Friday, April 2, 2010

Census Report: Between The Cracks

Let the acronyms prevail! With the U.S. Census Bureau’s three-day SBE (Service Based Enumeration) operation—shelters, soup kitchens, mobile food vans—and the homeless folks’ TNSOL (Targeted Non-Sheltered Outdoor Locations) post-midnight count Wednesday completed, we began the full-on GQE (Group Quarters Enumeration) survey Thursday.

GQE involves a laundry list of facilities housing non-permanent residents: federal detention centers, prisons (I’ll say hi to your mama!), correctional facilities, military disciplinary barracks, juvenile homes, treatment & correctional centers, nursing facilities, mental hospitals (hey to your diddy!), “boarder patient” hospitals, schools for the disabled, military quarters, university housing and religious group bunkers.

All well and good, but Brooklyn Heights, the base of most of my GQEs, is packed with churches—thus a bunch of facilities housing nuns & priests—as well as Watchtower, the mighty national base of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Among the assignments I received Thursday, sure enough, while there's a smattering of Brooklyn Law School dorms and random holy haunts, we ended up with more than 3,000 non-perm residents in some 15 buildings owned by Watchtower, dotted across the 11201 zip.

I knew these folks had a divine presence in the nabe, but as I scanned the addresses of each facility, I had no idea just how dominant their domain is. Ironically, the organization intends to high-tail it out of Brooklyn, relocating to a compound in upstate New York—if only they could sell their properties for market value in a down real estate cycle—including the luscious 14-story Hotel Bossert a block from home, where their disciples train for mission work. It’s been on the block for $100 million since January 2008.

So yesterday, I began working my way through seven boxes of GQE assignments, which, after being up until 4 a.m. for the previous evening’s TNSOL, became an impossible mental task. I apparently ate some ice cream and a mini apple pie Thursday night—I barely recalled it when I got up this morning… at, uh, 6 a.m., to sift through some 15 assignments and enough paperwork to feel like some sort of federal lackey… Oh, wait…

Originally, I intended for my staff of 10 out of 11 (one in class) enumerators to meet up the street at a coffee shop, but eyeing the number of boxes to transport, I figured that was daft. Why not just invite my folks here—home—where we could spread out, work leisurely, use the laptop if needed, with a bathroom, free coffee and water, and—as important—allow me to maintain my base of operations from the most convenient (centrally located) base imaginable? A quick remedial text, and all was locked in.

So this morning at 9 a.m., the troops gathered, amid a buffet spread of forms across the living room floor.Four among the 10 were trained by other Crew Leaders, so we met for the first time. All impressive. Among the original six that I had trained, all but one appeared capable of doing the job. That one, bless his/her heart, is always going to be on the support side, simply lacking the social skills to enumerate a facility on his own.

And, simply, that’s part of my role: to identify who can step up, command presence in explaining our purpose to the GQEs, insuring results and completing mountains of accompanying paperwork. Remember, as I wrote in an earlier post, a check instead of an “X” could invalidate an entire count.

My two Lead Enumerators were quick on the draw. G took two enums out into the field to visit five religious facilities, all with counts under a dozen. Meanwhile, R worked on the Watchtower, connecting with our contact, who was not only expecting our call, but promised to provide a 100% roster for all among the some potential 3,000 residents of each facility—potentially saving us weeks of door-to-door effort with no guarantee of an acceptable success rate. This guy wants to insure accuracy and went so far as to offer a spreadsheet that guarantees 100% completion of the ICRs—Individual Census Reports—where we record name, sex, nationality, race and the like. Thank Jehovah!

By the end of the day, G had completed four of her facility counts—all the more amazing, given that it's Good Friday—while four Watchtower facils offered a count of “zero,” as of “Census Day,” April 1, meaning that we could process them as complete.

And just as we were feeling accomplished, like good little Feds, a text came from Census supervisor O: “Urgent: Crew Leaders, report to the office ASAP.” Apparently, there was pandemonium over an SBE site visit that I had allegedly turned in, which the office couldn’t locate: Four phone calls to me throughout the day, all from different staffers, asking same thing and essentially blaming me for losing an assignment. Meese: “I turned it in; I was there Monday night at 10:15 and turned all of my paperwork in to B. Why don’t you check with her?”

And this is where cracks begin to show in this overall operation. As positive as I have been about this experience, internally, there’s a reason why the nickname “U.S. ‘Censeless’ Bureau” pervades. While those of us in the field strive to an impeccable standard—and stand proud for accomplishing our tasks against occasional improbable odds—those in the office apparently possess less regard for detail or accuracy. I’m not here to rag—my intent with these posts is to focus on the adventure, the new, the unexpected, the embodiment of an experience that exceeds expectations and writes a new chapter in my life—but today, the ineptitude of those responsible for processing our good work cannot be ignored.

Hours later, with endless debate and finger-pointing (at me)—including one supervisor that I held in high regard who dared to say, “So, Chuck, did you find that paperwork you lost?”—it turns out that the facility in question was a women’s domestic violence shelter, assigned only to women (I would be male). This was clearly noted on the facility record, which, apparently, none among the hierarchy bothered to read. There's so much more to this tale, and I just keep hitting delete as I polish this post, because I don't want to belabor a single point. O was furious, I was irritated. I'll leave it at that.

Oh, but wait. That’s small potatoes to a much more confounding issue: Apparently, those of us hired months ago, trained to succeed in this operation, have no guarantee of continuing on with the Census for the next step, the biggest, known as NRFU—Non-Response Follow-Up—the apartment-to-apartment survey of those who failed to mail questionnaires in by May 1. Because of one fucking buffoon in some rural town in the Midwest who hired her mother to work for her, a fed mandate came down nationwide that it was against the rules to promote or maintain staffers—cause, you know, that one incident means nepotism will dominate every national municipality.

So instead, as soon as we’re all finished with GQE, we're likely to be laid off, as the Census spends millions of $$$ to train new hires to do what we’ve already been executing in the field. Essentially, we fall into the black hole known as the job pool, where we may or may not resurface as qualified. Genius! Your tax dollars at work!

So that’s that. Off the soapbox and moving forward. Monday I continue enumerating assigned sites with my staff. Visiting lots of nuns and priests. And Jehovahs. May god grant us 40 hours a week.