Bowdoin Geneva neighbors push to improve Census count

Looking to fight back against a poor census response and what some local activists called bad publicity for the neighborhood, city and U.S. Census officials launched an enumeration offensive earlier this month in the Bowdoin Geneva area, a neighborhood that has been singled out as one of Boston’s lowest responding areas.

Groups of city workers, official Census takers and around 60 volunteers canvassed the streets surrounding St. Peter’s Church on June 19 in a coordinated effort to reach out to what’s referred to as tract 918, Boston’s lowest-responding Census district. Workers from City Hall brought along their own quality-of-life questionnaire and offered residents information on an array of city and state services and programs while volunteers assisted then by asking residents if they had filled out a Census form. Since only authorized census enumerators can work with residents to fill out the form, volunteers alerted census workers when they were needed.

Bowdoin Geneva neighborhood leader Davida Andelman addressed the volunteers who gathered prior to hitting the streets at St. Peter’s Teen Center, saying that media attention paid to the area motivated many of the local volunteers to do something about the problem.

“The whole idea is, those of us that live in the neighborhood and have more visibility, to go out with people from the census and from the city and really try to engage and convince people that this is important, that they need to respond,” Andelman said.

The outreach effort comes after the Boston Globe published an article May 6 using tract 918 to illustrate how Census responses differ in urban and rural parts of the state.

The Globe focused on tract 918 as an area fraught with crime, poverty and violence, local activists say. The article cited residents that described the neighborhood as “under siege from violent crime, with drug dealers on street corners and frequent shootings.”

Many in attendance on that sunny Saturday sought to dispel the area’s reputation by joining Census workers to count as many of the non-responders as possible.

The Census Bureau reported that the day’s effort reached 89 households, with an additional eight responses gathered at St. Peter’s Church the next day. A spokesman from Mayor Thomas Menino’s office called the figure “a substantial boost for a one-day effort.”

Before the groups of volunteers and workers spread out going door-to-door, Boston’s Census liaison Ramon Soto said that although tract 918 had one of the lowest responses in Boston, surrounding tracts showed improved response rates over the 2000 census.

Soto said it has been difficult to convey the message that participating the Census directly benefits the city’s residents.

“I think that when people are working two, three jobs they’re trying to make ends meet. It’s hard to hear that argument when you’re just concerned about putting food on the table,” Soto said.

The goal of the outreach effort, Soto said, is to say “we didn’t do as well as we wanted to during the first phase, so what can we do better in this phase to get the word out about the census and how much communities can benefit from it?”

In a written statement, Menino said that the effort was a great way for city workers and neighborhood volunteers to work hand-in-hand. “We were able to gather information that we can use to improve city services, and it was also a chance to increase awareness about the importance of the Census and the crucial funding that it provides to community based organizations,” Menino wrote.

According to local Census officer Claudia Smith-Reid, Boston’s Census efforts began over two years ago by reaching out to local civic organizations and other groups to help build a grassroots network to help get the word out about the importance of the decadal count. Recruitment of over 7,500 Census workers in Suffolk County began last August.

When asked about the Globe article, Smith-Reid did not take issue with the story’s facts, but focused on the differences between the areas featured in the piece.

“I think it revealed the differentiation in census neighborhoods,” by juxtaposing the Dorchester tract and a more rural area of Massachusetts with a 100 percent response rate, she said.