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Political Science Professor Helps Count the Homeless

Apr 19, 2010

Dr. Dari SylvesterPolitical Science Professor Dari Sylvester is serving as a lead enumerator for the U.S. Census Bureau during a phase of the 2010 Census called "Group Quarters Validation." Their role is to count individuals who reside in group residences such as nursing homes, college dorms and shelters. For a three-day period during the project, census workers across the country focused specifically on the homeless, and on a selected night from midnight to 7:00 a.m. they attempted to count homeless individuals residing outdoors.

A group of about 100 enumerators who volunteered for the all-night mission met in Modesto, and teams were given assigned areas in Oakdale and Modesto identified as locales of the homeless. Dr. Sylvester and two other team members had a list of about six sites, including fields, areas under bridges, and public parks. "I felt this was a once in a lifetime experience, and I was very excited to be part of it," said Dr. Sylvester.

Equipped with flashlights, census forms, and food to give out to the people they encountered, the team began its trek. "People were often understandably mistrustful as we first approached them. The offering of food was much appreciated and helped establish a sense of trust and goodwill," Dr. Sylvester explained.

The census teams experienced their own apprehension at times. As they approached a particularly dark area under a bridge, a dog began to growl. They called out that they were from the census and that they had food. The team then heard female voices, and as they drew near, one of the women, who seemed to be on drugs or mentally unstable, mistook Dr. Sylvester for someone she had known or encountered before.

A poignant moment occurred during the day, when Dr. Sylvester was interviewing people at an emergency food bank. She turned to say good-bye to a man she had talked with, and he replied, "Hold on—don't ever say 'good-bye.' Good-bye means you probably won't see that person again. Around here you say 'Take care' or 'See you next time' because we all want to be around tomorrow."

"That really made an impact on me," said Dr. Sylvester. "People like me who are blessed to have all the basic needs and comforts take it for granted that we'll be around tomorrow. But people living on the street who are not sure about their next meal—that's an uncertainty."

Dr. Sylvester encourages people to consider participating in the census next time around. "This is a really unique opportunity, and I found it to be an amazingly educational experience. You will likely learn from it more than you expect."

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