April 1, 2010 | Mercury News

Hard to count on Census Day

On a rainy day this week, a sandwich, hot Portuguese chicken soup and a 2010 census form were just the thing to warm up Kimberley Cano at the Saint Isabel soup kitchen near downtown San Jose. Three census takers came there looking for homeless people like her.

"They told me if I'm counted, there will be more money for things like housing and jobs and medical," Cano, 44, said after her meal. "I guess the census is a good thing if it helps people like us."

Today is National Census Day, the deadline for mailing census forms back to the government. But millions of people won't do so because they live under bridges or along creeks and never received a questionnaire, or because they're illegal immigrants who fear deportation, or poor Americans doubling or tripling up in crowded apartments, hiding that fact from social workers and landlords.

The U.S. Census Bureau is spending a record $300 million to advertise the national head count, but even a media blitz that large isn't guaranteed to reach the hard-to-count populations.

So for much of this week, census takers visited emergency shelters, soup kitchens and homeless camps to find an estimated 7,000 homeless people in Santa Clara County and fill out their forms for them. Meanwhile, Asian and Latino community activists agreed to help the census by knocking on doors in poor and immigrant neighborhoods and urging people to overcome their fears.

These grass-roots groups were recruited by 300 Census Bureau outreach specialists in Northern California. A decade ago, the bureau had only 20 outreach specialists here, which helps explain the large undercount of urban minorities, the homeless and other hard-to-count people.

The counting of the homeless started Monday when the bureau sent dozens of census takers to food kitchens and shelters from the Peninsula to Gilroy.

Day laborers Jose Resendez and Bernardino Lopez were surprised by census takers giving away goody bags at the National Guard Armory in Gilroy, which doubles as an emergency shelter during winter. The bags contained soap, toothpaste, combs and other toiletries.

"These things help, and you can carry them in a backpack," Resendez, a 54-year-old legal resident, said in Spanish. "But I'm tired of carrying around my pack. What we need most of all is housing. Maybe the census will help us get that. At least that's the hope, isn't it?"

For months, census spokesmen and Gilroy advocates for the poor have been urging homeless people to join the count, telling them that an accurate measure of homelessness would guarantee the region its rightful share of about $400 billion in federal funds.

But new housing and programs won't happen before the armory shelter closes for the warm season, and Resendez and Lopez hit the streets again.

"I'll probably sleep on the bus," Lopez said, "and the benches at the Caltrain station in Palo Alto."

When he does, he'll mingle among the hardest-to-count people of all: the men and women who reject shelters and soup kitchens, and who suffer from mental illness, addiction or both.

Wearing bright vests and carrying flashlights, dozens of census takers attempted to find and count such homeless people from midnight to dawn Wednesday. Beforehand, the Census Bureau had asked homelessness experts like Heiri Shuppisser of Momentum for Mental Health where to find them in the Peninsula. He gave them a list of spots, from freeway underpasses to alleys.

"Some of those who are schizophrenic go to Dumpsters for food," Shuppisser said. "They're not in the system. They aren't counted."

Meanwhile, the Census Bureau had recruited community groups to help get the word out in hard-to-count minority and immigrant neighborhoods.

Van T. Dinh and Felicitas Diaz, outreach workers with Asian Americans for Community Involvement, were on a mission. They wanted to make sure every family in a 300-unit apartment complex in East San Jose had returned their census forms. Seventy-five percent of the tenants are Asian, most of them Vietnamese. Most of the rest are Mexican immigrants.

At one apartment, a Mexican woman told Diaz in Spanish that she didn't live there and then abruptly shut the door. Diaz rolled her eyes.

"I'm not a psychologist, but she wasn't a happy camper," Diaz said. The woman might have been undocumented or living there without the knowledge of the landlord. "When they tell you they don't live there, it's usually a sign they are hiding something," said Diaz. Despite the woman's concerns, census workers do not turn over information to immigration officials or landlords.

At another apartment, Elizabeth Figueroa, 75, said she hadn't filled out her form because it was in English. Diaz gave her instructions on how to get one in Spanish.

But when Dinh knocked on Hau Vu's door, months of outreach by the organization had paid off. The 81-year-old Vietnamese immigrant had attended the group's census seminar at the apartment complex earlier in the year and understood the importance of the national head count. Dinh thanked him in Vietnamese for filling out his questionnaire.

"You don't have to thank me for that," he said. "It's my responsibility."

census help

For help filling out the census questionnaire, contact AACI at 408-975-2730, ext. 145. More help in 59 languages is available online at http://2010.census.gov/partners/materials/inlanguage.php.