Census goes camp-to-camp as well as door-to-door, seeking the homeless

Posted: Thursday, March 30, 2000

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- From a distance, there were no signs of life at a blue-tarp shelter hidden in the woods off a busy East Anchorage street. However, a well-used trail in the fresh snow led U.S. Census employees to believe someone was living there.

Someone was -- four someones, in fact. Four sleeping someones. So the census workers, called enumerators, took a head count and tiptoed away.

''We're not supposed to wake people up,'' said enumerator Donna Green. ''How would you like it if somebody woke you up and said, 'What's your name?' ''

On Wednesday, about 40 workers fanned out across town to fill out census forms at homeless camps. It was part of two weeks' worth of ''special places enumeration.''

By now, every household in the state should have received a Census 2000 form. But Alaska is more than just homeowners and renters. Willingly or unwillingly, people live in places like college dorms, hospitals, jails, logging camps, emergency shelters, canneries and military barracks.

They also live in ''targeted nonsheltered outdoor locations,'' which is census-speak for homeless camps.

Hiking through the woods wasn't what Emily Davenport expected when she applied for a census job in Anchorage. Wednesday morning, though, she found that going camp-to-camp isn't that much different from going door-to-door.

''Be careful for yourself and respectful of someone's home,'' she said.

She and the rest of the crew walked warily along the rush-hour Glenn Highway, trotted down side streets in Spenard, and postholed through deep snow in the woods off Tudor Road. Midway through the morning, a mama moose and calf forced them to take a 20-minute detour from their planned route.

''They told us about dogs. They told us not to go in (a yard) if the dog looks threatening,'' Green said. ''Moose aren't in the same category.''

Most of the time, the workers didn't find anyone. Between 6:30 a.m. and 11:30 a.m., this particular crew counted only about 10 people. The census office would not release the number of homeless counted citywide on Wednesday.

Some of the camps they checked were on maps left over from the 1990 census. The maps weren't always accurate. For example, people once squatted in derelict trailers in a lot in the city's midtown. But enumerator Walter Fox said things had changed.

''They cleaned that lot up. It's flat,'' he said.

''We still have to go check it,'' replied crew leader Chris Hatch.

They did, and found the lot empty except for a pile of brush and an abandoned couch. Hatch made a note of it. The enumerators went on to check three other streets marked on their map and followed up on a tip from a gas station employee. They didn't find anyone.

However, local business people often give useful information, according to J.P. Jones, the man in charge of special places enumeration statewide. So do neighborhood residents and members of Complete Count committees (groups formed to promote the census).

The Census Bureau can hire guides to point out recent or well-hidden camps. Hatch's crew started off Wednesday morning with a couple of men from the Homeward Bound residential treatment program.

''I know a lot of street people,'' said Lewis Barrickman, who also knows where they camp. In years past, he camped out, too. Wednesday, he was paid $15 an hour to show the workers around several Anchorage neighborhoods, turning up a handful of the homeless.

The enumerators then continued to the woods off East Tudor Road. Wednesday morning was sunny and relatively mild, and the workers panted and unzipped coats as they tramped through the drifts.

The snow was actually helpful -- if a camp was surrounded by an untrammeled field of white, workers knew no one was there. The recent wintry weather, they figured, sent some campers to the shelters for a while.

''If we didn't have this latest snowfall, we'd be finding a lot more people,'' Green declared.

But those who went to shelters likely were counted, too. Every shelter and soup kitchen in the city is included in the census effort, according to Jones.

''Our goal is to get a complete count,'' he said.

The extra effort seems to be paying off. Half a dozen people interviewed after a Bean's Cafe enumeration Tuesday said they would otherwise not have been counted. William Britt, who had lunch at Bean's on Tuesday, said this was the first census form he had ever filled out.

''I've never even seen one before,'' said Britt, 43.

A more accurate count will help the city obtain funding for social services like soup kitchens and job programs, according to David Olivera, a community partnership specialist with the census.

''To identify a need, we need a head count,'' Olivera said.

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