The 1990 U.S. Census opens today with its first major effort focusing on getting an accurate count of the nation's homeless.
Although the process has been criticized by advocates who fear an undercount may lessen attention to the problem of homelessness, the Census Bureau seems to be making a concerted attempt to include the homeless population in an important measure of American life.
Critics in large cities such as Washington, D.C., have refused to let census takers interview people inside homeless shelters and say the census will be used as a political tool to undervalue the number of homeless people and deny them government aid. They call people helping with the homeless census "naive" to think that the count could actually have a positive effect on efforts to help the homeless.
The homeless activists apparently believe that government officials should simply accept their estimates of the homeless population without making any effort themselves to quantify the problem. Perhaps such a free-lance method of enumeration works well for those helping the homeless, but it simply is not the way government funding works. The government cannot just hand out money for the asking; it has to allocate its funds according to need. And trying to count the homeless and find out where most of them live would seem to be the best way to find those areas of need.
Those supporting the census aptly point out that the homeless are, first of all, people, who deserve the dignity of being counted in the census. Instead of blocking the process, they tell their critics, they should be helping it.
Although Lawrence's homeless population may not be large, there may be more homelessness than many believe and every effort should be made to get an accurate count of these people.
The nationwide count won't be perfect. Even census officials concede that it will be virtually impossible to count all homeless people. They admit the count will be low, but it is a start.