LOGAN SQUARE — Across Chicago, organizers urging residents to fill out the census are speeding up their outreach after the federal government announced it’s cutting short all surveying work by one month.
The Census Bureau will stop going door to door to get people to fill out the census Sept. 30 rather than Oct. 31, as originally planned.
That means organizers here are facing a daunting task with a shortened deadline, as city data shows more than 40 percent of Chicagoans have yet to fill out the census.
With the new deadline, and the coronavirus pandemic already stymying traditional outreach work, volunteers are worried they won’t be able to reach as many residents in resource-starved neighborhoods — and the city will lose critical federal funding as a result.
“I think it’s a travesty,” said Walter Jones, executive director for the West Garfield Park-based organization Fathers Who Care. “We only do the census every 10 years, and for folks who are in dire straits in some of these urban communities, it’s important to get appropriate resources.”
For months, Jones has worked around the clock to make sure residents in “hard to count” neighborhoods like West Garfield Park, Austin and Englewood are tallied, doing a mix of door knocking, events and phone banking. Sometimes he doesn’t stop working until 10 p.m.
Jones said his organization is doubling its outreach efforts after the announcement. Many Chicago organizations are doing the same despite limited resources.
“We have to go out, put on our [personal protective equipment] and do the best we can to make it happen,” Jones said.
‘You Have To Build Trust With Folks’
Census completion is important because it’s tied to billions of dollars in federal funding. Lawmakers and agencies use the population count to determine how much funding to allocate to things like hospitals, schools and roads.
Illinois risks losing $195 million per year for each 1 percent of the population undercounted, according to state officials. The state could also lose two congressional seats to census-based redistricting.
Filling out the census is one of the quickest ways help underfunded neighborhoods receive more resources, officials have said.
“The census isn’t just about tallying our city’s population; it’s about making sure we have the resources we need to make sure investments happen all over this city,” Mayor Lori Lightfoot said in July. “We’ve got a lot to lose, but it’s important we get this done and get it done as quickly as possible.”
Connecting with residents to encourage them to complete the survey this year has been especially difficult. The ongoing pandemic meant door-to-door surveying and in-person events had to be postponed to stop the spread of the virus.
Participation rates have lagged in predominately Latino neighborhoods, where deportation fears are running high because of President Donald Trump’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement operations.
“By shortening the timeline, it’s made our work nothing but harder,” said David Louradis, civic engagement and policy manager at the Resurrection Project. “We are fighting … . This is not the first barrier that has been put in our path. COVID has put everyone [doing census work] on their toes.”
In Little Village, Enlace Chicago is sending out census promoters and young people to canvass the neighborhood. They’re also setting up tables at food pantries and community gathering spaces.
It’s been difficult to reach families who are struggling with the economic fallout of the pandemic, said Cesar Nunez, director of organizing at Enlace.
“The census isn’t on top of anyone’s priority right now. People are just trying to survive,” he said.
That’s why they’re meeting people where they’re at: grocery stores, panaderias, laundromats, food pantries, the alderman’s office and farmers markets, Nunez said.
“It’s crunch time now. We have two months to make sure families are counted,” Nunez said.
Organizers across Chicago are also devoting time into building relationships with residents who are reluctant to fill out the survey.
Residents of low-income communities like West Garfield Park feel like they’ve been shut out of politics and don’t trust the census because their neighborhood has suffered from years of neglect, said Jones, of Fathers Who Care.
A large part of an outreach worker’s job is to make residents feel comfortable, explain to them why the census is important and answer all of their questions, all of which takes time.
“It’s more than just going out there to do a pop-up here, a pop-up there. You really have to engage with folks. You have to build trust with folks,” Jones said.
Fathers Who Care has eight census outreach workers, but most of them work part-time. Jones said he’d like to get another eight workers on board to meet the federal government’s tight deadline, but they don’t have enough funding to do that.
For now, they’ll have to work with what they’ve got and continue to work at a “feverish” pace, Jones said.
With “all of the work we’ve been currently doing — and believe me, it’s been a lot of work — … it’s disheartening what’s going on,” he said.
The Logan Square Neighborhood Association held a census event in Avondale to encourage residents to fill out the decennial survey. An outreach worker, Teresa Labastida, said she was struck by a conversation she had with a man experiencing homelessness.
The man was hesitant to fill out the survey at first.
“He said, ‘I don’t know if I want to do that. I never received nothing,’” Labastida said.
He changed his mind and filled it out after Labastida took the time to explain why the census is important.
“I said, ‘You know what, you probably use the emergency room. You probably use the shelter. [This] money is going to help you.’ He said, ‘OK, I never thought about that.’
“That’s why we need to be there.”
Subscribe to Block Club Chicago. Every dime we make funds reporting from Chicago’s neighborhoods.