Joining their counterparts in a three-day nationwide operation, Los Angeles Census officials will make an unprecedented effort to count the homeless population beginning March 29.
Tuesday was just another morning at the Los Angeles Mission, an organization that provides emergency, rehabilitation and day-to-day services for people on Skid Row.
Dozens of people sat on wooden benches in the lobby, waiting for their turn at the shower or for their turn to be served food. The only addition was a table in a corner of the lobby, where a lone Census official sat, waiting for people to fill out census forms. A public service announcement about the benefits of being counted in the census played in a loop from the only television in the area.
For three days, beginning March 29, homeless people in shelters like the Los Angeles Mission will be the focus of the Census 2010 drive. Census enumerators will fan out all over the country, counting people in emergency or transitional shelters, soup kitchens, food vans and other non-sheltered outdoor locations like cars or RVs.
“If you are homeless and want a meal, get counted. if you’re homeless and you need a bed tonight, get counted. If you are homeless and you need a bus token, get counted. If you need showers or shelter, get counted,” said Herb Smith, president of the Los Angeles Mission, at a media briefing Tuesday at the mission. Because by getting counted it will provide all of us the resources to serve the community of L.A. and particularly the homeless.”
James Christy, Los Angeles regional director of the U.S. Census Bureau said over $400 billion from federal funds are allocated every year based on the count. Many of those federal programs go toward the homeless and housing.
"Service providers rely on local, state and federal governments for grants to carry out their operations," Christy said. "And those grants are linked to census figures for those areas. It's core to what the government does and how we support our communities."
Michael Beime, 47, who has been homeless for a year, said he had already filled out a census form.
“We need to know how many people are here," said Beime. "We need the money to take care of everybody.”
He said he was encouraging his friends to fill out census forms, but wasn’t sure if they would.
“Nobody wants to talk about their personal lives,” he said.
Marilyn Liggins, 50, said she had not participated in the census 10 years ago, but was going to fill out a form this year.
"A lot of people here need help and they don’t know how to get it," she said. "This is the way to get more programs to those people."
Christy said the challenge was to educate people that the census is safe, simple and important.
Another challenge is balancing personal safety issues with getting an accurate count.
“We are concerned about the safety of our enumerators and we will be sending them out in groups, with adequate training in asking questions,” said Christy.
Maria Claudio, a spokeswoman from the U.S. Census Bureau said for the first time census enumerators will be using observation to count people who refuse to fill out forms or are hostile. In place of names, census workers will fill in “Person 1, Person 2, etc.”
Christy said the U.S. Census Bureau had made unprecedented efforts to make sure they get a good count this year.
“We have dedicated larger staff, more resources and devoted more planning to it,” Christy said.
The Census Bureau’s efforts include making the homeless count an independent program instead of keeping it part of a larger program like in the past, and working more closely with service providers and grassroots organizations in communities that have large homeless populations.
Though he was enthusiastic about the efforts being made by the Census Bureau, Christy cautioned against overdoing things.
“We don’t want to oversell it because sometimes overselling a program can scare people away and what we want is just to get a good count,” he said.