The 2020 Census is crucial to our democracy and is vital to state and city funding; however, accounting for unhoused communities has historically required trusted allies to advocate in the field. But with social distancing regulations in place due to the pandemic, many of those relationships have been compromised.
“I think when it comes to the census on unhoused folks, in many ways, it parallels those for housed folks as well,” said Keegan Medrano from the Coalition on Homelessness. “How you get your representation, funding and support services is shared with the unhoused communities as well.”
Medrano, Policy Director for COVID Shelter-in-Place at the Coalition on Homelessness, works to push policies and facilitates campaigns in San Francisco. He said that in a broad sense, the Coalition collaborates with unhoused folks to learn about their experiences then turns that into City Hall and pushes policies that will facilitate campaigns.
Since the start of the pandemic, shelters in the Bay Area have been closing due to the rise in COVID-19 cases. The shelter system in San Francisco has been reduced by 70 percent, according to Medrano. Normally, shelters in San Francisco would have 2,000 people on any given night, however that number has now dwindled to 400-500 people, leaving many out in the streets.
Multi-Service Center South, in San Francisco experienced a huge outbreak in April which since then has caused shelters in San Francisco to decompress. According to San Francisco data, 30 percent of known COVID-19 cases amongst people experiencing homelessness were from the MSC-South Outbreak.
The Coalition has strongly advocated for folks to stay in hotel rooms, trailers, or even sleeping sites because those have all shown to be safer than congregating settings like shelters and SRO’s.
“A lot of our work right now is around securing housing and hotels for families and folks that are living in SRO’s,” said Medrano. “That is where a lot of work is right now in relation to the city budget.”
Miguel Carrera, Lead Organizer at the Coalition, directly works with families living in single room occupancies (SRO’s). Carrera was working with 33 families in SRO’s and had been advising them to fill out the 2020 Census.
“It’s my obligation to understand any information that is vital to the community and bring it to them,” said Carrera.
However, due to COVID-19, Carrera lost communication with 16 of those families within the past six months. Now, he is only in contact with 17 out of the 33 families he once worked with. Due to COVID-19, there is a lack of communication with unhoused communities and organizations. This means that organizations like The Coalition on Homelessness have to find new ways to navigate and support unhoused communities.
COVID-19 has cut many lines of communication the organization once had with trusted allies, said Medrano.
“We are struggling to see and say to folks, ‘How are we going to help you and how can we help you feel that you can respond to the census?’” said Medrano. “Our role has been marginally severed by COVID-19. The second part of it is that our allies are dispersed and being shuffled around the city.”
Historically, unhoused communities have felt a lack of trust sharing their personal information with the US Census Bureau because of the close connection they have to the US government.
Lucia Eslava, a Mexican immigrant and San Francisco resident of 19 years, filled out the 2020 Census for the first time this year.
“I would receive the census pamphlets and I would just tear them and throw them in the trash,” said Eslava, fearing her information would be shared with immigration authorities, a fear very common among immigrants.
Eslava currently lives in a San Francisco SRO with her three children and husband. She has been working with Carrera for 15 years through the Coalition. This year, Carrera brought up the census to Eslava and after two months of contemplating her decision, she decided to fill it out.
However, even after Eslava received guidance from a trusted ally like Carrera, she still feels anxious about her decision.
“After so many years this is the first time I have filled out the form, and it’s still hard for me to believe that I did it,” said Eslava.
Eslava’s fear is only one example of the many concerns that unhoused communities have to grapple with when considering filling out the census. Organizations like the Coalition on Homelessness must work to create trust and a safe space for their communities to encourage them to participate in the census.