On a Saturday afternoon, a group of Census Ambassadors is meeting at a house in Highland Park.
“Our purpose is to educate the residents that, yes, the Census is upcoming. Yes, it is very important, yes, these are the reasons that it should be important to you,” says Maria Thomas, the outreach and organizing coordinator for Soulardarity, the group working with these Ambassadors alongside the Highland Park Community Census Count Committee.
Soulardarity is just one of more than 30 organizations in metro Detroit receiving funding from the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan for Census organizing. Thomas says the non-profit is coordinating this outreach in Highland Park because the city was under-counted in the 2010 Census. As a result, the small, financially strapped city inside Detroit is estimated to have missed out on almost $200 million over the last decade.
“It totals $190 million that the city could have used for SNAP or food stamps, early child development like Head Start, for special education in schools,” says Thomas, just to name a few missed opportunities.
Click on the audio player above to hear from Highland Park Census Ambassadors.
Federal funding for these and other programs is determined by formulas that rely on Census statistics. An accurate count ensures communities get all the money they need for these programs. But certain populations are harder to count than others.
Highland Park is Hard to Count
Detroit has been named the most-difficult-to-count city in America. Places like Grand Rapids, Marquette and Benton Harbor are also expected to be difficult to count. So is Highland Park.
Highland Park has been deemed hard to count, in part, because it has a lot of renters, low-income people and African Americans. Census research shows short term renters are difficult to count because they move around. African Americans can be difficult to count, research shows, because of fear of legal aspects of being counted. Low-income people, research says, are hard to count because they are more likely to have unstable housing and are likely to be people of color.
This is where the Census Ambassadors come in. They’re locals who’ve been hired to tell their neighbors that the Census is coming and that they should participate.
“Highland Park is a tight-knit community. You have to have people in the community who residents are familiar with because of that,” says Anistia Thomas, chair of the Highland Park Community Census Count Committee. “Our ambassadors are actual residents of Highland Park. They are community leaders. The residents know who they are, they’re familiar with them.”
“Highland Park is a tight knit community. You have to have people in the community who residents are familiar with because of that,” — Anistia Thomas, chair of the Highland Park Community Census Count Committee.
Today the Census Ambassadors are meeting at the Soulardarity headquarters before they head out to knock on doors. Elene Robinson, former Highland Park mayoral candidate, is one of them.
“I’m here because I’m a lifelong citizen of Highland Park and I know how this money does affect our city. We’re a city that’s been left behind, been forgotten, and I want to make sure that we’re seen and we’re heard and we’re counted,” says Robinson.
Highland Park resident Rosalind Baker is also one of the Ambassadors. She says she applied after learning that Highland Park didn’t receive the money that it should have received. “I think that’s very important because there are a lot of programs that Highland Park is missing out on and we have every right to receive that money,” says Baker.
Once everyone arrives, the Ambassadors test out the tablets they’ll be using and hit the road.
The Census Ambassadors Knock on Doors
Robinson and Baker end up being partnered up. As they get out of their car on the city’s Southern-most street there’s a light drizzle.
“Of course the rain would come, it wasn’t supposed to come until like 4 o’clock,” says Robinson.
Tennyson Street is mostly made up of brick and wood two-story craftsmen homes. With pamphlets and the tablet in tow, Robinson and Baker knock on a door. A child answers.
“Good afternoon is your mommy home?” Robinson asks.
“Only my grandma,” the little girl replies softly.
“Can I speak to your grandma?” Robinson asks.
The little girl leaves, comes back and tells the two women standing on her porch, “She says she can’t come to the door right now.”
Ideally, the Census Ambassadors will get to talk to residents about the money at stake. But when that doesn’t happen they leave behind a pamphlet.
The Ambassadors are also working to help the Census Bureau update its mailing records. On the tablet, they note whether a house looks occupied. That can be hard when a house doesn’t have any address numbers. This keeps happening. Robinson vents to Baker, “go to ACE Hardware and buy an address and stick it on your house! Goodness gracious!”
Further on, the pair approach a house with a lot of debris on the porch and a cracked front window.
“Is it occupied? I don’t know,” Robinson sighs.
At one point, before the pair can even make it onto a property, a woman pokes her head out from behind her front door. Robinson greets her. “How ya doing?”
The woman keeps hiding.
“We’re doing the Census Bureau, you don’t want to be… informed?” asks Robinson.
The lady fans her away.
Fear is another reason why some communities are hard to count. Sometimes it’s a lack of trust in Government, or a resident may be hiding something. They might use a false address for auto insurance, or maybe they collect benefits for a child who no longer lives with them. Sometimes it has to do with child support.
“They don’t want to give their information. But they have to know this information is sealed for 70 years,” says Robinson. The “72-Year Rule” bars the government from releasing any personally identifiable information about people in the census for 72 years, unless requested by the person named on the record or their heir.
Robinson and Baker Talk to Only One Occupant
Out of roughly 30 houses, and more than an hour of canvassing, these two Census Ambassadors end up talking with only one actual occupant.
When they approach the house, there’s someone yelling from inside. Robinson can’t make out what they’re saying.
“Did he tell us to get out of here?” she says to Baker. “Cuz we should run.”
The pair are laughing about this when the door swings open. It’s an adult male. Robinson explains that she and Baker are Ambassadors with the Census Bureau.
“Oh okay. It wasn’t that serious,” the man says.
“So we want to make sure that we’re counted,” says Robinson, “people in Highland Park, we weren’t counted in the last census. So we missed out on $190 million dollars a year,” she tells him.
“I didn’t know that,” he responds.
“We’re going to make sure we hit every block even if there’s only one home on that block because we’re going to make sure everybody is counted and everyone is informed,” —Elene Robsinson, Census Ambassador
They talk a little longer and before Robinson and Baker take off, the man says, “It’s good that you all are doing that.”
After the end of their second block, the pair finally decide to turn back.
“The rain is getting us so we’re going to call it a day,” says Robinson. “We didn’t get a chance to speak to a lot of people… however we were able to leave a lot of literature out.”
Robinson acknowledges that it’s a little harder for the Ambassadors to accomplish their goal when hardly anyone answers their door. But she remains committed.
“We’re going to make sure we hit every block even if there’s only one home on that block because we’re going to make sure everybody is counted and everyone is informed,” she says. “We want to make sure that we do our part and hopefully they’ll do their part and fill out that Census paper and get counted.”
When the Actual Count Begins
Households in Highland Park and across the nation will begin getting official Census information in the mail during mid-to-late March. By April 1, every house in the country should have received an invitation to participate in the 2020 Census. Households can fill out their forms the old-fashioned way, on paper and then send them in the mail. Or they can give Census information over the phone, or fill out a form online.
Because internet access is low in Highland Park, after April 1, Census Ambassadors will be coming around with tablets that residents can use, if they’d like.
“We’re doing more of a VIP delivery where we’re being more intentional and going door-to-door and providing that for a person,” says Anistia Thomas. The Highland Park Community Census Count Committee worked to identify eleven locations that will provide free internet access for residents to use starting in March. They are the Ernest T. Ford Recreation Center, City of Highland Park City Hall, Avalon Village, Wayne Metro Highland Park, Parker Village, Michigan Works Highland Park, Gabrielle Apartments and Townhomes, Bella Vista Glen Senior Apartments, Manchester Place Apartments and Glendale Buena Vista Apartments.