Housing crisis, fear complicates census efforts in the Bay Area

Bay Area counties and non-profit organizations are preparing for the 2020 Census by canvassing neighborhoods to make address lists more complete and recruiting “trusted messengers” like priests and community organizers to encourage hard-to-count populations to respond to the census.

A version of this story was first published on KQED.org.

For the past three years, Victor Manuel Escobar Rivas has lived in a trailer on a shaded road in Mountain View. His “trailita,” as he calls it, is one of more than 30 mobile homes that extend down the block in a half-mile-long line of grey metal.

Escobar’s trailer doesn’t have an official address, so he directs people to send letters to a nearby friend. She stops by his trailer to bring him his mail every few days. But while friends and family know to write him at this address, the U.S. Census Bureau doesn’t.

Escobar is one of thousands of Bay Area residents who live in “unconventional housing” and are at risk of being missed in the 2020 Census, which is tasked with counting every person in the nation. Since 2010, soaring Bay Area rents have forced residents to live in garages, sheds, mobile homes, or crowded multi-family apartments.

That’s not the only new challenge when it comes to counting the Bay Area. Nationally, census forms are going online, the federal government has cut the Census Bureau’s budget, and a citizenship question has been under debate. Changes like these make counting the Bay Area’s immigrants, non-English speakers, ethnic minorities, and low-income populations even more difficult.

“California is the hardest state to count,” said Anne Im, a program officer for the Silicon Valley Community Foundation. “We have the highest amount of hard-to-count populations.”

Next March, the Census will mail postcards to addresses across the nation, directing people to fill out the census form online. If a household doesn’t respond after two more mailings, paid enumerators will knock on doors to ask census questions in person.

But already, Bay Area counties and non-profit organizations are preparing by canvassing neighborhoods to make address lists more complete and recruiting “trusted messengers” like priests and community organizers to encourage hard-to-count populations to fill out the census.

Victor Manuel Escobar Rivas used to live in an apartment, but moved into a trailer three years ago. Isabella Jibilian/Peninsula Press

Undercounting could mean losing millions in federal dollars

An undercount could have serious consequences. For each person missed, a county loses an estimated $2,000 in federal funding annually. Since the 2010 census, San Jose lost out on $200 million in federal money, according to Mayor Sam Liccardo.

The census also determines California’s political representation. Though the Public Policy Institute predicts that California’s population is on track to keep 53 seats in the U.S. House, an undercount could drop that down to 52 seats.

The 1990 census, widely considered to be a flub, missed approximately 4 million people. It cost California $2 billion in federal funding and a seat in Congress, according to the Legislative Analyst’s Office.

Census data is used to allocate federal funding for a variety of public programs, including: medical assistance, like Medi-Cal and coverage for uninsured children, nutrition assistance like the National School Lunch program, and housing assistance like Section 8 and foster care. An undercount in California could decrease their budgets.

“Imagine longer waits at the hospital, in the ER waiting room, if there’s less funding for hospitals. Imagine less money for Head Start program. Imagine more potholes on our freeways… Imagine playground equipment not being updated because we don’t have as much money for parks…. Imagine less money for public housing for the Bay Area, because people are not getting counted,” said Perla Ni, CEO of CommunityConnect Labs, a nonprofit that works with census outreach.

Census Bureau and local governments recruit “Trusted Messengers”

The low tones of a bass and the chords of a keyboard float across the concrete of an industrial park in East Palo Alto. Round a corner, open the glass doors, and you’ve arrived at Saint Samuel COGIC Church. Inside, it’s a simple affair: red cushioned chairs instead of pews, an altar, and a blocky wooden cross that looks like it weighs at least a hundred pounds.

A young man plays the piano and sings, and an older man plays the bass guitar. Lyrics to a hymn glow on a projector screen. To the left, the church mother sings.

Pastor Paul Bains presides here, and he’s playing the drums. He’s a warm and confident man, a self-professed “hugger” who wears a blue tie and black-rimmed glasses.

When it’s time for announcements, Bains stands at the altar, looking out at his congregation. “When you get a knock on the door,” he says, rapping his knuckles on the altar three times for emphasis, “you’ve got to make sure to get counted.”

Bains is one of many “trusted messengers” for the 2020 census, a network of local leaders who have been tapped to tell their communities to respond to the census and dispel fear.

