Money, representation at stake when Census hits the streets

By Amanda Waldroupe, staff Writer

It was a dark and stormy night when Census workers went out under Portland’s bridges to count homeless people for the 2000 Census. Robert Washburn, who worked for the Census as an enumerator, or counter, in 2000, remembers that “it was a bad time to do the count,” because of how hard it was raining, but also because of the cold shoulder they received from many homeless people. “(Workers) thought they could go out there, and walk right up to those people, and expect them to answer questions,” Washburn says.

Many homeless people rebuffed the Census workers and refused to fill out the questionnaire, which asks for basic information, such as a person’s permanent address and how many people live with them. “Locally, we were naïve,” Washburn says. “We thought there would be more responsiveness than there was.”

The results of the 2000 Census in Multnomah County are looked back upon, in general, as dismal. Approximately 6,300 individuals living in Multnomah County were not counted during the Census.

There is a nationwide effort to improve the Census accuracy for 2010. The federal stimulus program has even earmarked $1 billon in funding for the Census to pay for more staff and field officers.

“There’s more of a focus on getting an accurate count this time,” says Richard Lightfoot, the Census office manager for the Portland area.

One reason, Lightfoot says, is that the Census numbers are used to determine how many seats each state has in the U.S. House of Representatives, and there is a high likelihood that Oregon will add a sixth seat because of population growth.

Paying for television ads aired during the Super Bowl and Winter Olympics is one way the government is getting more Americans to fill out the Census forms arriving in their mailboxes.

But there is a large contingent of people who are considered “hard-to-count,” particularly because it is difficult, if not impossible, for them to actually receive a Census form in the mail, or simply because they traditionally do not participate in the Census.

Those hard-to-count communities include the African-American and Native American populations, immigrants, seniors, people with disabilities, and homeless people.

There is acknowledgment by many that Census staff is making an unprecedented effort to collaborate with homeless service providers this year to count homeless people as accurately as possible. One quarter of the stimulus spending is being spent counting hard-to-count populations.

Multnomah County’s effort to count homeless people began six months ago by City Commissioner Nick Fish, who oversees the Portland Housing Bureau, and County Commissioner Deborah Kafoury, who oversees Multnomah County’s housing efforts. Those offices formed the Complete Count Committee, which oversees the efforts being made to increase Census participating of hard-to-count communities.

A specific methodology is being used to count homeless people. Homeless people will be counted over the course of three nights beginning on March 31st, at shelters, agencies serving meals, and outdoor areas where people commonly camp.

Marc Jolin, the executive director of the outreach agency JOIN, chairs the sub-committee of the Complete Count Committee focusing on increased outreach to homeless people during the Census. He describes the effort being made to count homeless people as a “significant” one.

Fish and Kafoury applied for and received $140,000 in grants from numerous local foundations and other funders. The money is going to organizations and non-profits to fund outreach, publicity, and grassroots organizing to encourage participation in the Census.

Washburn is one Census worker among approximately two-dozen in Oregon specifically assigned to work with churches, community centers, service agencies and other organizations to advertise the Census as much as possible.

“We have worked hard at maintaining communications with liaisons,” Washburn says.

Lightfoot says it will not be clear how much money is being spent on the effort until early March. He estimates that 200 people will be hired specifically to count homeless people.

“I’m asking for more,” he says, so that as many homeless people are counted as possible during the three nights.

In the case of counting homeless people, Census staff met with various members of the Complete Count’s sub-committee focusing on homeless people and adopted methodologies used for the street count, which is taken every two years, and the annual shelter count.

“We have a better understanding of how they did it,” Lightfoot says.

On trips to shelters, meal sites and camps, Census workers will be accompanied by liaison outreach workers or other individuals already working with homeless service providers. The liaisons are responsible for explaining the Census process to people, convincing them to be counted, and deescalate any problems. In exchange for taking the Census, people will receive a shaving and bath kit.

Multiple barriers exist that hinder populations such as those who are homeless from participating in the Census. Jolin says homeless people are not as connected to “the mainstream media outlets and information outlets” where Census information is disseminated. Many people also believe the personal information they give to the Census — including their Social Security number, permanent address, and birth date will be used against them by the federal government. “There’s a lot of mistrust,” Jolin says.

“We’re trying to put a friendly face on the Census,” Washburn says. “We’re not there to blow the whistle or do any kind of snitching.”

The most substantial barrier, however, to homeless people taking the Census is the lack of a permanent address. The Census is administered by mailing the form to citizens’ addresses. Jolin says the most effective way to have homeless people take the Census is “bringing the Census to them.”

Census staff is defining a person as homeless for the purposes of the count if they are, Lightfoot says, “transitory”—camping outside or in their car. It is well known that a large segment of the homeless population are “couch surfers,” people who do not have their own home, but are staying with friends, family or acquaintences.

“Those people will be counted under our normal census process and will hopefully be identified,” Lightfoot says. There is no “special effort,” he says, to identify and count that subset of the homeless population as homeless.

The effort is not being made to find how many homeless people there are in Multnomah County. The Portland Housing Bureau and Multnomah County already collect that information through the street and shelter count.

The 2010 Census will not be able to identify the number of homeless people in Portland, although Census workers will be able to tell service providers how many people they counted during the three nights. “It will be another data point for us,” Jolin says. However, it’s just a number.

“You don’t get nearly the richness of information out of the Census as you get out of the street count or shelter count,” Jolin says.

The attention being paid to counting homeless people in the Census is two-fold. Census staff and homeless-service providers want homeless people to be counted in the Census to involve them in the process and provide them an avenue to increase their feeling of citizenship.

The second reason is that the federal government, based upon the Census, determines how approximately $400 billion federal dollars are allocated to local communities for basic services.

According to statistics and data kept by the Census office, each individual in the US accounts for approximately $1,200 a year. Over 10 years, until the next Census is taken, that adds up to $12,000 per person.

The estimated 1,600 people experiencing homelessness and sleeping outside in Portland represent $18 million over the next 10 years. And it means there is more at stake behind the Complete Count Committee’s efforts than counting homeless people for the sake of counting them.

A concerted effort is being made locally to increase the money available for homeless services and affordable housing development. The recession, its effect on increasing homelessness, and frozen credit inhibiting affordable housing development have forced local politicians and housing advocates and providers to look for alternative and additional revenue streams.

“Since a lot of what Multnomah County does is health and human services for people who don’t have economic means, it’s an important 18 million,” says County Commissioner Deborah Kafoury. “[Homeless people are] for whom the services Multnomah County provides are some of the largest beneficiaries.”

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