Project Homeless Connect encourages local homeless to fill out 2010 Census
Jared is 20 years old, and like most homeless people interviewed for this article, he declined to give his last name. He is pale and delicately built, with shy brown eyes, a mane of blonde dreadlocks festooned with tiny silver charms, and a cut on his forehead that’s almost healed.
On Tuesday, March 30, he was sitting quietly with some friends in the grass outside the Civic Auditorium in Downtown Santa Cruz, waiting for tickets for admission to Project Homeless Connect (PHC). A daylong event co-sponsored by the United Way of Santa Cruz County and the U.S. Census Bureau, PHC brought together dozens of local charitable organizations to provide services for Santa Cruz’s homeless, while at the same time encouraging them to fill out the 2010 Census. Participants were given access to free services including medical, dental and eye care, employment advice, legal services, identification cards, haircuts, drug and alcohol counseling, needle exchange, meals, hygiene kits, housing help, and veterinary care.
If you have checked your mail in the last month, you are aware that census season in the United States is well underway. The federal census is conducted every 10 years, and each time national and state agencies struggle to enumerate sectors of society that can be, for various reasons, difficult to count. As of April 1, the national mail-in participation rate for the 2010 census was 52 percent, down from 72 percent for the 2000 census. Santa Cruz is no different when it comes to low rates. According to data released by Rep. Sam Farr’s (D-Calif.) office, Santa Cruz County’s participation rate for the 2010 census is 50 percent, 2 percent lower than the current national average. Participation in the City of Santa Cruz is 48 percent.
“We have several hard-to-reach populations in our county,” says Santa Cruz Mayor Cynthia Mathews. “Undocumented workers, college-age students, and the homeless. They are chronically underreported.”
The reasons for these groups going undercounted are, surprisingly, quite similar, says Jan McStay, the assistant regional census manager for the Seattle Regional Census Center. “These are all populations who are mobile and don’t live in traditional housing units,” she says, “whether that’s a dorm, a car, outdoors, or in a shelter.”
But both Mathews and McStay agree that an accurate census count is crucial. “The reason it’s so important is that it affects our ability to get our fair share of representation in congress and electoral districts,” Mathews says. “Those are apportioned on basis of population. It also ensures that we get our fair share of federal and state dollars that are allocated on basis of population. There are countless funds that are allocated on that basis, like money for public transit, education, affordable housing, libraries, and parks.”
But homeless and undocumented people are often squeamish about filling out census forms, fearful that the government will misuse their information. Jared, who says he’s been homeless on and off ever since he left his parents’ home at age 16, declined to fill out the census while at PHC, citing his own privacy and safety concerns. “It’s super sketchy to me,” he says. “I don’t really trust anything having to do with any government organization. They say our information is secure, but I don’t believe them. I also don’t think figuring out national demographics is all that important unless you’re trying to figure out how many prison cells to build.”
McStay feels that the key to combating misinformation about the use of census data is more education and public outreach. “We need to educate people about safeguards,” she says. “Even the president doesn’t have access to individual census information. It cannot be accessed by anyone until 72 years after the census takes place. Census workers take a lifetime oath. They face stiff penalties for divulging information, up to five years in prison and fines as high as $250,000. There are severe repercussions. We couldn’t get the information that we do if it wasn’t completely secure.”
Santa Cruz City Council Member Don Lane, who has been active on the committee that helped put together PHC, says some wariness was anticipated in planning the event. He says entrance wasn’t contingent on census participation. “It wasn’t mandatory,” he says. “If someone declined to be counted in the census, then they were allowed to do that.” For those people who did choose to fill out the seven-question, homeless-specific version of the questionnaire, volunteers took down their responses; if they didn’t want to participate, their presence was counted, but no personal information was recorded.
Lane notes that a more thorough homeless census is conducted in odd-numbered years as part of the requirements to receive federal funding for homeless services. The 2009 Santa Cruz County Homeless Census and Survey counted 2,265 people on the morning of Jan. 22, 2009. From that number, using a formula developed by the Federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), they estimate the number of homeless people in Santa Cruz County at any given time to be closer to 4,600, or about 2 percent of the total population. But such counts are usually far from accurate. “That would be the base number,” says Lane. “It could only really be higher than that. The reality is that there are probably a lot of people they didn’t find. That’s why going out to count people is so difficult.” By offering services and asking the homeless to come to them, he hopes a more accurate count might be possible this year, though it’s still too early to know.
Colin Clyde, 32, became homeless following the death of his girlfriend. “I was traumatized,” he says. “Just so deep in the throes of grief I couldn’t hang on to a job.” He lived on the streets of Seattle and Santa Cruz for seven years, before receiving housing through the federally-sponsored MATCH (Meaningful Alternatives to Chronic Homelessness) program six months ago. He came to PHC to get new glasses, an I.D. card, and other medical care services he’s usually not able to afford.
Though he filled out the census, he says he understands why other homeless youth like Jared are reluctant to give their information. “They’re paranoid,” he says, but for understandable reasons. “A lot of people who live on the streets, their only interactions with government workers are negative, whether it’s with cops or with benefits agencies that are heavily bureaucratized.”
Clyde hopes comprehensive programs like PHC will be ongoing, even in non-census years. “I wish the City Council would put more resources into programs like this, instead of spending their time suing my friends and treating the police like a social service agency,” he says. He’s referring to local homeless couple Miguel DeLeon and Anna Richardson, who have received dozens of citations over the last two years for illegal camping and creating a public nuisance. “If you give someone a ticket for camping, they’re not going to pay it, because they just can’t,” he continues. “Homeless people have to live somewhere.”
Kymberly Lacrosse, a community organizer with the United Way and one of the head administrators for the PHC, says she is just glad that over 1,000 people were able to overcome their qualms about the census process and come to receive assistance. “It’s really been such a community effort,” she says, noting that the city donated the use of the Civic, the Santa Cruz Metro donated over 400 bus passes, and the Santa Cruz Bible Church cooked enough food for 1500 meals—enough to feed attendees and the nearly 500 volunteers.
“Every person has a different story and every person has different needs,” Lacrosse says. “When we bring all of these community groups together, hopefully we can give these people some tools to get ahead in their lives.”