Census 2000: Ten Years of Planning Faces Pitfalls

The ten-year Census of all U.S. citizens poses special problems for homeless people. In 1990, according to advocates was a disaster with one day set aside nationally to count all displaced people. Very few government officials accepted the 1990 numbers and a handful of cities sued over the count. Plans began in early 1999 to do a better job of counting homeless people.

Problems occurred early on with decisions on a national level that angered activists at the National Coalition for the Homeless. It was decided that the homeless count would be limited to three days, while other hard to reach populations would be targeted for the entire summer. In an effort to reduce the chance of counting homeless people more than once, activists felt that the majority of the population would be missed. In fact, NCH debated their role in the Census for months and had very little involvement with the enumeration process. Some local Coalition refused to assist the Census, because of some of the choices made by officials.

In Cleveland, homeless service providers and activists worked with the Census to get homeless people counted. The City of Cleveland barely made it over the 500,000 person mark in 1990, and needs to maintain that level in 2000 to keep a healthy level of federal funding. The City of Cleveland convened meetings around the counting of homeless people and other fragile populations in the beginning of 1999 as part of the Complete Count Committee.

There were setbacks throughout the year including a decision at the national level to count those outside from 4-7 a.m. on the last day of the count. It also was difficult to get in writing that the outdoor locations would not be revealed to any other government entity to assure confidentiality. Eventually, these were worked out locally, and a plan was developed.

The social service community would offer thank you gifts to homeless people who signed up for the Census, and the Coalition would stage a Stand Down to catch anyone who was missed. Despite the years of planning, committee members privately were concerned that the sites were not finalized until the last week. Training and forms were not made available until the weekend before the three day count. Some facilities like the Salvation Army PASS program were skipped and never counted.

"There was good cooperation, but every Census we learn lessons," said Renee Whiteside, U.S. Census partnership Specialist. She said that they have not heard how other city’s counts of homeless people worked, and she has not seen results yet. Whiteside said, "The Stand Down went over well, and it was worth it for Census officials to come to the event."

Dave Campbell was hired as an interpreter for the one day outdoor locations count. He identified places where those without shelter stay under bridges and freeways. He was also supposed to go out with the enumerators, but because of miscommunication this fell through.

Campbell said, "I think that it went real well myself. We did have good participation from the homeless community overall." The Census provided a "forum for a lot of other organizing activities. It let us know we count. Government still is accountable to us, and didn’t forget about homeless people," Campbell said.

The Stand Down took place two weeks after the three day count to get all those missed to sign up. While the people counted at the Stand Down were not considered homeless because they were not counted on the nationally recognized three days, they will help the population numbers for Cleveland. One of the benefits of the collaborative Complete Count meetings was a huge number of donations were put together for homeless people as thank you gifts. Hygiene items, bus tickets donated by the Regional Transit Authority, flashlights donated by CEOGC were distributed throughout the system.

One of the large more public set backs of the three day Census count was the refusal of Census workers from entering the Salvation Army meal sites. There were three identified in Cleveland. Nationally, the Salvation Army had decided not to allow census officials into their meal sites, because of concern over privacy and intimidation. This never came up at the collaborative meetings in Cleveland. Privately, Complete Count committee members were upset that they were not informed of this Salvation Army policy, and never had the opportunity to negotiate a solution to this problem locally.

Census workers did position themselves on the sidewalks outside the Salvation Army in an attempt to get people to sign up. City of Cleveland press office never returned phone calls to respond to questions about the U.S. Census.

Copyright Issue #42 in Cleveland Ohio published in May 2000.