Census Workers to Count Homeless

Oregonian – March 5, 1990

When census workers count the nation’s noses this year, they’ll be looking in parks, under bridges and in abandoned buildings.

For the first time, the U.S. Census Bureau will attempt to count the homeless.

The homeless count comes March 20, in what the Census Bureau is calling Shelter Night. The census also will hold Transient Night on March 31, when workers will count people in YMCAs, YWCAs, youth hostels, campgrounds and marinas. On April 2, census workers will count group quarters — jails, nursing homes, college dormitories and migrant camps.

Virtually everyone else will get census questionnaires in the mail. The Census Bureau will mail the questionnaires March 23.

Replies are due on Census Day, April 1.

Census officials concede that they won’t find everybody. But they insist that the special counts will bring them closer to their goal of counting every single person in the country.

The census always misses some people. The bureau missed 1 percent of the population in 1980. It missed about 6 percent of minorities.

This year census workers are trying to improve the minority count. They created multilingual brochures and assigned liaisons to most minority groups. The liaisons are working with minority organizations to promote cooperation with the count.

Census officials like to emphasize the grass-roots nature of the census. “It’s the people counting the people,” said Harvey Lockett, manager of the Portland branch office.

Every 10 years, for 200 years, the country has counted itself. The count started because the Constitution requires it; the census determines how many representatives each state will get in the 435-seat Congress.

But as government has grown, so has the census. Now, the census doesn’t just count people. It asks questions about where they live and whom they live with. It asks how many children they have and how much money they make. It asks whether they were born in the United States and whether they have indoor plumbing.

It takes a lot of people to count people. Nationwide, the census will employ 565,000. The Portland regional office will hire more than 500. The Census Bureau hires even more workers in rural areas, where they still count people in person.

The Beaverton regional office may hire as many as 800 field workers and 200 office workers. Many of the field workers must speak Spanish. They will count most of the state’s migrant workers. Census workers aren’t concerned with legal status. They just count people.

The Census Bureau’s Bend office covers about two-thirds of the state. It will hire about 800 employees. District Manager David Rasmussen said his biggest problem is hiring qualified people who know the area.

Once the people are counted, the Census Bureau has until the end of the year to get its first numbers to President Bush. After that, it takes two to three years before the bureau compiles all the statistics.

Then, the numbers take over. The census helps state officials redraw legislative districts. It gives local governments the statistics for managing growth. It provides consumer information for businesses to market their products. And perhaps most significantly, it determines who will get federal money.

Each person counted in the census is worth more than $10,000 in federal money, according to a report by Metropolitan Community Action, a Portland social service agency.

More than a third of federal grant programs rely on census data. The government pays out more than $37 billion in those programs. Head Start, community development block grants, and the supplemental food program for women, infants and children all use the census. Highway planning and construction money and urban mass transit grants also rely on census data.

Money is the big reason the homeless count is so controversial. The more homeless there are, the more money Congress is likely to appropriate, homeless advocates say. If large numbers of the homeless don’t get counted, there won’t be enough money.

“We know it’s going to be a low count,” said Diane Hess, advocacy coordinator at Metropolitan Community Action. “I think there’s a lot of insecurity about the context the numbers will be used in.”

Officially, the census doesn’t have a category for the homeless. “We don’t really know what homeless means,” said Val Thomas, spokeswoman for the Census Bureau’s regional office in Seattle. The bureau simply counts people, period.

But counting the homeless is clearly what the Census Bureau has in mind.

On March 20, from 6 p.m. to midnight, census employees will count people in shelters and hotels that cost $12 or less a night. They will interview those who are awake. They will estimate the sex, race and age of those who are asleep.

From 2 to 4 a.m., the counters will move to the streets, checking in parks and under bridges. Again, they’ll interview those who are awake, and make estimates on those who are asleep or, as the Census Bureau says, “not in a state of mind to answer the questions.”

From 4 to 6:30 a.m, the counters will go to abandoned and boarded-up buildings and wait for people to come out. They also will go to 24-hour places such as bus depots.

“It’s real clear that this isn’t the be-all and end-all of dealing with the homeless situation,” Thomas said. “But it’s a place to start.”

Despite those cautions, homeless advocates fear that the media and government will use the numbers as hard facts. And they point out that the count will miss people in cars or those who don’t camp in places on the census list.

Mitch Snyder, a homeless advocate in Washington, D.C., is so opposed to the process that he has urged homeless people to avoid census counters.

In Portland, a committee of social workers is helping the Census Bureau get ready for March 20. The committee compiled a list of places where homeless people stay and got the city of Portland to agree not to raid homeless camps until after the count. Social agencies are encouraging their employees to apply for census jobs.

Steve Rapp, executive director of Metropolitan Community Action, said local communities have to cooperate because they’re forced to compete with one another.

“If a community is aggressive, they’ll get more money,” he said. “People will be quoting those numbers for 10 years.”