Pastor Paul Bains in his office in East Palo Alto. Bains served as a trusted messenger for the 2010
census, and continues to do outreach for the upcoming 2020 census. Isabella Jibilian/Peninsula Press

Their work is especially important this time around, because public trust in the government has declined. During the last census, 25 percent of people “trusted the government in Washington always or most of the time.” As of March of this year, that number was down to 17 percent, according to Pew Research Center.

And in the Bay Area, staff at nonprofits are seeing what they describe as unprecedented amounts of fear. People in unconventional housing worry that responding to the census will lead to eviction. Immigrants and their families fear that filling out their information will bring ICE to their door.

“Because of the current political environment, people are wary of providing this information to the government. So it’s doubly necessary to have trusted messengers do that kind of outreach,” said Ni.

In 2010, about 34,000 faith-based organizations, like Bain’s church, partnered with the census to do outreach. But “trusted messengers” can take many forms — librarians, nonprofit workers, teachers, ethnic media.

Bains’ 2020 census message accompanies a discussion of voter suppression. But other trusted messengers tailor their messages differently. Some pitch the importance of federal funding for local programs. Others stress the importance of visibility for their communities.

“The census bureau will really rely on service providers and community organizations … who can be the trusted messenger, rather than a stranger with a government badge,” said Casey Farmer, census lead for Alameda county.

Budget cuts could also impact census

Faced with outreach challenges and the federal funding at stake, the California state government has already appropriated $100.3 million for census outreach. The governor has asked to add another $54 million in funds.

This mobilization is partly in reaction to federal budget cuts at the Census Bureau. Transitions to digital tools — like mapping via satellite, or moving the first wave of census responses online, have saved the Census Bureau money. But these cuts also seek to eliminate expensive field work.

“The U.S. Census Bureau funding has been cut significantly and that will impact particularly their ability to do non-response follow-up,” said Im of the Silicon Valley Community Foundation.

The Census Bureau will hire 200,000 fewer door-to-door enumerators next year, and enumerators will visit addresses only three times if they don’t respond to mailings compared to six in 2010.

The number of census offices across the country have also decreased. California had 50 offices during the 2010 census. Next year, it will only have 24.

Nonprofit and county staff emphasize that field work is essential to reaching hard-to-count communities — people in these groups may not be able to respond online, or may be suspicious of the government or may fear that their information will be misused.

“We’re starting our outreach now, because the Census [Bureau] outreach hasn’t started yet,” said Megan Gosch, census lead for San Mateo County.

“It’s mostly in the strategic development stage,” said Charmaine David Angelo, a partnership specialist for the Census Bureau.

Counties learn how to assess unconventional houses

Victor Manuel Escobar-Rivas is not the only Bay Area resident without a mailbox.

“We have a housing crisis, people are renting whatever they can,” said Julio Garcia, of Nuestra Casa, a community organization in East Palo Alto.

Garcia sees many residents who are shut out of the expensive housing market but are employed in the area. To avoid lengthy commutes, people rent sheds and converted garages. Others get a recreational vehicle and pay to park it in a backyard. Some even rent tents in backyards.

“This is the norm now. It’s not the exception,” said Garcia.

More than 30 mobile homes extend down the block near Rengstorff Park in Mountain View. Isabella Jibilian/Peninsula Press

Megan Gosch flicks through a PowerPoint presentation in a conference room in Redwood City. A white colonial with a red door comes to the screen, captioned, “TRADITIONAL HOUSING.” Another few slides flash by, and another slide shows a trailer sitting in the backyard of a home, captioned, “NON-TRADITIONAL HOUSING.”

In May of 2018, presentations like these were used as part of an effort to canvas neighborhoods for unconventional housing, in order to add them to a master address form. Back in 2018, cities and counties across the nation took part in the Local Update of Census Addresses (LUCA). For cities worried about an undercount, including Houston, Texas, New York, New York, and San Jose, California, canvassing can produce addresses not found elsewhere.

Throughout May and June of 2018, canvassers in San Mateo and Santa Clara counties targeted neighborhoods that were deemed “hard to count.”

They were taught to spot the difference between a garage and an inhabited garage. They looked for extra doorbells, satellite dishes or drapes in the windows. From the sidewalk, they checked to see if power lines from the main house extended to the extra unit, or even looked to see if they can see children’s drawings through the windows.

In Santa Clara County, canvassers added 3,100 addresses to the list. In San Mateo county, they added 1,915. And in East Palo Alto alone, they found 701 units.

But canvassing efforts cannot find all forms of unconventional housing. For one, apartments that seem traditional from the outside might house multiple families.

