If everyone in East Multnomah County is not counted in the upcoming 2020 census, the area could lose out on federal funding for local freeway repairs, assistance to people adopting medically fragile children or construction of new housing for the working poor.
So Multnomah County and cities and agencies in East Multnomah County are making a Herculean effort to ensure every single person is counted. Cities and agencies are teaming up with nonprofit and community groups to reach the people who are often the most difficult to count.
"East County is such a vibrant, diverse place and getting an accurate count of our communities is a priority for me," said Lori Stegmann, the Multnomah County Commissioner in charge of the county's census efforts.
For each person counted, she said, Oregon receives about $3,200 in federal funds each year.
"We know investments east of 82nd Avenue have not been sufficient and we need a complete count for services, healthcare, school lunches and so much more," she said.
The census determines how the approximately $900 billion in federal funds is divvied up.
Plus, the every 10-year count dictates how many delegates a state gets in Congress. With Oregon's population growth, it is expected the state will get a sixth Congressional seat after the tally is in.
Census data is also used to determine representation in the Oregon Legislature. This could produce some big changes in the statehouse as population in Oregon has shifted and grown in some areas in the 10 years since the last census.
"It's really critical in the federal funding we receive and it produces critical data for local decision making. It's very important," Elizabeth Coffey, communications manager for the city of Gresham, said of the census.
Blanca Gaytan Farfan, census equity coordinator for community group East County Rising, noted "Everyone is eligible to fill out the census. As long as they are living here, they should be counted."
Farfan said East County Rising is one of 12 groups that has partnered with the state level census effort and ECR's campaign will center on "groups that are in hard to count communities," such as immigrants, rural residents, children under 5 years old, renters and people of color.
Farfan has already done 17 presentations at schools, community groups and churches. Fluent in Spanish, she has done workshops in Spanish for groups more comfortable using that language.
Because East County is so diverse — 71 languages are spoken in the Reynolds School District alone — the nonprofit groups are identifying community leaders who can deliver information to the many cultures and languages represented. Those efforts might include meetings, newsletters, posters and advertising and also phone banking and visiting homes. These folks are not official census takers, however, and are called enumerators.
Fairview and Wood Village have teamed up and hired Cristal Otero as their census coordinator.
Otero is scheduling informational events in several neighborhoods, as well as schools, and plans to incorporate census information in local community events such as the popular Wood Village Easter egg hunt, for example.
Computers will be set up March 16 at both Fairview and Wood Village city halls that people can use to fill out their census forms. There will be a booklet available there to translate the questions into 59 languages and braille.
Alex Logue, community engagement specialist for Gresham, said working with the state and Multnomah County means that there will be common messaging about the census.
Multnomah County has outfitted three vans as mobile census centers and they will fan out across the county to events. The vans will have computer tablets to allow people to step up and fill out the census right then and there.
Nonprofit organization Play Grow Learn hopes to have a county census van at their spring break camps for kids so busy parents can fill out the census when they drop off or pick up their kids at camp.
Other census partners include Latino Network, Slavic Family, IRCO, APANO and Beyond Black.
A census van is planned for the Troutdale Summer Fest.
Census data is used locally for planning.
"A lot of people think the city has its own data, but we use census data for planning. We pull census data for city projects like where to place or improve parks, the same with roads," Gresham's Coffey said.
Census data is used for planning local evacuation protocols and emergency preparedness, Coffee added.
The numbers are used to decide where bus stops should go and if street lights are needed.
East County needs to do better with the census than the last time around.
Otero noted that in the last census in 2010, Fairview and Wood Village were in a census tract that, at 63% participation, had the lowest response rate in Multnomah County and third lowest of the 834 tracts in the state.
East County has many folks who are traditionally undercounted. There are a lot of folks whose first language is not English and others who mistrust the government.
There is no citizenship question on the forms, but some undocumented people fear responding to the census could jeopardize their situation, census experts said.
Unhoused people present another kind of challenge. The census will focus on these folks on March 30, 31 and April 1 nationally and locally. Organizations working with people who are homeless will be tapped to help and on April 1, there will be a "camp count" of unhoused folks.
The count of everyone in the country every 10 years is mandated by the U.S. Constitution.
The 2020 census is the first year that people can fill out their forms online.
Around March 12, every household will get a mailing from the U.S. Census Bureau with instructions to visit the website and fill out the 12 question form. If the form isn't filled out online, the Census Bureau will send three reminder letters.
If that doesn't work, the Bureau will send a paper census form to be filled out and mailed. If that gets no response, a fifth letter will be sent informing the household that a census worker, called an enumerator, will come to the home. They'll visit three times and if they get no response, will go to a neighbor to get the best information they can. The census concludes at the end of July.
Otero said the census is a complex process that takes a lot of planning to make sure everyone is counted. "There are a lot of moving parts."
But all agree it is imperative everyone step up and be tallied.
Said Coffey: "We are a stronger community when we are all counted."
Want to help?
The Multnomah County Library and other agencies are recruiting volunteers to help folks with their census forms and they especially need folks who speak Spanish, Vietnamese, Mandarin, Cantonese, Russian, Somali and Arabic.
Volunteers are needed at East Multnomah County's four library branches: Fairview-Columbia Library, Gresham Library, Rockwood Library and Troutdale Library.
Library volunteers will get 90 minutes of training and then do a two hour shift every week or every other week in April and May.
To volunteer at the library you must be 18 years old or older and enjoy working with diverse people. You must have a strong commitment to patron confidentiality, be comfortable with computers and have good customer service skills.
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