City's Homeless Really Do Count

By Aaron Kase
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Apr. 20, 2010

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Photo by PW Staff

Carlos Estarel regrets not being counted in the 2010 Census.

“It’s an honor and a privilege to do the census,” he says. “It helps with roads, schools, you know.”

Sitting outside the Ridge Center, a North Philly homeless shelter for single men, Estarel adds: “Unfortunately, they didn’t count me.”

The recovering alcoholic and substance-abuser says he was in transition between a recovery house and the Ridge Center and missed the recent citywide count of homeless Philadelphians sleeping in shelters and on the streets. “I’m not saying I’m Jesus,” says Estarel, who has been homeless more than two dozen times, “but he didn’t have a home address either. I was the high-plains drifter.”

Another Ridge Center resident, who did not want to be identified, says he was present and accounted for when census workers showed up for roll call.

“I gave my census. The people came; they counted people upstairs, downstairs,” Estarel says, shrugging. “In God’s eyes, I’m counted.”

During the last three days of March, the Census Bureau unleashed 321 enumerators and 34 supervisors throughout the city to count its wandering residents. The homeless do count; the total population of cities and towns helps determine how much money they’ll get from the federal government, which has $400 billion to distribute every year.

Philadelphia receives at least $25 million in federal assistance specifically for the homeless, most of it through the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act for funding shelters. The money is split between nearly 100 operators providing a variety of services—entry level, transitional or permanent living arrangements.

On the first night of the count, census workers canvassed the city’s shelters and group homes. The second night, they visited soup kitchens and other overnight refuges. The third night proved difficult, as workers walked the streets attempting to record every person sleeping outside.

Besides the obvious challenges in trying to cover the entire city grid, consider that not every homeless person wants to be counted, especially by the government. On top of problems with drug abuse and mental illness, many of the homeless, especially younger ones, want to keep a low profile, fleeing trouble from various systems—the school system, the criminal-justice system, child welfare.

Yvette Núñez, a spokeswoman with Philadelphia Regional Census Center, acknowledges the challenges in finding people who don’t want to be identified, but insists that the census gets everybody.

“We’ve always counted every person living in the country since 1790,” she says.

The only way to address the issue of finding those who want to remain lost is to do “extensive research into pockets where there may be homeless persons congregated.” She adds: “Through our relationships with existing community partners, we collect that information and get that kind of feedback, where there might be pockets of the population who aren’t currently in the shelter.”

Indeed, the census relies on a vast network of local knowledge and expertise in homeless outreach, working closely with the city’s Office of Supportive Housing (OSH) and the nonprofit Project H.O.M.E. (Housing, Opportunities, Medical Care, Education), which coordinates with more than 100 other providers in the city to offer shelter and address the causes of poverty and homelessness. The combined experience within those organizations in reaching out to, working with and providing services to the homeless is invaluable to census workers seeking the most accurate count possible.

“The federal census folks did work with our outreach coordination center to help identify ‘cultural advisors’—people who would be sensitive to specifics to a certain population,” says Laura Weinbaum, director of public policy for Project H.O.M.E.

Project H.O.M.E. does its own quarterly count of people sleeping outdoors. Beth Lewis, program manager for its Outreach Coordination Center, says that during a typical count at least 30 outreach workers from various agencies start combing the streets about midnight. Workers split up, walking or driving down every street in Center City and in more focused areas elsewhere in the city.

“We then also have added spots, specific hot spots, areas of greater density,” Lewis says. Workers look for “people who are walking with no apparent direction or destination,” she adds. “People carrying backpacks and a lot of things with them. People who are sleeping as well as sitting on the sidewalk … people in places not meant for human habitation.”

Outreach workers hit up traditional spots where the homeless congregate: areas that provide shelter from the elements or areas near parks, all-night businesses and service providers. The folks who don’t want to be found usually hide out in abandoned buildings, warehouses or cars.

“If someone is determined not to be seen at all, we aren’t counting them. We don’t count in abandoned buildings,” Lewis says. She adds: “They [outreach workers] can’t count everyone. “There are huge expanses that we are nowhere near pretending to cover.”

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