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033010 census at the pov kw.jpg
David Bishop talks with a Census Bureau worker Monday at Missoula’s Poverello Center during the lunch hour. Census workers were at the homeless shelter to count and interview people who have no home. Photo by KURT WILSON/Missoulian

He said his name is John Tucker, but that's in doubt because of what he said next.

"I didn't give him my real name," said Tucker, who has no address and was grabbing lunch at the Poverello Center on Monday when he was approached by a Census Bureau worker.

Providing false information to a Census worker, or on a Census form, is punishable by a fine of up to $500, but when it comes to America's homeless, any information is good information.

Counting the U.S. population every 10 years, which is required by the Constitution, is a difficult job - but especially so for Census workers who have to count people who have no home.

The Census Bureau's Service-Based Enumeration program works with soup kitchens, homeless shelters and other institutions to find and count as many homeless Americans as it can.

"These are Americans and they deserve to be counted, and we are doing our best to count them," said Bill Knowles, a retired University of Montana broadcast journalism professor and manager of the 12-county Missoula Census office.

From midnight Tuesday to 7 a.m. Wednesday, a bevy of Knowles' Census canvassers will spread out over the region, visiting homeless camps and other off-the-grid places where the poor congregate, using information from shelters, law enforcement and other institutions that keep loose tabs on the homeless.

Earlier on Monday, the Census visited the Salcido Center downtown, a drop-in center for Missoula's homeless, before organizing outside the Pov. The workers, who are trained not to speak to the media, were expected to be there all day.

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Eran Fowler, the Pov's director of operations, began working with the Census Bureau around two months ago to figure out the best way to get a head count.

Because of run-ins with the law, substance-abuse issues and some mental illness, some homeless people are very distrustful of the government, especially when its agents are trying to get personal information from them.

"Homeless people are required to give a lot of personal information on a regular basis to get their benefits," said Fowler.

Count Tucker as one who doesn't like the government asking him a lot of questions.

"As far as conspiracy theories go," he said, "I don't give them a whole lot of weight. But this (information) could be used for evil."

Both the Pov and the Census have tried to remind folks that any information is entirely confidential, and that the federal allocation of money for programs like the Poverello Center and others that serve the homeless is dependent on getting a good head count.

"Counting the least among us will matter for Montanans in our future efforts to access federal dollars," said Pov director Ellie Hill.

Beyond their constitutional employment in determining apportionment in the U.S. House of Representatives, Census figures - like it or not - are used for hundreds of purposes, many of them tied to federal money.

"It's all about federal dollars," said Knowles.

It isn't just America's homeless population that needs the reminder, he said. Many people simply don't want to fill in their forms, much less be visited by a Census worker.

"The point that many people miss is that the road they drive on that runs right past their gate that says ‘No Trespassing' was probably 85 percent repaired by federal dollars," Knowles said.

Reporter Jamie Kelly can be reached at 523-5254 or at jkelly@missoulian.com.

 

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