Thursday, November 11, 1999

Census wants homeless to count


Government funds depend upon numbers

BY DAN KLEPAL
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        They sit on sidewalks in layers of clothing with outstretched hands.

        They hold cardboard signs asking for help. They sleep in doorways or on benches as the city moves around them.

        For many, the homeless have no names and no individualities — they are a group of people that blends into a single common face we pass with our heads down.

        But next March, as the 2000 Census begins, a plan will be launched meant to give homeless people a voice by giving them a number.

        For the first time in the 210-year history of the census, government officials will work with shelters, soup kitchens and other organizations in hope they will help make the homeless aware of the coming head count.

        Then, from March 27-29, officials will set appointments at various shelters and soup kitchens to count the people who have no home address.

        “We've got to gain the trust and confidence of these people,” said Cynthia King, who is the Ohio team leader for the U.S. Bureau of Census. “We think that can happen if we establish a relationship with the agencies they go to for services.”

        An accurate accounting of the homeless and other poor people is vitally important to government, and to the people being counted.

        That's because the numbers are used by policy makers to determine how much money for social programs is passed to the area.

        An artificially low count of an area's poor means less money and fewer services available, said Dwight Dean, a regional director for the Bureau of Census.

        Mr. Dean said the census didn't account for homeless people at all during the 1970 and 1980 counts. In 1990, it tried to go to parks, alleys and city streets on one night to get the count.

        That practice led to a lawsuit filed by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty in Washington, D.C., alleging that the count was grossly understated.

        Donald Whitehead, director of the Greater Cincinnati Coalition for the Homeless, said next year's plan is better than the one in 1990. But it still won't work, he said.

        Mr. Whitehead's group is in the midst of a yearlong study of the homeless population in Hamilton County, and he estimates that between 22,000 and 30,000 people go homeless at some time during any given year.

        The population varies from week to week because people move from the streets to flop houses to relatives' homes to shelters and back to the streets, he said.

        “The Census Bureau has not been listening to what we've been saying for the past 10 years,” said Mr. Whitehead, who serves on the board of the National Coalition for the Homeless. “It's impossible to get an accurate count in one or two days. I think they've come up with a terrible plan.”

        But Mr. Dean of the Census Bureau said the latest plan is the best they can do. It's come as a result of talking with advocacy groups and others concerned with the homeless.

        “We've looked to them as to what makes sense,” Mr. Dean said. “Their recommendations seem to be a far more effective way to deal with these problems.”

        Hamilton County Commission President Tom Neyer said an accurate count is important for more reasons than just dollars and cents.

        “For too many years, too many people have gone to too many places and spilled too much blood to uphold the principle that everyone matters,” he said. “Everyone counts and everyone needs to be counted.”

       



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