Foreclosures complicate high-stakes 2010 census

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There's a lot at stake for Minnesota in the decennial count. Federal funds are allocated based on census results.

The census also determines the number of Congressional seats each state has. State officials say overlooking as few as 2,000 residents during the census could cost Minnesota one of its seats in Congress.

Census 2010
The 2010 census is nearly a year away...but preparations for the count are already in full swing.
MPR Photo/Toni Randolph

The state's political weight in Washington could be determined by what census-takers find in a place like the east side of Saint Paul.

Jim Erchul of Dayton's Bluff Neighborhood Housing Services, said there are about 20,000 houses on St. Paul's east side, and at any given time about 10 percent of them are vacant due to foreclosure.

Erchul's non-profit group buys up many of the foreclosed homes in the neighborhood to fix them up and resell them. As Erchul drives through an area near the main campus of Metro State University, he points out one abandoned house after another on one of the first blocks in the city to be hit hard by the foreclosure crisis.

"That gold one's vacant. That white one's vacant. The one next to it's vacant," he said.

In a half-hour drive through St. Paul's east side, Erchul points out block after block dotted with homes that are now vacant because of foreclosure.

"Every one of these blocks here to the north has probably at least 10 vacants on them," Erchul said.

He said only north Minneapolis has a higher foreclosure rate in Minnesota. Erchul estimates that the average household size on St. Paul's east side is about 3.8 people. If that figure is multiplied by the number of vacant units, conservatively, that totals more than 6,000 people who've been displaced by foreclosure -- in just this one neighborhood. And Erchul said he has no idea where those families went.

Foreclosure is not new to the census said Dennis Johnson, regional director of the Census Bureau.

"Operationally, we're just counting houses and whoever lives there just like we've always done. We just know that there's this growing issue that's happening all across the county that we're going to have to handle somewhat differently," Johnson said. "Those people are somewhere and we need to make sure we count them somewhere."

That "somewhere" could be with family or friends, in another house or apartment, or it could be a homeless shelter. In any case, that displacement makes it harder to get an accurate census count. Craig Helmstetter with Wilder Research, which manages information on the homeless for the state, said demand for shelters is up in Ramsey County. "This January, February and March compared to last January, February and March, there's an increase of about 10- to 15 percent in the number of bed nights [one person occupying one bed for one night] provided by these shelters, by family shelters in particular in Ramsey County," Helmstetter said. "They are experiencing this increase in demand for homeless services."

Helmstetter cautions that there's no evidence that shows how much of the increase in shelter demand is caused by foreclosure. He said the link between the two is only anecdotal.

"During the foreclosure crisis, it's sort of logical to connect those dots: the increase in foreclosures is coinciding with this increase in demand for homeless services. It looks like homelessness is on the rise and making it harder to track people for purposes like the census," he said.

So cities, counties, ethnic and faith groups, among others, are trying to make sure that those hard-to-track people, whether homeless or not, understand the importance of participating in the census.

The city of St. Paul has already set up a Complete Count Committee to help get the word out. Luz Maria Frias, with the city of Saint Paul, said officials are trying to saturate residents with information about the census in schools, libraries, parks and community groups.

"So that the more they hear our outreach message, the more likely it is that they will be able to participate in it," she said.

The city and the census have a year to get that message out. Census forms will be mailed next April.

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