[HPN] Counting on The Homeless

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Sat, 1 Apr 2000 23:49:55 -0800

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Counting on The Homeless
Census makes extra effort to find S.F. street population
Tanya Schevitz, Chronicle Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 29,
2000 2000 San Francisco Chronicle


Amilcar Mayen did what he could to ensure that San Francisco's homeless
are counted.

Mayen, program director of Dolores Street Community Services, gathered
the 70 Latino men staying in the organization's homeless shelter on
South Van Ness Avenue and spoke passionately to them in Spanish on
Monday night about the benefits of filling out a census form.

Mayen told the men that their cooperation could mean more beds, better
health care, increased opportunities for education and even a chance for
permanent housing.

Then five census workers -- only one of whom spoke Spanish -- began
interviewing men who stepped forward to be counted.

By the end of an hour, when the census enumerators packed up their
materials and the men began pulling out their sleeping mats, just 39 of
the shelter's 70 residents had chosen to fill out the forms.

The situation at Mayen's shelter offers a glimpse into the challenges
census workers are facing this week as they fan out to homeless and
emergency shelters across the country, including 52 sites in San
Francisco, in their once-a-decade count.

Census workers are hitting soup kitchens and food lines, and searching
behind bushes, in parks, under freeway bridges and on neighborhood
streets for those without a fixed addresses.

The problem is many homeless just don't want to be counted. Some
distrust government,

others object to the personal intrusion or fear the information will be
shared with immigration authorities, and many just don't believe it will
help them.

Ed Gore, assistant division chief of field programs for the U.S. Census
Bureau, said Monday's count at the South Van Ness Avenue shelter is
especially ``disappointing'' because it is even harder to count those
living on the streets.

Gore noted that in the end the Census Bureau will use statistical
sampling methods to get the most accurate count. A 1999 Supreme Court
decision prohibits the agency from using sampling for reapportioning
congressional seats, but not for redistributing federal money.

Still, Gore hopes that the agency's more extensive outreach efforts this
year will pay off.

Fearing a repeat of the homeless undercount during the 1990 census, when
the count was done in just one day, the process has been expanded. Local
census offices have linked with city officials and homeless groups to
get the word out. And this year's count will be done over three days.

``We have done more this time in terms of outreach,'' he said. ``I think
at the end of the day that we will have a better overall count.''

San Francisco Supervisor Mabel Teng, who co-chairs the city's Complete
Count Committee, said a lot is riding on an accurate count. ``Any
undercount is going to lead to a loss in federal and state funding and
loss in political representation,'' Teng said.

Estimates of the city's homeless vary widely. The city's official
estimate, Teng said, is about 5,000; the 1990 Census counted 5,569
people in shelters and on the streets.

But Paul Boden, executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness in
San Francisco, said the figure is more like 12,000 to 14,000.

Boden's group is using grant money to hire homeless people to do
outreach about the census, telling them that it is important for
everyone to be counted and to remind the government that homelessness
continues to be a huge problem.

But Boden is skeptical about the actual benefit to the homeless.

``I would never go out and tell homeless people you have to be counted
because that means that the city gets more money and that means you are
going to be treated better,'' he said. ``I don't know that that is

Boden said he had refused to tell census workers or city officials where
people sleep for fear of how the city would use the information.
Instead, he encouraged homeless people to come out to street corners or
shelters to be counted.

``The city spends the 364 other days of the year trying to sweep out the
encampments,'' he said. ``When the mayor's office says, `We won't tell
anybody,' I don't believe it.''

Many of the homeless maintained hope.

``It is important for the money for benefits,'' Luis Marquez, 30, said
through a translator. ``We need blankets. It is a little cold sometimes.
We need breakfast and we need towels to dry off with after showers.''

At the Multi-Service Center South on Fifth Street, which has 345
homeless residents, 10 enumerators spent several hours Monday night
taking forms to clients who were watching television, eating that
night's dinner of macaroni and tuna and resting in their beds.

Some refused, saying they ``didn't feel like it.'' Stephen Preston, 39,
resisted, saying the government should already know where he is because
he has an identification card and a social security number.

``It feels to me like they are counting animals,'' he said.

Others declined out of fear of how the information would be used,
despite assurances that it was confidential.

``I'm illegal in this country and I don't want immigration to find me,''
said a 40-year-old man who identified himself only as Antonio. ``The INS
does everything to get you. They do things they are not supposed to.''

But others approached the census workers on their own, eager to fill out
a form.

``I don't know that I ever have been counted before so I think it is
important,'' said Bob Yingling, 53. ``There are so many programs that
get lost and underfunded if you don't get the right count.''

2000 San Francisco Chronicle   Page A19


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