City sues Census over homeless tally 26 plaintiffs charge Census Bureau with making deliberate undercount

October 08, 1992|By Carol Emert | Carol Emert,States News Service

WASHINGTON -- The city of Baltimore and 25 other plaintiffs filed a lawsuit against the Bush administration today, charging that the U.S. Census Bureau intentionally excluded homeless people from the 1990 population count.

The suit, which was filed in U.S. District Court in the District of Columbia, accuses the Census Bureau of failing even to attempt a complete count of homeless Americans. The resulting undercount will deprive many areas of federal grant money, including money for homelessness programs, that is distributed according to population levels, the plaintiffs contend. The 1990 data will first be used to set funding levels in 1993.

The Washington-based National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, which instigated the suit, and Baltimore were joined by the city of San Francisco, the U.S. Conference of Mayors, seven homeless individuals, and 15 homeless organizations, including the Homeless Persons Representation Project and Project PLASE in Baltimore.

Advocates for Baltimore's homeless are still smarting over their experience on "S-Night," the Census Bureau's "Street and Shelter Night," during which bureau "enumerators" in cities around the country fanned out to count the homeless.

As in other U.S. cities, the mayor's office in Baltimore had established a committee of city officials and local homeless advocates to help the Census Bureau plan its homeless count.

Committee members identified several dozen street locations where homeless people tend to congregate and sent a list of those sites to the Census Bureau months in advance, according to Joanne Selinske, the director of the city's Office of Homeless Services.

Then the committee got word out to hundreds of homeless people, who arrived at those locations on the evening of S-Night, March 20-21, 1990.

But at many of the sites, Census Bureau enumerators never showed up. "It was kind of aggravating because we had gone out of our way at the urging of the Census Bureau to do this," says Jeff Singer, a social worker with the Health Care for the Homeless clinic.

Clinic staffers had been spreading the word about S-Night for weeks, Mr. Singer says. They handed out food and stayed open three hours later than usual waiting for the enumerators, he says.

"They were supposed to be there at 5:30 and they called at quarter till 6 to say they were coming, and they just never showed up," says Mr. Singer, who also is on the board of the Homeless Persons Representation Project, one of the plaintiffs in the suit. "[W]e had a couple of hundred people here."

The clinic finally closed about 7 p.m., which is when most homeless shelters stop admitting people, so it is unlikely many of those at the clinic were able to get into shelters to be counted, Mr. Singer says. Some of them may have been counted on the street, he says.

Similar incidents occurred elsewhere in the city as well, Ms. Selinske says. Additional people were not counted because enumerators missed several stops of a food truck and a bus for homeless people that the enumerators were supposed to follow, she says.

Laurel Weir of the law center says Baltimore's experience "fit the pattern" of the count. "It [S-Night] was just poorly organized, basically . . . They didn't plan it to count people. If they had really intended to count everybody, they could have done a better job."

A report by a Census Bureau observer who followed enumerators around incognito on S-Night details some of their apparent failings. The report by Brian W. Jackson, who is no longer with the Census Bureau, tells how enumerators in one Baltimore shelter distributed questionnaires only in the main room of the facility, apparently because they were unaware that other rooms existed. The enumerators did not ask shelter personnel if there were other rooms.

Following the shelter count, Mr. Jackson spent the night walking around streets where homeless people tend to congregate. Mr. Jackson saw three teams of enumerators, but they never approached him to be counted.

In one instance, very early in the morning in the "red-light district," Mr. Jackson wrote, "I attempted to get enumerated by casually walking toward the corner where the team was standing, but they started to walk west, away from me. . . . I felt they deliberately avoided me."

Mr. Jackson's report was obtained by the law center through a Freedom of Information Act request, according to Bruce Casino, a lawyer with the Washington law firm of Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson, which is handling the case without fee.

Initially the Census Bureau told the law center that the request, which produced up to 10,000 pages of documents, would cost $250,000, Mr. Casino says. The center appealed and got the documents free, he says.

Mr. Casino says he believes the plaintiffs have "a very good shot at winning" because "there's massive evidence that the bureau does not consider that a full count of the homeless was required and did not attempt to conduct such a count."

Studies have shown that about two-thirds of homeless people do not stay in shelters, which is where the Census Bureau concentrated its efforts, Mr. Casino says. In Baltimore, the count of people in shelters was accurate, Ms. Selinske says; the problems arose elsewhere.

Karen Wheeless, a spokeswoman for the Census Bureau, acknowledges that counting every homeless person was never the bureau's goal. "We've never claimed that every homeless person was counted, only that we did the best job possible counting people in shelters," she says.

"There's never been any question that we acknowledge problems in counting the homeless," Ms. Wheeless adds. "Part of the problem is hiring people to do it. There may be areas where people [enumerators] fear for their physical safety. That may very well have happened."

The defendants in the suit are the Census Bureau, the U.S. Department of Commerce, Census Bureau officials and the United States.

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