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Encouraging hard-to-count communities to fill out the Census in the age of COVID-19
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As more activities move to online platforms in a post-COVID-19 world, people facing technology barriers are at risk of being left behind. 

This was the primary motivation for a recent event meant to create awareness about filling out the census within San Francisco’s hard-to-count Latino communities. 

Local staff of the U.S. Census Bureau partnered with SF Rising and the San Francisco Latino Parity and Equity Coalition (SFLPEC)—a group of more than 20 Latino-led and Latino-serving organizations based in San Francisco—to organize a census caravan as a way to bring their message directly to the streets. 

SFLPEC, along with other community organizations, have received grants from the City to get the word out amongst its hard-to-count communities. 

The coalition had to modify their original idea to “throw a fiesta…and get everybody counted and spread the word, boca a boca, hand to hand,” said Jaime Aragón, Services Coordination Manager for Good Samaritan, and SFLPEC co-chair. “That’s not possible now, so we were like, ‘Well, what can we do to keep the census on people’s minds?’”

On June 26, members of various local organizations met outside La Raza Park, exchanging census posters and painter’s tape to decorate their vehicles with messages about the importance of filling out the census. 

“Democracy and participation should be fun,” said Miriam Medellín-Myers, Civic Engagement Coordinator with SF Rising. “I hope it draws attention and creates some momentum around filling the census and makes it less of a scary thing.”

The group mapped a strategic route through the streets of the Mission and Excelsior Districts, where some of the hardest-to-count Latino populations in San Francisco can be found.

As the group of 10 vehicles started on their route, they honked to get attention from pedestrians, sharing messages primarily in Spanish through a bullhorn; “¡Todos debemos completar el censo, para obtener ayuda y recursos para nuestras comunidades!” (“We must all fill out the census, to get help and resources for our communities!”). 

When the vehicles stopped at a red light, drivers would hand out pamphlets with information from their car windows to passersby. As they made their way along 24th Street, then Mission Street all the way to the Excelsior, pedestrians would look up from their phones and smile at the caravan, waving in support.

There are many factors that contribute to the undercounting of Latinos and other communities of color in San Francisco. For undocumented communities, many of whom fear any kind of tracking from government agencies, filling out the census can feel dangerous, and many don’t know that the census doesn’t ask questions about citizenship or immigration status. Some newly arrived immigrants don’t know the census is meant to count them too. 

In addition, gentrification and displacement have forced many families to live in crowded housing or untraditional living arrangements, like garages and basements. These tenants are often not counted as part of the household. Others forget to count newborns or don’t know that minors should be counted.

“For every person that we miss in the count, we don’t get a chunk of federal funding,” said Bret Putnam, partnership specialist for the U.S. Census Bureau based in San Francisco. “It’s very important for communities to get the funding that they deserve.”

Eric Cuentos directs the Parent Partner Program at Mission Graduates, where he works primarily with Latino families helping parents stay involved in their children’s academic life. For Cuentos, who led the caravan with his bullhorn, the impact of undercounting communities is clear. 

“It directly affects both Mission Graduates as an organization that gets public funds to support them, but most importantly, it affects the families themselves,” said Cuentos. “Everything from free and reduced lunch to healthcare options…they have less resources at their disposal.” 

He hopes to use his position at Mission Graduates to raise awareness about the census as a way for the families he works with “to be able to speak for and advocate on the decisions that impact their lives.”

As local COVID-19 testing studies have recently shown, working-class Latinos in San Francisco are disproportionately impacted by the virus. This is especially true for families in crowded living situations and essential workers unable to work from home.

“The Latino population is one of the most impacted and has the highest rate of contracting it,” said Medellín Myers. “If we don’t know who lives in a certain place, how do we get the funding to these communities?”

“We’re fighting for equitable funding and not funding militarization, and funding healthcare, and schools, and social services,” Myers continued. “Taking the census determines how much funding we get, and then the next fight is how we spend it.”

The original deadline to fill out the census has been extended, from July 31 to October 31, due to the disruption to daily life caused by the pandemic. 

“The census is the last thing on people’s minds, especially if you can’t feed yourself or if you’ve lost your job,” said Aragón. “But it is so vital for the upcoming years…we are facing budget cuts … to our most vulnerable communities and if we don’t get counted, it’s just going to compound that need.”

Putnam added, “I think just in general it’s good to stand up and be seen and say ‘I’m here, I’m important, I deserve to be counted.’” 

Filling out the census is easy, it takes about 10 minutes and there are no citizenship or immigration related questions. All residents should complete the census regardless of their immigration status. To complete the census online, visit https://2020census.gov/ 

To complete the census in Spanish visit https://2020census.gov/es.html 

To complete the census by phone, call 844-330-2020. To complete the census by phone in Spanish, call 844-468-2020. 

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