U.S. Rep Lloyd Doggett has stepped into a dispute between Travis County officials and U.S. census leaders over how the area’s homeless population will be counted for the 2010 census.
For weeks, the groups have been sparring over the times, methods and manpower needed to tally the area’s estimated 4,000 people living in shelters, camps, cars and hotels. But that conflict escalated this week when a census employee called Doggett to say she had been fired for raising concerns about the safety and accuracy of the count.
On Friday, Doggett called U.S. Census Bureau Director Robert Groves in Washington.
“Director Groves promised me he would investigate both the employee’s firing and review the best practices to accurately count the homeless,” Doggett said in a statement Friday.
Census officials across the country plan to count the homeless on three days: On Monday, workers will tally people in shelters. On Tuesday, they’ll count people at mobile food kitchens. And early Wednesday, they’ll head outside to camps and public places such as bridges and sidewalks.
It’s the Wednesday effort that has caused the most friction locally.
That count is planned for midnight to 7 a.m., a time local homeless advocates deem unsafe for census employees. Critics also say the census is not providing enough people or allowing enough time to ensure an accurate count.
“To count thousands of people over seven hours is unrealistic,” said Travis County Constable Bruce Elfant, a member of the Austin-Travis County Complete Count Committee. “This isn’t like going door to door.”
A faulty count would mean losing out on millions of dollars in federal money.
On Friday, Travis County Judge Sam Biscoe and Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell sent a letter to a regional census official detailing their concerns about counting the homeless.
“Your own Census staffers estimate that the homeless population could be undercounted by as much as 40%,” the letter states. “This would mean 1,000 or more homeless residents would not be counted in Travis County, resulting in the loss of more than $15,000,000 to our community.”
Jeff Behler, deputy regional director for the U.S. Census Bureau, said the late-night hours were determined “because, in the research that was done by our staff, it was determined that would be the best time in which that population would be the least transient.”
Local leaders proposed holding an additional daytime event Thursday at the Palmer Events Center with food, music and giveaways for those who came to fill out the census forms. Census leaders said no, Elfant said.
“There appears to be very little wiggle room for communities that want to try innovative things,” Elfant said. “It’s been frustrating.”
Homeless advocates also worry that census takers could get hurt wandering into the greenbelts and wooded areas that late at night. David Gomez, who works with the homeless for Austin Travis County Integral Care, said homeless people could be sleeping, drunk, high on drugs or otherwise impaired.
In a memo obtained by the American-Statesman, U.S. Census Bureau employee Lisa Bayliff agreed.
“There are camps that have barbed wire stretched about 3-4 inches from the ground to trip intruders from easy access,” she wrote. “There are camps that are known meth labs; they have signs posted around the perimeter to warn people to go away … The timing of the operation is flawed and is willingly placing all Census employees at peril.”
Census takers, who will be wearing reflective vests and carrying flashlights, have been told not to wake up sleeping people, Behler said. They will travel in groups, try not to startle people and clearly communicate their intent, Behler said.
Earlier this month, Bayliff took her concerns to the Austin congressman, Doggett spokeswoman Sarah Dohl said.
But this week, Bayliff contacted the office to say she had been fired for speaking to Doggett, Dohl said. That prompted Doggett to call Grove.
Bayliff declined to comment. Jenna Steormann Arnold, spokeswoman for the U.S. Census Bureau in Central Texas, said she could not talk about specifics of the case.
“Yes, she no longer works for the Census Bureau, but since it is a personnel issue that deals with confidential information, we cannot discuss it,” she said.