Census Data

About Census Data

The census method is an official count or survey of a population, which can be used to collect demographic and historical housing information on people who have experienced homelessness in the past. It is done periodically and can be used to estimate the scope of homelessness within a population. Municipalities hold censuses infrequently and typically do not design them explicitly to measure instances of homelessness, resulting in an undercount. They may also miss certain groups of people experiencing homelessness that are not part of traditional census outreach practices.

“I am 60 years old, I worked for 35 years, I am a college graduate, I have never been arrested and I sleep on the sidewalk.”

– Brenda (via Invisible People)


Steps To Collect Census Data

  • Length: More than three years
  • Involve citizen and non-government stakeholder participation, including people with the lived experience of homelessness at each step to ensure that principles of inclusive, community-owned data are incorporated
  • Identify communities that would benefit from additional communications and partnerships and establish relationships that will increase their responses
  • Determine the census questionnaire
  • Census tests should be sent over multiple years before the census is conducted to help researchers fine-tune the contents of the census.
  • Operating systems that allow mail, online, and telephone responses should be tested
  • Establish a database for collecting census responses
  • Determine whether to include a capture-recapture componen
  • Begin hiring enumerators
  • Send out the paper census
  • Start counting people in remote areas
  • Have workers stationed and collecting data in locations where people who are experiencing homelessness frequently visit
  • Open phone lines and websites
  • Communicate widely about “Census Day” – the date by which individuals and households are encouraged to respond.
  • Typically, it takes a significant amount of time for census data to be released. The results become available approximately one year after census day because of the lag time in analyzing and releasing data. Therefore, census data is best used in establishing historical trends on homelessness.
  • Data analysts should review the data collected to analyze and publish information on the total number of people experiencing different types of homelessness, including demographic characteristics, housing and services provided, and other relevant trends and information.
  • These reports should be used by stakeholders to determine additional funding, housing, and service provision needs.


  • Governments generally do not design census methodologies with the goal of enumerating homeless populations. Thus, a census may miss socially marginalized groups and people who are currently experiencing homelessness and may be difficult to contact


  • The ten-year time frame for census data collection is best for establishing historical trends on homelessness.

Case Studies of Census Data

Homeless networks and geographic concentration: Evidence from Osaka City 

 This census data estimates the number of homeless people within a particular area. Statistical models examine the geographic distribution of homelessness in Osaka City by focusing on homeless networks that create geographic concentration. The labor market was also a factor in geographic concentration, which helped researchers understand the general characteristics of the population.

Counting Homeless People in the 2011 Housing and Population Census

The European Observatory on Homelessness created a critical assessment of the extent to which the 2011 censuses collected robust and comparable data on homelessness across the EU. The research found substantial differences between countries with register-based and non-register-based methods of the census enumeration.

Additional Resources

This collection of resources contains IGH’s sample policies and procedures, to help you choose an enumeration method.

Questions About Census?

For questions, please email jwagner@ighomelessness.org.

Not sure if this is the right method for you?