Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Census Report: An Honest Day's Work

After months of hearing, reading, learning and teaching the rules of the road, at last, this week, all was put into practice with the U.S. Census Bureau’s Group Quarters count, known as SBE—or Service Based Enumeration—which tallies individuals at shelters, soup kitchens, mobile food vans and random locales such as subway stations and parks.

Monday, I joined fellow Crew Leader Z, along with three of her enumerators and three of mine. Destination: A seven-story shelter in Brooklyn housing single women, many diagnosed with some form of mental disorder. This particular shelter is transient, meaning the population potentially turns over on a daily basis. On premises, there’s medical staff, social workers, job counseling and meals, along with seven beds to a room, and shower and bath facilities. Every time a resident enters the building, they must consent to security much like an airport: pass any bags through a conveyer, hand wands, metal detectors… the works. The Marriott, this is not.

We arrived before noon and set up our station in the back of a large, airy conference room. In front were two round tables, where we would enumerate—or count—a dozen residents at a time. The expected population for the day was a mammoth 190. For the first 90 minutes, we prepared countless forms, which must be filled out meticulously. A check mark instead of an “X” could invalidate the individual’s count. Most crucial is the ICR, or Individual Census Record, which the women fill out on their own or, if requested, with our assistance. On SBE ICRs, the Census requires at least three of five questions be completed in order for it to qualify: full name, sex, date of birth/age, of Latin/Latino/Hispanic descent, and race (a choice of 14).

And… go! The facility had made announcements over the previous few days, informing residents that we were coming and why. The short answer: “Your response helps the government fund facilities like this one. The Census determines how tax dollars are spent in every community across the country.” For the first hour, we scurried at an expeditious clip, helping when needed, explaining purpose, moving women in and out of the room, offering coffee and cookies as a reward (provided by the shelter)—and trying to make sure as many government-issued ball point pens as possible remained on tables.

One satisfying coup came when a 20-something shyly asked question after question about who sees the information, what they do with it, whether it’s shared with the facility, etc. “I don’t want to sound ignorant; I just want to know why I should do this,” she said. We gently responded to each query. “Okay, I want to think about it.” In our microcosm, it was quite satisfying when she returned a few minutes later, looking down at the floor, thanked us and asked for assistance with the ICR.

The most intriguing moment of the day came when a resident entered to participate—who was obviously a man. Effeminate, with long braids, but clearly based on appearance and voice, he was not transgender. Sure enough, as we processed the ICR, we noted he identifies as female, a clear case of gender dysphoria. Heartbreaking to imagine what that individual endured to end up in the shelter. One has to wonder whether he was thrown out of home, teased, beaten up, how his journey faltered to end up there. Sad, but also a blessing that safe havens are available for such folks.

By 5 p.m., silence… We had completed ICRs for all of 50 women out of the anticipated 190. At dinner, half an hour later, enumerator G offered an announcement, encouraging involvement. She asked those who had participated to share with their friends that the process was simple. She emphasized confidentiality. She was cordial, professional and compassionate. And then the bitch fight began. “Fuck the government!” “Fuck you!” “Get out of my house!” She stood her ground and told the group that they could all fuck off! Okay, kidding. The shelter’s supervisor intervened, swept G out of the room and we waited for another smattering of ladies one floor up at our post. We’d been warned that a number of residents suffer paranoia. Yeah, no kidding.

At 6:30, my enumerator R and I were due at a second shelter, so we took flight. This facility was much smaller, made up of single women and their children who reside longer-term. Thankfully, for all of the drama we left behind, this was a breeze. The supervisor of the three-story structure—which looked like any other apartment building on the street—invited us in to her office and provided 100% of the information: names, sex, birth dates, nationality and race. With SBE facilities, this is as acceptable as asking individuals to fill out forms. The best part: We were able to accomplish our task without invading residents’ space, disturbing their routine or potentially frightening anyone. It couldn’t have been easier.

The caveat was the realization that many of these displaced women have two and three kids, all with different last names. Not to appear overly judgmental about the women, or the men that fathered their kids, but someone needs to learn to keep their britches zippered, for their own good.

Meanwhile, back at the first shelter of the day, Z and the remaining crew of six continued to struggle with the count—until the night manager casually mentioned to G, “This would be a lot easier if you used our list.” Uh, say what? Sure enough, the facility maintains personal info about everyone staying there. Z was stupefied. With gentle persuasion, she was able to obtain a roster with everything we needed, and 90 minutes later, the facility was wrapped. In total, there were more than 200 ICRs, 100% complete.

Imagine if the daytime supervisors had bothered to share this list with us—which we had asked for. Apparently, because it includes Social Security Nos., he was unwilling to offer that it existed—and preferred we spend 10 hours invading the premises, upsetting some residents and risking a low count, which ultimately could keep his facility from getting government money. Dumb.

After completing the second shelter with R, I headed to the Census office to turn in paperwork... I walked in my living room at 10 p.m., 12 hours after I’d started phone calls that morning. Happy hour got started late Monday. Believe me, after all that, I needed to drink. Uh, I mean, a drink. Yeah, that’s what I meant.

Day two: Tuesday morning, I was greeted with fervent rain and wicked winds, as I headed out for my third SBE: a soup kitchen, which is not as far from home as it is inaccessible by subway. That meant the bus, baby. I walked 10 minutes, umbrella mocking me as it turned inside and out, I waited, got off the bus and promptly walked five blocks the wrong way. When I found the church hosting the soup kitchen, the doors were still locked for our 11:30 a.m. appointment. My enumerators and I found refuge at a nearby bodega, the only thing open within eye view.

Once inside, we were greeted by contact M, a 75-year-old lady with a heart of gold. She explained that while 60 were originally expected, the count was likely to be less than half, because of the inclement weather. “We’re having spaghetti and meatballs today. Are you all hungry?” We politely declined, though the fragrance was begging me to pack a plate. Meanwhile, I received a call from Census supervisor O, who informed me that a couple feds from Washington were visiting our Brooklyn office and he’d be bringing them by the soup kitchen to observe. “Okay, people,” I told my enums. “Be cool, be clean. And if I start to say, ‘Mother fucker’ out loud, someone stomp on my foot.”

As the crowd began to gather, M asked us all to join hands in a circle to pray and give thanks for the meal. As I looked downward, my eyes moistened. A sweet moment. For the next 90 minutes, as each person finished his or her meal, we explained our purpose and handed out ICRs, and when requested, helped folks fill them out. M made sure no one left the premises without talking with us, as she continually encouraged the Census staffers to share in the food.

When the feds arrived with O, they asked about the process, and we shared how some procedures might be made more efficient. I maintained decorum, kept my mouth clean and filtered every sentence before it tripped out of my noggin—because as jovial as these two dudes appeared, one must always assume an ulterior motive. This is, after all, the federal government. I ain’t stupid, you know.

At 1 p.m., M closed the doors and sure enough, our count came in low: Instead of the expected pop of 60, we had fewer than 20. I filled out an “Info Comm,” used to explain discrepancies between what is expected and what’s delivered, we checked our paperwork and were out the door.

I went to the office to turn in my completed packet and by 5 p.m. was headed home. Somewhere along the way, naturally, I managed to lose my umbrella, so I donned my dorky white U.S. Census Bureau baseball cap, a reward from O, and decided to skip the subway and walk 20 minutes home. What an exhilarating experience these two days had been, gratifying, full of new sights and sounds, challenging at times and certainly humbling. An honest couple day’s work. Mother fucker, I felt good.