Who counts?

The new 2010 census is coming up.  For those who don’t know this is the decennial process by which the U.S. government determines (1) how many people live in the U.S., and (2) how to properly apportion Congressional representatives to across the country.  The census in New Orleans this year, 4 years and 8 months after Katrina, will be an interesting exercise.  Let me offer one example.

Census blocks – the geographic subunits of physical space within which individuals are counted – cover all the landmass of New Orleans.  While you would expect them to include residential blocks (they do), you might not expect them to count medians and neutral grounds (they do), parks (they do), commercial office spaces (they do), or school buildings (they do).  Hmmmmm, school buildings… well we’ve got a lot of those that are abandoned, and they tend to be some of our favorite stops.

We happened to pass back by a few school buildings in the last week, just on a hunch.  We usually do our work by scouting a building before dark, finding the places people sleep (bedrolls) and then showing back up after dark (11pm is usually a good time) and introducing ourselves.  This is because squatters generally don’t stay in the buildings during the day, and we don’t feel comfortable walking in for the first time when we can’t see – flashlights work a lot better when you can compare the shapes the beam is illuminating with your memory from the earlier daylight trip.

Back to our school buildings.  During daylight hours (when we almost never meet people in buildings) we met two different squatters in two different buildings.  At a third school building, three clients whom we’re actively working on the cases of were not in as we passed through.  Call that a minimum of 5 squatters we have direct knowledge of in 3 school buildings we’ve been through in the last three working days.  That doesn’t count the six squatters we met in an abandoned hospital or the one we met in an abandoned office building.

The guy in the office building asked Mike and I if he was “going to die here” in this abandoned office building.  Mike thought the comment was a bit melodramatic.  I’m so used to questions like that I hardly heard it. “Hopefully not” is the only response I’ve got for questions like that.

Back to the census.  I’ve heard the current U.S. population is estimated at 300,000,000 or a little more.  There are 435 representatives in the House.  That means that to get one representative a region must count as roughly 689,655 people (300,000,000/435=689,655.1…).  Wait, let’s not forget that the 599,657 people listed as living in the District of Colombia don’t count (hence the “Taxation Without Representation” license plates… personally my  favorite license plates) meaning we divide not 300,000,000 but 299,400,343 by 435 to arrive at a necessary headcount of 688,277 in order to get one congressional representative.

Looking at those staggering numbers, does it matter whether the five squatters I met in the school buildings, the six in the hospital or the one who asked me if he is going to die here… Well, do they count?  Let’s be blunt, I’m kind of sick of the P.C., all-inclusive statements social workers (which I’m not) and politicians (which I’m not) generally hand me when I ask this question… Don’t tell me it matters if you can’t help and/or house the person I’m bringing you.  Just say “no” and be honest about it.

So again, do they count?  Do the thousands of homeless people in New Orleans (and the rest of the country) often hidden from our eyes matter when it comes to the census and the apportionment of representatives?  Against a number like 688,277 it might seem like they don’t – what are 11,500 homeless people against a number like 688,277? A few drops in the bucket? 

Tell you what: 11,500 is a lot more than 1.  And 1 is all you are as you read this.  If you think you count in this representative democratic experiment we call the U.S. you’d better hope that 11,500 people count (and that they get counted).  So here’s to the good men and women of the Census Bureau and my hope that they manage to find not just you in your home on April 1st, but also that they wander the abandoned schools, hospitals, homes, and commercial/industrial spaces after dark to find the thousands who squat there.  The value of your (and their) vote – its relative strength within the U.S. Congress – may just count on it.


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1 Comment

  • Laura

    February 11, 2010 2:02 pm

    Thank you so much for writing this. The “Just say no and be honest about it” line expresses so much of what I’ve been trying to say.

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