Friday, February 12, 2010

U.S. Census Employee: Week Two

My new adventure as a (temporary) crew leader with the U.S. Census got off to a rousing start last week… before screeching to a frustrating cease fire this week. Because of a very specific national timeline, the task at hand is simply just about wrapped up in my district of Brooklyn NW... which means until the next deadline comes around, there is little to no work.

That role involved visiting previously designated “Group Quarters”—or residential structures that are not permanent housing—and classifying them into specific categories, such as dormitories, soup kitchens, homeless shelters, mobile food vans, military quarters, religious housing and the like. The next step will be to send "enumerators" into the field to visit the facilities, on a given day in April, and actually count every "resident."

In the meantime, crew leaders have interviewed reps at each facility to find out when traffic is at its peak—for instance, at a soup kitchen, are there more visitors during breakfast or dinner?—to ensure as accurate a count as possible. As I've mentioned previously, the Census is not attempting a "representative" or random count of people living in the U.S. The intention is to include everyone, legal or not, homeless or permanent, by name—or not (Person 1, Person 2, etc.). It is, in fact, a science.

My journey this week included checks on two facilities, both here in my Brooklyn Heights nabe. The first was less than scintillating: confirmation of a building that was listed as a vacant "GQ"—Group Quarters. I went to the building, checked the doors (locked), looked for signage (Building Permit/expired) and recorded the phone number of the company that had applied for said permit. All of this is marked on a Census form, with detailed notes added.

The second assignment was more adventurous, and actually required use of my noggin to complete. I visited a GQ listed as "vacant," but could see through the door window that a lamp was lighted in the hallway. The doorbell was also lit—obviously meaning that electricity was turned on. There was furniture in a back room and a live plant in the living room, all of which I could see by sticking my nose through the mail slot at the front door. I rang the doorbell... nobody "home," and tried to interview next-door neighbors. No one. But there was simply too much evidence that the building was "live," to confirm it as vacant.

Once back at Census headquarters, we checked the address for a potential telephone number and discovered that it was listed with a religious affiliation (sorry, cool cats, it's a federal crime for me to share specifics!). I called the number... no answer... More research and we found a second phone number for the same organization—at a different address. This time, I got an answering machine, left a message... nothing...

Next step: I returned to the nabe, stopping by the second affiliated address—and sure enough, discovered that it was a full-time religious organization. I was introduced to Sister M, who kindly escorted me into a conference room and sat down with me for 10 minutes to explain the link between the two addresses and help me fill in all information I needed. Turns out that the first address—the "vacant GQ"—is actually permanent housing for three nuns who work at the organization a few streets over, where the interview was taking place. Obviously, during the day, they aren't home.

Fascinating history, too. The international organization was founded in Germany during WWII, relocated to New York in the 1960s because of its ease as an international immigration entry point and eventually settled in Brooklyn Heights, because of its affordability during a period in the nabe's history where it was in collective disrepair, and thus much less expensive than Manhattan. Ironically, the GQ that houses the nuns is located on a residential street that is now among the more upscale destinations in the nabe. The three-story townhouse, which they bought for $60,000 45 years ago, must be worth millions today.

So now the once-vacant GQ has been updated as a "religious-affiliated GQ," and those living there will be accounted for in the next phase of the Census. My job is done!

Next week I return to the office on Tuesday, looking for the next adventure. And hopefully, some hours for pay. If things don't change for the better in the near future, I may be counting myself among those checking in for dinner at a soup kitchen.