Some College Park, Md., residents still waiting for census to count them

By Carol Morello
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 8, 2010; B01

Any day, Roberta Jernigan kept telling herself this spring, the census form will come in the mail.

When it didn't, she expected a census worker to come to the 300-unit apartment building where she lives in College Park to count the residents in person.

And now, with the decennial head count almost over, Jernigan's apartment still hasn't been contacted by the census.

Although the Census Bureau says it should reach everyone in the Westchester Park complex during a mop-up phase, Jernigan is miffed at being overlooked.

"I kept saying, 'What is going on?' " Jernigan said, adding that she called a toll-free number weeks ago and was told a census questionnaire would be mailed to her. It wasn't. "We want to be counted. It's our civic duty."

It is unclear why the Westchester Park apartments and a small condominium complex nearby were initially missed. Although the bulk of this year's work is over, it will continue until early September in an effort to minimize undercounts and overcounts. People whose addresses don't match a master list will be called. Vacant homes will be checked. And omissions such as the Westchester Park residences, when discovered, will be counted.

"We're going to check, double-check and triple-check," Census Director Robert M. Groves said Wednesday in an update on operations. "The whole purpose is to make sure we've gotten it right."

Since May 1, census takers have knocked on the doors of more than 47 million homes, virtually all the addresses for which nobody returned a form. They found 14.3 million vacant residences, up from 9.9 million in the 2000 Census -- a reflection of the heavy toll the recession and foreclosures have taken on the nation.

As the census winds down, more than three-quarters of the 635,000 temporary workers hired for it have been dismissed. The remaining 125,000 will be checking the work that has been done.

One of the remaining tasks is to re-interview about 5 percent of the households that each census taker visited, to confirm the accuracy of the completed forms. That work started two weeks ago, and Groves said the Census Bureau suspects that answers might have been made up on hundreds of forms.

"A number are so severely mismatched, they could be fabrications," he said of the difference between the answers the original census takers submitted and the answers provided in follow-up interviews.

Steve Jost, a spokesman for the Census Bureau, said repeat interviews are being conducted on all the "hard fail" census forms turned in by 524 enumerators. Groves said suspicious cases will be turned over to the inspector general in the Commerce Department for investigation and possible prosecution.

The number of assaults and threats against census takers has surpassed 500, a significant increase from the 181 reported in 2000. But Groves said he saw no pattern indicating anti-government sentiment was behind it and said the census was keeping a better tally this year.

Census officials said they are about to put a link on the home page providing information for people who have not been contacted.

Groves said a toll-free number, 866-872-6868, will remain in operation through July 30 to take census information over the phone from anyone who was missed.

Lee Preston tried that number when he and his neighbors in the three-building Westchester Park II condominium complex realized that no one had received questionnaires. He said that the census worker he talked to on the toll-free number directed him to the regional office in Philadelphia, which in turn told him to call the local office in Largo.

"A very nice man said he would take my information over the phone," Preston said. "I said, 'No, I want everyone in my building to get covered.' He said, 'Sir, we'll take care of it.' That was two weeks ago."

It could not be determined immediately whether the apartments and condominiums were among a group of about 12,000 Prince George's County addresses whose questionnaire labels were not printed initially. When the lapse was discovered in mid-June, workers were dispatched to count the residents in person, said Regional Census Director Fernando Armstrong.

But no one can explain why nobody in the 15-story Westchester Park apartments got a census form, even though everyone in an identical condominium building next door did.

Natalie Aguayo, who lives in the small condominium complex where none of the 30 or so residents received a form, said she never called the Census Bureau to inquire about it.

"It's really very important," she said. "We should be upset about it. If they sent me a form, I'd send it right back."

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