“People are sharing their apartments. I don’t know if those people are going to get counted or not,” said Garcia.

Two or three families with kids might share a one-bedroom apartment. That’s about 15 people, in an apartment designed for one or two, explained Garcia.

And even if a census form arrives in their mailbox, or an enumerator shows up at their door, tenants fear that a landlord could discover their sublease.

“The fear is that you are going to get evicted if the landlord finds out how many people are living there…. And then where do you go?,” said Garcia.

Anxieties plague many other forms of unconventional housing too. Those residing in illegal garage conversions or R.V.’s in backyards worry about being fined or evicted.

“We need to remind people of that Title 13 of the U.S. Code prohibits any other governmental agency from accessing your information, so the local planning department will have zero access to your information,” said Farmer, census lead for Alameda County.

To count people who live homeless encampments, shelters or trailers parked on the road, like Escobar, the county has a different strategy. The county will conduct a publicity campaign and outreach by trusted messengers. In 2020, cities will conduct a “point in time count,” in which canvassers walk the streets in the middle of the night, counting whoever they see.

California’s immigrant residents fear responding to the census

In April, Marcos Gutierrez, host of “Hecho in California” on KIQI, a San Francisco Spanish-language radio station, received a tearful call.

An older woman told the host she had received a questionnaire in the mail. Between sobs, she explained that she had completed and returned the form. Anxiously, she asked if it was the 2020 census.

“She was concerned that she would be ‘given away,” said a KIQI staff member. “She was very upset.”

There’s been ongoing debate whether the federal government can ask a person about citizenship status on the census. On Thursday, the Supreme Court blocked the Trump Administration from including the question in the 2020 census, for now.  The case was sent back to lower courts for more proceedings.

If the deadline for finalizing the form is July 1, as census officials have stated, then the citizenship question won’t be on it.  But other government filings have listed October 31 as the deadline, making the future of the citizenship question uncertain.

“Regardless of whether the citizenship question is on the form or not, the damage has already been done,” said Geraldine Alcid, executive director of Filipino Advocates for Justice.

Anti-immigrant sentiment and media reports about the citizenship question have caused “unprecedented” levels of fear, according to Julia Marks, attorney for Asian Americans Advancing Justice.  These worries may suppress responses among immigrant populations, even if the citizenship question is not on 2020 census forms.

This issue could have broad impact in the Bay Area.  In 2017, immigrants comprised of more than one-third of the population in San Francisco, San Mateo, Santa Clara, and Alameda counties, according to the American Community Survey.

Following anti-immigrant policies like the travel ban of for people coming from Muslim-majority countries, repeal of DACA, increase in border enforcement, and decreased paths to family reunification and legal citizenship, Filipinos “were driven back into the shadows,” said Alcid.

Julio Garcia of Nuestra Casa has seen this phenomenon too.

“We notice that people are not going to clinics, people are not going to food banks, they’re not going anywhere,” Garcia said. “That’s a community that is trying to hide.”’

Legal residents, be they green-card holders or citizens, may also choose not to respond to the census if they live in a mixed-citizenship household.

“We have not only thousands of immigrants…throughout the Bay, but many people live with an immigrant and they have concerns about participating at all… if it would create any sort of fear or any sort of risk for that for that non-citizen that lives in their household,” said Casey Farmer, census lead for Alameda County.

There has also been an uptick in ICE enforcement over the last few months, according to Hamid Yazdan Panah, Advocacy Director for the California Collaborative for Immigrant Justice. In the Bay Area, “ICE enforcement happens on a daily basis,” said Panah.

In response, organizations like Nuestra Casa regularly distribute “red cards” to undocumented immigrants that assert their constitutional rights. The first bullet point on many red cards reads, “NO ABRA LA PUERTA.” Don’t open the door. The second bullet point on many red cards reads, “NO CONTESTE NINGUNA PREGUNTA.” Don’t answer any questions.

These cards provide excellent advice to an undocumented immigrant if ICE is knocking at their door. But if it’s a census enumerator, this advice makes counting near impossible. Community organizations that work with immigrants now must contend with the distinction: don’t open your door to ICE, but open your door to an enumerator.

So Nuestra Casa will encourage immigrants to respond to census mailings, so enumerators don’t need to come knocking.

“It’s going to be challenging. It’s going to be hard,” said Im. “There’s going to have to be a lot of people working together from every sector, from nonprofits and philanthropy to business to the faith communities. This is going to be an all-hands-on-deck effort.”

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