Michele Silverthorn takes part in a census training at the Jackie Robinson YMCA before coronavirus restrictions went into place. / Photo courtesy of the Count Me 2020 Coalition and CeCe Cantón

San Diego for months had been in the midst of a major push to ensure its many hard-to-count populations take part in the one-a-decade U.S. census. Now, many of those outreach efforts have been suspended amid the coronavirus pandemic, worrying officials and activists that San Diego could miss out on badly needed resources pegged to the census count.

Community organizations, municipalities and state agencies have been investing time and money – more than $3 million— to prevent an undercount of the region’s population, which would carry major consequences in future funding and resources for the San Diego. The county has even gotten involved in the census count for the first time.

The federal government uses census figures to calculate everything from how much money from various programs should go to state and local governments to how many congressional representatives a region should have. But the coronavirus pandemic and the restrictions on in-person interactions that have been put in place to quell its spread have forced organizations that do census outreach – by educating and encouraging communities that are often undercounted to fill out their census forms – to re-think their strategies. Many are worried that required social distancing could result in undercounts of certain communities.

San Diego and Imperial counties are already considered to be harder-to-count areas. The region has large numbers Latinos, immigrants, renters and children under 5 years old.

“We want to make sure all our San Diegans are safe,” said Michele Silverthorn, of the United Way San Diego and Count Me 2020, a non-partisan coalition working on the census. “Anything we’re doing face to face has been postponed.”

For now, the Census Bureau is encouraging as many people as possible to fill out the form online at 2020Census.gov. If you don’t have internet access, you can do it by calling 844-330-2020.

On March 12, Census mailings began right as San Diego County began mandating public health orders requiring social distancing and limiting large groups of people to flatten the coronavirus curve.

Since then, the restrictions have tightened further, forcing delays, new strategies and general concern that hard-to-reach communities that usually need in-person outreach to ensure they fill out the census will be left out.

The Census Bureau suspended field operations for two weeks out of concern about the health and safety of its workers and the U.S. public from the novel coronavirus. The decision to suspend field operations came just a few days after the Census Bureau announced it would delay sending out census takers to count students in off-campus housing and postpone sending workers to grocery stores and houses of worship where they help people fill out the questionnaire. The deadline for ending the Census at the end of July hasn’t yet been altered, but the bureau has indicated that it’s a possibility.

Locally, the census count of homeless individuals, which is done in person has been delayed from the end of March to April 29 to May 1, said David Bennett, a spokesman for the Census Bureau in San Diego. They will canvas the unsheltered population in the street the night of April 30th.

In City Heights, organizers and volunteers with Mid City-CAN had planned to canvas door to door to ensure the neighborhood’s many immigrants and refugees filled out their census forms for them and their young children. Then suddenly they had to re-think how to reach the community.

Griselda Ramirez, director of civic engagement at Mid City-CAN, said they eventually decided to move to phone banking, but she’s worried they still won’t reach everyone.

“We definitely had to change strategies overnight,” Ramirez said. “Our initial plan was to knock on every door in City Heights.”

City Heights has an undercount risk of 83,000 – basically the entire community – Ramirez said.

“That’s because of access,” she said. “There are over 80 dialects and languages and it’s a community made up of youths and young children. Pretty much the entirety of the community is made up of the immigrants, refugees, undocumented folks and children 0-5. A lot of people who are scared to give information to the government right now.”

Ramirez said since Mid City-CAN has worked so hard to build trust in the community, it’s getting a good response through phone calls, but its workers are getting people’s phone numbers through voter registration information, which doesn’t include many of the people they’re trying to reach.

They’re planning to put up banners soon that they hope will remind people who they haven’t been able to reach by phone to fill out the census forms.

Silverthorn said outreach efforts are largely moving online.

But JoAnn Fields, who is working on getting San Diegans who are Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders to fill out the census, said she has also had to shift to thinking about digital marketing, but there are a lot of older folks who they won’t be able to reach through the internet.

Fields had several in-person trainings and census booths planned. She was supposed to have a training with leaders of community organizations that work with the Asian American and Pacific Islander  community at a restaurant in National City on March 15.

“We pushed it to the limit,” Fields said. “We downsized. We said we’d have less than 50 people so we could follow the six-foot distance rule.”

But like with virtually every planned gathering in the region, it was ultimately canceled.

Fields spent months creating a plan to reach members of the Asian American and Pacific Islander community in San Diego to educate and encourage them to fill out the census. She’d planned booths at the Chamorro Cultural Festival, the Hawaiian Shaka Festival and the Pacific Rim Festival, where they expected to encounter hundreds and thousands of people from those harder-to-reach communities. Now, the Chamorro Festival has been canceled and the status of the others are in question.

“We knew that thousands of people would be at the Chamorro festival,” Fields said. “But now we have to start from scratch.”

Things continue to change daily. When I spoke with Silverthorn on Wednesday, she noted that the county’s Family Resource Centers were still open and had places where people can get more information about the census. But on Thursday, the Family Resource Centers closed to all in-person visitors.

“If anything, this is a resounding reminder of how important the census is,” Silverthorn said. “We need to have proper numbers to have the funding allocations that we need right now during this pandemic.”

Maya was Voice of San Diego’s Associate Editor of Civic Education. She reported on marginalized communities in San Diego and oversees Voice’s explanatory...

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