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Census Takers Make Final Push to Count Southland

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The man who answered the door had no clothes on. Census taker Lynn Beverly, a no-nonsense Compton mother who wears her name tattooed on her right forearm, refused to turn away.

“I asked him to put a towel around himself,” said Beverly, 32, on leave from a job sorting mail at the post office. “When he refused, I just tried to keep looking at him in the face.”

For several minutes, Beverly peppered the man with questions about his home, his family and his ethnic origin, then thanked him and moved on to the next house.

“Aside from being naked,” she said, “he was cooperative.”

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And so it went last week as thousands of U.S. Census Bureau interviewers began visiting front porches across Southern California in a frantic effort to canvass the citizenry--clothed and otherwise. In all, the Census Bureau dispersed about half of the more than 11,000 so-called enumerators it needs regionally to complete the door-to-door survey, which is intended to count the millions of residents who either refused or forgot to respond to mailed questionnaires, or never received a form.

The count is supposed to be over by June 6, but some census workers faced last week with slamming doors and cries of “Go away!” predicted that it will take much longer. Census Bureau spokesman Larry Bryant, while more optimistic than the rank and file, said workers would be given whatever time they need.

“Our deadline is to get the count to the President by the close of business on Dec. 31,” he said.

The tally, never an easy task, has become a bigger headache this year because of an unexpectedly poor response to the mail-in forms. As of last week, only 63% of California’s residents had returned their census forms by mail, and some corners of Southern California were well below that average. South-Central Los Angeles has the worst response rate in the state, with just 50% returned. Census officials had expected a 70% response nationwide.

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With more people to count, the Census Bureau has been looking just about everywhere for people to do the counting. Census recruiters can be found at shopping malls, Laundromats, grocery stores, churches, homeowner meetings and unemployment offices. This weekend, the bureau intends to hit crowds at every major Cinco de Mayo celebration south of Santa Barbara.

“People think the census is over, but our work is just beginning,” said Marcia Rodriguez, a recruiter in Santa Monica. “Any place people go, we are going.”

Similar efforts are under way across the nation, where census officials say they will need to hire about 300,000 census takers from New York City to Seattle. Officials described Southern California’s recruitment problems as “fairly typical.”

The census jobs pay anywhere from $6.75 to $9.50 an hour, but one of the bureau’s biggest hassles has been keeping the people it recruits. Sore feet, run-ins with grumpy residents and the general workaday grind results in a heavy dropout rate. Bureau officials said they need to recruit eight people for every census taker that eventually winds up on the street.

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“Some of these people just aren’t used to working for a living,” said one census supervisor.

As the tale of the naked Compton man would suggest, however, those census takers who have stuck to the job have learned that counting the people of Southern California can entail a lot more than numbers.

In South-Central Los Angeles, census taker Susie Ruiz had to summon paramedics when an elderly man she was interviewing had a heart attack. In Koreatown, a census taker sped away from a gunman while waiting for a colleague who was in a nearby home. In Eagle Rock, a young pianist treated census taker Kathy Kovesdi to a brief recital from the “The Phantom of the Opera” while she penciled in his responses.

“You certainly get to know your neighborhood firsthand,” said census taker Alicia Diaz-De Leon, who has been knocking on doors in East Los Angeles. “But to tell you the truth, I am more afraid of the dogs than the people.”

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Chung Nam Lee, a Korean immigrant studying acupuncture, said he learned more about his Latino neighbors in one week of census taking in Koreatown than he had during five years of living there.

“I found many apartments with two couples living together in one bedroom,” he said. “That is very strange for Koreans. And many times the wife is older than the husband!”

In Compton, census taker Latonya McDaniel on her first day on the job stumbled on the man who fathered her child living less than a dozen blocks from her home. She had lost track of her former boyfriend more than three years ago.

McDaniel said she introduced the couple’s 4-year-old son, Taiwan, to his long-lost father. “He knew he had a daddy somewhere,” McDaniel said. “The daddy came out with tears in his eyes.”

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Census takers, many of them middle-aged housewives in soft-soled shoes, have been mistaken for Jehovah’s Witnesses, Avon ladies, encyclopedia saleswomen and even drug dealers. One census taker in Compton was bitten in the arm by a frazzled woman who thought she was a peddler. Census takers working affluent neighborhoods said it’s tough just getting past security guards trained to keep away solicitors.

Census taker Francisco Parra, a Mexican immigrant living in Inglewood, spent one day making 57 calls from a security telephone at a Marina del Rey building, trying to find someone who would let him inside. When he did get in, the security guard said he could visit one apartment only.

“I feel so happy anyway,” Parra said. “It is a very good opportunity to practice my English.”

The census takers wear badges identifying themselves as official enumerators and carry large briefcases bearing a red, white and blue Census Bureau sticker, but they are still feared in some neighborhoods as agents of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the Internal Revenue Service and various law enforcement agencies.

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In East Los Angeles, one census taker watched a half-dozen illegal aliens run from the back door of a house as she knocked on the front door. The woman explained in Spanish that she had nothing to do with the immigration agency, but residents still refused to let her in the house or answer her questions.

In South-Central Los Angeles, census takers who gathered for a morning briefing outside their crew leader’s home said a lot of problems in their part of town can be avoided by wearing neutral colors. The census takers said they never wear blue or red--the colors of the Crips and Bloods gangs--and always work in groups.

In some cases, census officials said, as many as 20 workers join together for “sweeps” in dangerous neighborhoods. Crew leader Carlos Garcia said he tells his census takers to skip rock houses and other trouble spots until the weekend, when crew leaders and supervisors join the census takers on rounds.

“If it is a house that is really boarded up, you know not to go up to the gate,” said Lanae Smith, 20, wearing a white blouse, black pants and a gray jacket. “And if you dress for the neighborhood, you won’t have any problems.”

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Regardless of the neighborhood, census takers said their biggest problem has been overcoming public distrust. Census takers have become experts in explaining that the Census Bureau is required to keep the information confidential for 72 years, but some residents still refuse to cooperate.

Most complaints involve questions on the long form--which is given to one-sixth of the residents--that delve into sensitive financial areas.

In South-Central Los Angeles, one elderly woman refused to disclose the value of her house for fear the government would think she was rich and take away her Social Security benefits. In Marina del Rey, some residents have refused to disclose their income for fear it might invite an IRS audit.

“When you say you are from the government, people automatically get scared,” said census taker Marcella Persley, 19. “They think that we are trying to get them for something, even if they haven’t done anything.”

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