Clarification: Census takers are not counting couch surfers as homeless or "temporarily experiencing homelessness" as an earlier headline and story summary suggested. Couch surfers are supposed to be accounted for as part of the household where they are staying on April 1.
New face of homelessness complicates Census count
The look of homelessness is changing so that even advocates and government agencies that work with the population can't agree on exactly how to define it. That has complicated matters for the Census Bureau, which this week dispatched thousands of enumerators across the country to count not just the homeless but also what the bureau is calling "people temporarily experiencing homelessness."
Seattle Times staff reporter
What does homelessness look like?
Is it the laid-off guy crashing on his buddy's couch? What about the family living in a relative's basement or squatting in a foreclosed house down the block?
Predictable images of scraggily dressed men living under a bridge are increasingly making way for a new kind of homelessness — one driven in large part by unemployment and the housing crisis.
In fact, this changing face of homelessness has left even advocates and government agencies that work with the population unable to agree on exactly how to define it.
And it has complicated matters for the Census Bureau, which this week dispatched thousands of enumerators across the country to count not just the homeless but also what the bureau is calling "people temporarily experiencing homelessness."
The bureau needs an account of every man, woman and child living in the U.S. on April 1. About $400 billion a year in federal money is allocated to states based on census findings, and a portion will fund agencies and programs that provide shelter, food and job-placement assistance to those in need.
Already this week, census takers have visited homeless shelters and soup kitchens here and across the country in an attempt to count those without a permanent address. And beginning Wednesday night, they will search for people living in nonshelter outdoor locations — under overpasses and bridges, in parks and encampments.
For the first time, enumerators will also count people living in vehicles.
"We've spoken to service providers and have been able to determine some of the locations where people are living out of cars and vans," said Mike Burns, Census Bureau deputy regional director.
Burns, who sits on a federal interagency committee to end homelessness, said there are about as many definitions of homeless as there are circumstances of homelessness.
"Many people will say a homeless person is someone without housing," he said.
While some definitions also include those who go to soup kitchens, he said, others question that, saying some in that category may simply be supplementing what little they have.
To Jeff Lilley, president of Seattle's Union Gospel Mission, homelessness is a relationship issue as much as anything else.
"There are lots of individuals sleeping in their cars all over Seattle," he said. "And I believe a growing number of homeless are still staying with families or friends."
He calls them the couch homeless — people without housing who don't yet show up in any official accounting of the homeless.
Others question whether couch surfers are truly homeless, said Burns, "the thinking being that someone is housed if they have a roof over their heads."
To J.C. Hernandez, the definition of homeless is simple enough: not having a permanent place to live.
Since the weather drew him here from El Paso, Texas, last August, he has lived in his car, crashed on someone's couch or stayed at a homeless shelter, and he is now paying a little cash to live temporarily and unofficially in the home of someone with extra room.
"I would characterize my circumstances since I've been here as homeless," said Hernandez, who is in his 30s and hopes to move into subsidized housing within the next week or so. "As far as I can tell, I won't be counted [by the census] at all."
In fact, it is the intention of the Census Bureau that folks like Hernandez be counted as part of the household where they are staying on April 1. Barring that, the bureau has several questionnaire-assistance centers where those who did not receive a form may obtain one.
Lornet Turnbull: 206-464-2420 or firstname.lastname@example.org
When vice president of Sub Pop Records Megan Jasper isn't running things at the office, she's working in her garden at her West Seattle home where she and her husband Brian spend time relaxing.