California's homeless census was already troubled. Covid-19 is making it impossible.

For the past year and a half, local county census committees and homeless service providers throughout California have been conducting their own outreach for the 2020 census, knowing that only an accurate count of the state's growing homeless population will guarantee the federal funding needed to get people off the streets and into stability.

Because even before the US coronavirus crisis prompted shelter-in-place orders and the suspension of 2020 census field operations nationwide, casting doubt on the operations for the once-in-a-decade count, they were preparing for the federal Census Bureau to significantly undercount the homeless population.

While homelessness has soared, particularly in California, census staffers said plans in place to count the population were insufficient and disorganized. The federal bureau had limited the hours of targeted counting to between midnight and 7am. There was little or varied communication around cultural facilitation led by service providers or homeless representatives who act as a guide for enumerators, to smooth the process. Two weeks from 1 April, census day, when thousands of enumerators were set to flood the streets to conduct the count, some field offices were still not fully staffed.

In yet another sign of the disarray, a script sent out to some field offices in February directed enumerators to ask people about their citizenship status, despite a supreme court ruling rejecting the federal government's reasoning for the question.

Forget Covid-19, said a Los Angeles-based regional census manager who asked to only be identified as Maria. It was going to be a dramatic undercount already.

With the additional stress and uncertainty of the coronavirus crisis, the homeless community on the move in attempts to stay safe, and local county census workers unable to do their own outreach, a vulnerable population stands to suffer from an even more broken process. So, too, will the municipalities where those people live, and the state in turn, as census population data is used to determine federal resources and political representation.

 It feels like the people who need the resources, the representation, the money the most are becoming an afterthought, Maria said.

 I know we're in a crisis, she continued. But this affects everything. There are no do-overs. Whatever the count is, it's the count for 10 years.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development's 2019 homeless assessment tallied more than 151,000 homeless people in California, a 16.4% increase from the year before. California's unhoused population made up more than a quarter of the nation's total count of 568,000.

With no fixed address and little trust in the government, the homeless population has always been notoriously difficult to track. It's a population that's very leery of the government, said Candice Elder, the founder and executive director of the not-for-profit East Oakland Collective.

Community advocates throughout the state knew that now, more than ever, with the population growing, the Census Bureau needed to get an accurate count of California's unhoused. In the year and half leading up to the count, however, local census committees came to understand that it would be on them to make sure their homeless populations were accurately counted.

Our whole strategy in San Francisco has been to not rely on the Census Bureau to count during that time, and relying instead on informing people they could do the census on their own and highlighting our network of census help centers, said Robert Clinton, San Francisco's 2020 census project manager.

Before the coronavirus crisis, the federal Census Bureau planned on counting people experiencing homelessness from 30 March to 1 April. From 3 February to 6 March, the bureau was supposed to be working with local advocates to identify shelters, soup kitchens and other service providers, as well as well-known encampments and hotspots where the unhoused frequent.