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Census Bureau seeks out Kitsap County's homeless

SILVERDALE — U.S. Census Bureau workers scoured hidden corners of Kitsap County before dawn Wednesday, counting people who have no front door to knock on.

The three-day homeless count began Monday and included surveys of shelters and soup kitchens. Unlike local homeless counts, the Census Bureau also aimed to count homeless people where they were sleeping. Census workers combed parking lots, bridges and woodlands — anywhere they believed the homeless might be staying at night.

"It's a part of America that most people aren't exposed to," said Brian Maule, manager of the Census Bureau office in Silverdale.

Along with illegal immigrants, the homeless have been one of the most under-counted groups in Census counts, Maule said. Middle class caucasian families are the most over-counted.

Because the homeless do not have addresses to mail forms to, an accurate count depends on research and a lot of field work.

Maule's office staff has spent months working with local service groups, including local government, churches and food banks, to compile a list of areas where the homeless are likely living. Workers have mingled at meal services and food banks, trying to gain trust and information.

Under Census Bureau rules, the office has three days to carry out its homeless count. It counted at shelters, soup kitchens and other service centers during the day. The field could only be completed between midnight and 7 a.m. Wednesday, to ensure homeless people are counted where they were sleeping, Maule said.

The approach sounded worrisome to some local homeless advocates.

Major Jim Baker of the Bremerton Salvation Army said startling homeless people in the dark — some of whom are mentally ill — is a recipe for confrontation.

"I think that's just putting people in danger," he said.

Maule said the Census Bureau is aware of the risk. Workers used for the homeless count were given safety training. In some areas the Census Bureau hired homeless people to act as liaisons.

"That will definitely take the blow away," said Larry Cooney of Poulsbo, who runs the Bremerton Rescue Mission. "Just some well-dressed people out there with flashlights would be scary. We've had well-intentioned volunteers try that. They came back and said 'Never again.'"

Maule said field workers are also given special sensitivity training to work with people on the fringe of society. Counters won't, for example, wake someone if they are asleep or pull back a blanket to see how many people are sleeping underneath. If a person is awake and willing to talk, the counter will gather all the regular Census information.

"Our primary goal out there is to count, it's not to judge," Maule said. "This is their home and we respect that."

The Census Bureau's method for counting the homeless contrasts starkly with the technique used by local agencies.

Kitsap Community Resources, partnering with the Kitsap Continuum of Care Coalition, has organized a count each year since 2003. Instead of going to the field in search of the homeless, the Community Resources attracts homeless people to a central location by offering meals and services from a wide range of Kitsap agencies. The Coalition hosted a count Jan. 28 this year at the Kitsap Pavilion in Bremerton.

The event serves a dual purpose, Community Resources spokeswoman Eugenie Jones said.

"While the count is the overall objective, it's also to integrate the homeless into the community and let them know what resources are out there," Jones said.

This will be the first time Community Resources will be able to compare its local count results to a Census Bureau homeless count, which are done every 10 years as part of the nationwide Census count. Results from the Census Bureau's 2010 homeless count will be made available within a year.

"It will be interesting to see how what they come up with is different," Jones said.

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