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Community Leaders Step In To Make Sure Everyone Gets Counted In U.S. Census

States around the country are preparing for the big census count that happens just once a decade. In Ohio, Census leaders discuss their plans to reach out to people most at risk of going uncounted.

As Michelle Heritage walks through the corridors of the YWCA Family Shelter in Columbus, she shares her ultimate vision for Franklin County.

"We want the best use of our resources we have to make sure the bottom's able. Nobody in this community should be hungry or homeless," says Heritage, executive director of the Community Shelter Board.

She's leading the charge in making sure people who are homeless in Franklin County are still counted when the Census is taken. There were more than 10,000 people who were homeless in Ohio last year, according to a count taken by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development last January.

Getting an accurate count of the homeless population can be among the biggest challenges every ten years. So groups that work closely with people who are homeless will help lead the way.

"They know where people are located. They know if we've got camps where they're located, they also know where people who are unsheltered may be congregating in certain spaces, maybe at a soup kitchen. If people are using particular library branches, for example. And so it's really important that we communicate," Heritage says.

Carol Hector-Harris, U.S. Census Bureau media specialist for Ohio, says there are several groups of people that will be counted through different enumeration efforts. That includes a special count for people in nursing homes, prisons, and colleges.

"We are mandated by the constitution to count everyone. So we are planning once again this decade, as of April 1st this year, to count everyone once and only once and in the right place," Hector-Harris says.

The population count is tied to federal funding and representation in Congress. Ohio is already predicted to lose at least one seat in the U.S. House based on the next Census numbers.

"Those things are very, very important that's where our voices are heard also. So we want to make sure that everyone's voice is involved. Everyone needs to be counted," says Hector-Harris.

She makes a special note to make sure people add their children to the Census form, children went undercounted in 2010. Hector-Harris also urges that the form will not have a question about a person's citizenship status, an idea that was pushed by the Trump Administration but was ultimately rejected.

The bureau is running ads to help recruit more people to take a job with the Census this year. Hector-Harris says these jobs can be crucial to helping get an accurate count, and can be more than just walking around and knocking on doors.

"Seniors in the community, didn't want to apply because they thought, 'oh, my legs can't take walking from door to door.' Those are not the only jobs that we have. But people associate those jobs with the Census Bureau. And we do have those. But that's not it. We have jobs for people with I.T. skills, people with recruiting skills, clerks, supervisors," Hector-Harris says.

This year, for the first time ever, the Census can be completed online. Hector-Harris says this will hopefully reduce the need for a lot of door-to-door counts later in the year.

As for Heritage, the Census in Ohio can mean more than just getting an accurate head count.

"When I talk to folks that are experiencing homelessness, especially if they've been homeless long term. The word they use with me, the feeling that they have is 'invisible.' They feel disconnected from the rest of us. And they're having the experience that most of us can't even get our heads around. And so to be part of this and to be treated like every other citizen, that they're important and that they're enumerated. It does mean something to them," Heritage says.

Along with the availability of an online Census, people can also fill out a paper form or do it by phone.

Copyright 2021 The Statehouse News Bureau. To see more, visit The Statehouse News Bureau.

Andy Chow is a general assignment state government reporter who focuses on environmental, energy, agriculture, and education-related issues. He started his journalism career as an associate producer with ABC 6/FOX 28 in Columbus before becoming a producer with WBNS 10TV.