Census Bureau sued over count Homeless groups charge negligence


WASHINGTON -- Hundreds of homeless people in Baltimore were left out of the 1990 population count due to negligence and incompetence by the U.S. Census Bureau, according to homeless advocates in Baltimore who filed a federal suit against the Bush administration yesterday.

The suit, 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 Person's Representation Project and Project PLASE in Baltimore.

Census Bureau officials admit both publicly and privately that the tally of homeless people that took place on "S-Night" -- "Street and Shelter Night" -- did not include the entire homeless population. "We've never claimed that every homeless person was counted, only that we did the best job possible counting people in shelters," said bureau spokeswoman Karen Wheeless.

In an internal Census Bureau memo obtained by the law center under the Freedom of Information Act, one official tells her colleague, "We know we will miss people by counting the 'open' [people in shelters and on the streets] rather than the 'concealed' [those hidden in abandoned buildings, Dumpsters, etc.]." The plaintiffs contend this approach is illegal because the Constitution mandates that everyone be counted.

"Can you imagine the federal government saying to any other group of people, 'It's just too hard to count you so we're not even going to try'?" said Maria Foscarinis, director of the law center, at a news conference yesterday.

S-Night in Baltimore

Advocates for Baltimore's homeless are still smarting over their experience on "S-Night," March 20-21, 1990, during which bureau "enumerators" in cities around the United States fanned out to count the homeless.

City officials and non-profit groups worked for months to plan the count. They identified dozens of street locations where homeless people tend to congregate. They gave the list to the Census Bureau and then spread the word to hundreds of homeless people, who showed up at those sites to be counted.

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," said 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 said. They handed out food and stayed open three hours later than usual waiting for the enumerators, he said.

"They [enumerators] were supposed to be there at 5:30 and they called at quarter until 6 to say they were coming, and they just never showed up," said Mr. Singer, who also is on the board of the Homeless Person's Representation Project, one of the plaintiffs in the suit. "[We] 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, he said. Some of them may have been counted on the street, he said.

Similar incidents occurred elsewhere in the city as well, said Joanne Selinske, the director of the city's Office of Homeless Services.

More than 100 people stood in front of the Our Daily Bread soup kitchen on Franklin Street and several dozen others waited at a Liberty Street location. Additional people were not counted because enumerators missed several stops of a food truck and a bus for homeless people that they were supposed to follow, she said.

The end tally was 1,144 people counted in shelters and 387 identified in the streets -- a total of 1,531. Ms. Selinske estimated Baltimore's total homeless count at up to 2,400, although she cautioned that the figure is "extremely ballpark."

"The very point of [S-Night] was to try and get an estimate for our benefit also," she said.

Follow-up interviews of homeless people in Baltimore soup kitchens, drop-in shelters and clinics indicated that 84 percent of the city's homeless were not counted on S-Night, according to information from the law center. The tally of people in shelters was fairly accurate, however, Ms. Selinske said.

Laurel Weir of the law center said Baltimore's experience "fit the pattern" of the count.

"It [S-Night] was just poorly organized, basically," Ms. Weir said. "They didn't plan it to count people. If they had really intended to count everybody, they could have done a better job."

Incognito observer

A report by a Census Bureau observer who followed Baltimore 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 shelter distributed questionnaires only in the main room of the facility, apparently because they were unaware that other rooms existed.

After 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."

His 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 Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson, which is handling the case for free.

Not only did the Census Bureau do an inadequate job of counting the homeless in cities where it had enumerators, but only about 5,050 localities were included in the effort, according to congressional testimony from a bureau official.

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

The plaintiffs are asking that:

* No agency use S-Night figures for funding or policy-making purposes.

* A disclaimer be sent to every individual and organization that received the S-Night information.

* A special commission be appointed to design an alternative method of estimating the size of the homeless population.

* Another homeless count be undertaken in 1995.

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