a census worker talks to a homeless resident
Alameda County worker Alessia Simmonds helps encampment resident Joshua Stanley through the census questions. Sept. 23, 2020. Photo: Pete Rosos Credit: Pete Rosos

As groups nationwide raise the alarm over an incomplete census count this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic and federal politics, Berkeley homeless advocates are concerned whether unsheltered residents will be properly represented in the once-in-decade survey.

So they’ve taken it upon themselves to make sure these voices are counted. One group went out to the West Berkeley homeless encampment across from Seabreeze Cafe (called the “Island” by residents) on Sept. 23 to inform residents and guide their registration.

Robbi Montoya, Dorothy Day House director of programs, arrived equipped with food, supplies and gift cards to encourage residents to fill out the census.

“People are not really strangers to us, they see us here once a week,” Montoya told Alessia Simmonds, a volunteer with  Complete Count Committee (CCC), a program set up by Alameda County to make sure as many people as possible are included in the census. But there were fewer residents at the location than normal, possibly due to a planned sweep of the encampment.

The partnership between Dorothy Day House and the CCC is separate from the work of the U.S. Census Bureau, which also made a special attempt to count those not living in traditional residences. The Census Bureau operated a three-day “Service-Based Enumeration” at soup kitchens and shelters from Sept. 22-24 and a one-night visit to Targeted Non-Sheltered Outdoor Locations (TNSOL) or outdoor encampments on Sept. 23.

a census worker in front of several shopping carts, talking to an unhoused resident
Jessicah Schoenfeldt helps encampment member Jason Parker answer census questions on Sept.23, 2020. Photo: Pete Rosos Credit: Pete Rosos

CCC will submit its data to the census bureau through a partnership, but the bureau did not collaborate with community organizations for its TNSOL operation. That is is problematic to both Montoya and Simmonds, who pointed out that census workers don’t have existing relationships or trust built with with homeless residents.

At the census’ visit to Dorothy Day House, Montoya said workers were very “business-like,” and in one case didn’t ask for a resident’s permission before registering their count.

“I was appalled, I was like, you don’t know what you’re doing here, don’t do that!” Montoya said, explaining that the shelter volunteers eventually smoothed over the process.

Simmonds’ team reached out to Montoya and other local organizations in early September to address trust issues with the census, partially stemming from the Trump Administration’s failed push to add a citizenship question to the survey.

“Our whole model is engaging and investing in trusted messengers to really fill the gaps and encourage people with a carrot to take the census, versus “Oh, I counted you anyway,” or ‘You have to respond because it’s the law,” Simmonds said.

Montoya and another volunteer signed up about ten people for the census during the half-hour at the Island. There was some mystery around whether census workers would respond to the same location that evening for an overnight count — another practice Simmonds and community members like Montoya have pushed back on. They say it could startle residents, and be ineffective.

a census worker helping a homeless resident to full out questions
Alameda County worker Alessia Simmonds helps encampment resident Avon through the census questions on Sept. 23, 2020. Photo: Pete Rosos Credit: Pete Rosos

The census bureau hasn’t released the number of residents they were able to count during the three-day operation, or the one-night TNSOL visit, and said that information will become public when the census statistics are released.

This year’s census was different from the 2010 census. The bureau did two weeks of pre-canvassing to determine TNSOL locations before the pandemic in February, and then again two weeks before the Sept. 23 operation. A spokeswoman for the bureau said it consulted with 70 separate entities, including public health officials, city leaders, stakeholders and service providers to pre-identify the locations.

But it seems this planning may still have become outdated by the time census workers hit the streets.

Chris Carlisle, a census enumerator and 26-year Berkeley resident, had a largely unproductive experience during the  TNSOL operation starting at 6 p.m. that Wednesday night.

It was his first time as a volunteer, and over the course of several hours, he said was only able to count around two people.

Drew Anderson visits friends at the Island and camps out in South Berkeley. Photo: Pete Rosos

Most of the locations he and three teammates visited were empty, and they had to wait an hour between each visit to get further instructions. When the workers got to a TNSOL location near The Island, one resident told them said census workers had already visited the area.

The risk of an undercount is a regionwide problem, and Alameda County, as well as the state, directed several resources this year toward ensuring a representative count before the deadline. That was supposed to be this week, but a months-long legal battle in federal court has pushed it to Oct. 31.

These ongoing federal attacks against the census could pose the largest consequences for groups subjected to voter disenfranchisement.

Drew Anderson usually puts up a tent at Ashby and College avenues and was hanging out with friends at the Island when Montoya and Simmonds visited. He’s been cycling through the state prison system for 28 years and said the census is one of the only ways he can access his rights.

In California, anyone who is currently in state or federal prison or on parole for a felony conviction cannot vote. There is a measure on California’s Nov. 3 ballot, Proposition 17,  to change that and restore rights to people with felonies on parole.

This was part of the reason why he decided on his own to fill out the census this year. He accessed it on his phone and was initially intimidated by the range of questions, but now sees it as a way to tap into the resources he deserves.

“I’ve been frustrated for years that I can’t vote, I didn’t want to vote for no Donald Trump,” Anderson said.

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Supriya Yelimeli is a housing and homelessness reporter for Berkeleyside and joined the staff in May 2020 after contributing reporting since 2018 as a freelance writer. Yelimeli grew up in Fremont and...