'Intrigue' Visits Local Census Effort

Data on homeless count remains a mystery until next year

Bruce Elfant co-chairs the Austin-Travis County  Complete Count Committee.
Bruce Elfant co-chairs the Austin-Travis County Complete Count Committee. (Courtesy of Travis County)

The results of a three-day head count of Austin's homeless population will be kept under wraps until 2011, Austin and Travis County officials were surprised to learn this week. And that's just one of the frustrations involved in trying to gauge how well the county will fare in the 2010 census effort, which will determine the local share of $400 billion in federal dollars to pay for community necessities like schools, social services, roads, and hospitals.

So far, the census landscape is pretty bleak in these parts. In the latest update, Austin ranked 34th among cities of similar size whose residents had mailed in their 2010 census forms, with a 52% return rate, compared to the national average of 62%. Travis lags behind other major Texas counties. Up the road, Williamson County showed a 58% participation rate as of Wednesday.

Constable Bruce Elfant, who co-chairs the Austin-Travis County Complete Count Committee, had hoped to receive a rundown of the homeless count endeavor April 5, when the committee met for a strategy session. But a local census representative attending the meeting told Elfant he wasn't authorized to release the information. "I said, 'Can you tell me when you will release the information?' And he said March of 2011," Elfant recalled. "This is very frustrating," he said. "Who knew there'd be such intrigue with the census?"

In the three-day homeless count, which began in late March, census employees took a three-pronged approach that included stops at Austin shelters, mobile food kitchens, and an estimated 600 homeless camps. The latter count method drew the most controversy. Advocates for the homeless questioned the wisdom of census workers making unannounced nighttime visits to the campsites. One census employee even lost her job after she contacted the office of U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett to express concerns about the risk involved in going to the camps, according to news reports. Others doubted the accuracy of trying to gather a count at hundreds of sites in just one seven-hour shift. An estimated 4,000 homeless people live in Travis County, and federal funding needed to provide adequate services depends on an accurate count of this population.

A spokeswoman in the Dallas office confirmed that the bureau would not release any information on the three-day endeavor. "We don't release any data that we collect," Jenna Steormann Arnold said. Speaking generally, she said the bureau is mailing out an additional 40 million census forms, targeting foot-dragging regions of the country. She said about 2.3 million forms are headed to households in Texas. As seen on a census participation map (www.2010.census.gov/2010census/take10map), Austin's return rate varies from neighborhood to neighborhood, with areas west of MoPac showing higher participation numbers than other areas of town. House­holds near Far West and Mesa, for example, showed a return rate of 75% on Wednesday; the Allandale neighborhood clocked in at 69%, UT neighborhoods ranged from 33% to 50%, and households east of I-35, such as Central East and far East Austin neighborhoods, averaged about 45%.

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