The Census Bureau collected data for various components of the homeless population at different stages in the 1990 census. "Shelter and Street Night" (S-Night) was a special census operation to count the population in four types of locations where homeless people are found. On the evening of March 20, 1990, and during the early morning hours of March 21, 1990, enumerators counted persons in pre-identified locations:
- Emergency shelters for the homeless population (public and private; permanent and temporary).
- Shelters with temporary lodging for runaway youths.
- Shelters for abused women and their children.
- Open locations in streets or other places not intended for habitation.
Emergency shelters include all hotels and motels costing $12 or less (excluding taxes) per night regardless of whether persons living there considered themselves to be homeless, hotels and motels (regardless of cost) used entirely to shelter homeless persons, and pre-identified rooms in hotels and motels used for homeless persons and families. Enumeration in shelters usually occurred from 6 p.m. to midnight; street enumeration, from 2 a.m. to 4 a.m.; abandoned and boarded-up buildings from 4 a.m. to 8 a.m.; and shelters for abused women, from 6 p.m. on March 20 to noon on March 21.
Other components, which some consider as part of the homeless population, were enumerated as part of regular census operations. These include persons doubled up with other families, as well as persons with no other usual home living in transient sites, such as commercial campgrounds, maternity homes for unwed mothers, and drug/alcohol abuse detoxification centers. In institutions, such as local jails and mental hospitals, the Census Bureau does not know who has a usual home elsewhere; therefore, even though some are literally homeless, these persons cannot be identified separately as a component of the homeless population.
There is no generally agreed-upon definition of "the homeless," and there are limitations in the census count that prevent obtaining a total count of the homeless population under any definition. As such, the Census Bureau does not have a definition and will not provide a total count of "the homeless." Rather, the Census Bureau will provide counts and characteristics of persons found at the time of the census in selected types of living arrangements. These selected components can be used as building blocks to construct a count of homeless persons appropriate to particular purposes as long as the data limitations are taken into account.
In preparation for "Shelter-and-Street-Night" enumeration, the regional census centers (RCC's) mailed a certified letter (Form D-33 (L)) to the highest elected official of each active functioning government of the United States (more than 39,000) requesting them to identify:
- All shelters with sleeping facilities (permanent and temporary, such as church basements, armories, public buildings, and so forth, that could be open on March 20).
- Hotels and motels used to house homeless persons and families.
- A list of outdoor locations where homeless persons tend to be at night.
- Places such as bus or train stations, subway stations, airports, hospital emergency rooms, and so forth, where homeless persons seek shelter at night.
- The specific addresses of abandoned or boarded-up buildings where homeless persons were thought to stay at night.
The letter from the RCC's to the governmental units emphasized the importance of listing night-time congregating sites. The list of shelters was expanded using information from administrative records and informed local sources. The street sites were limited to the list provided by the jurisdictions. All governmental units were eligible for "Shelter and Street Night." For cities with 50,000 or more persons, the Census Bureau took additional steps to update the list of shelter and street locations if the local jurisdiction did not respond to the certified letter. Smaller cities and rural areas participated if the local jurisdiction provided the Census Bureau a list of shelters or open public places to visit or if shelters were identified through our inventory development, local knowledge update, or during the Special Place Prelist operation.
The Census Bureau encouraged persons familiar with homeless persons and the homeless themselves to apply as enumerators. This recruiting effort was particularly successful in larger cities.
For shelters, both long- and short-form Individual Census Reports (ICR's) were distributed. For street enumeration, only short-form ICR's were used. Persons in shelters and at street locations were asked the basic population questions. Additional questions about social and economic characteristics were asked of a sample of persons in shelters only.
Enumerators were instructed not to ask who was homeless; rather, they were told to count all persons (including children) staying overnight at the shelters, and everyone they saw on the street except the police, other persons in uniform, and persons engaged in employment or obvious money-making activities other than begging and panhandling.
At both shelter and street sites, persons found sleeping were not awakened to answer questions. Rather, the enumerator answered the sex and race questions by observation and estimated the person's age to the best of his or her ability. In shelters, administrative records and information from the shelter operator were used, when available, for persons who were already asleep.
Less than 1 percent of shelters refused to participate in the census count at first. By the end of the census period, most of those eventually cooperated and the number of refusals had been reduced to a few. For the final refusals, head counts and population characteristics were obtained by enumerators standing outside such shelters and counting people as they left in the morning.
The "street" count was restricted to persons who were visible when the enumerator came to the open, public locations that had been identified by local jurisdictions. Homeless persons who were well hidden, moving about, or in locations other than those identified by the local governments were likely missed. The number missed will never be known and there is no basis to make an estimate of the number missed from census data. The count of persons in open, public places was affected by many factors, including the extra efforts made to encourage people to go to shelters for "Shelter and Street Night," the weather (which was unusually cold in many parts of the country), the presence of the media, and distrust of the census. Expectations of the number of homeless persons on the street cannot be based on the number seen during the day because the night-time situation is normally very different as more homeless persons are in shelters or very well hidden. For both "Shelter-and-Street-Night" locations, the Census Bureau assumed that the usual home of those enumerated was in the block where they were found (shelter or street).
The "Shelter-and-Street-Night" operation replaced and expanded the 1980 Mission Night (M-Night) and Casual Count operations. These two operations were aimed at counting the population who reported having no usual residence. M-Night was conducted a week after Census Day, in April 1980. Enumerators visited hotels, motels, and similar places costing $4 or less each night; missions, flophouses, local jails and similar places at which the average length of stay was 30 days or less; and nonshelter locations, such as bus depots, train stations, and all night movie theaters. Questions were asked of everyone, regardless of age. Enumerators conducted M-Night up to midnight on April 8, 1980, and returned the next morning to collect any forms completed after midnight.
The Casual Count operation was conducted in May 1980 at additional nonshelter locations, such as street corners, pool halls, welfare and employment offices. This operation lasted for approximately 2 weeks. Casual Count was conducted during the day only in selected large central cities. Only persons who appeared to be at least 15 years of age were asked if they had been previously enumerated. Casual Count was actually a coverage-improvement operation. It was not specifically an operation to count homeless persons living in the streets. Persons were excluded if they said they had a usual home outside the city because it was not cost effective to check through individual questionnaires in another city to try to find the person.