soup kitchens, and other places serving the homeless. They depict a drawing of a hand with a string tied around an index finger reminding people about the census, with actual pairs of shoelaces attached.
“It’s a reminder that they count, and they’re important and the census is important,” Bell said, adding that shoelaces can be useful to people living out of backpacks or suitcases.
Managers of shelters and soup kitchens will fill out the census forms and list the people there during those three days.
Lana Janssen, program manager at the Women’s and Family Shelter at the Montana Rescue Mission in Billings, said the shelter is obligated to count the people staying there at the scheduled time. However, because the mission is funded entirely by donations, it stands to receive no government funding because of the census.
Bell said homeless people can feel a real disconnect with society and show high levels of paranoia.
“What we want to do to assure people is the results are confidential,” she said. “The results don’t go to families, immigration officials or the police.”
Bell said names are taken down so officials can make sure the same people aren’t counted more than once. Details on the census forms are not released for 72 years.
In addition, a separate “street phase” of the census will count homeless people at bus and train stations, all-night restaurants, parks, vacant lots, under bridges and other places where they might spend the night.
In Montana, Mike Hankins, a well-known Helena advocate for homeless veterans, has been counting homeless people in even more remote locations. He hikes into their camps in the mountains and finds some in tents, abandoned mine shafts, shanties and other places.
Although the Census Bureau requires two or three people working together to do these counts in remote areas, it made exception for Hankins, Bell said. Some homeless people have made it clear they won’t allow themselves to be counted unless Hankins comes alone, she said, and Hankins refuses to do it unless he can operate by himself.