Census searches outside the box

Dozens of Stockton-based U.S. Census workers are about to begin scouring San Joaquin County for communal living quarters -- group homes, convalescent homes, dormitories -- where unrelated people live together and could be overlooked during the once-per-decade head count.

San Joaquin County is one of two spots in the country being used as a testing ground for the 2010 census. Workers here will attempt to count every person in the county as of April 1, 2008. But that requires figuring out where they live.

"We want to make sure we are reaching the entire population," said Barb Ferry, manager of the Stockton census office. "We need to know how many people there are, and we want to have as accurate a count as we can."

The effort started in April with 450 workers equipped with Global Po- sitioning System devices. They were given the task of recording uncon- ventional homes without addresses, such as garages, recreational vehicles and granny units.

The county's assortment of group housing arrangements contributed to its selection for the dress rehearsal. The county's high growth rate and multilingual population also played a role, according to census officials.

The other dress rehearsal is the Fayetteville, N.C., area. Its mixture of urban and suburban communities and two military bases were cited in its selection.

In the nine-county Fayetteville area and in San Joaquin County, the dress rehearsal's most dramatic act will come in March, when questionnaires are mailed to all households. Recipients will be asked to return the forms with their name, age, address, race, ethnicity, relationship to other members of their household and whether they rent or own their home.

The information is used for deciding legislative districts and federal funding. It doesn't ask about citizenship or legal status, and personal information isn't shared, Ferry said.

GPS devices don't like the heat

Part of the rehearsal is outreach and building relationships in the community to make people comfortable, Ferry said.

It also is designed to detect any problems in running the offices, hiring people and conducting the count.

Lessons so far?

A sizable portion of San Joaquin County is along the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, where residents live on islands. So, getting there is made easier by boat. Sheriff's officials gave lifts to census workers this spring.

The heat wave in May uncovered a vulnerability of the GPS devices, which the census will use for the first time; they slow down when they get hot and sometimes shut off, Ferry said. Among the more creative solutions was a contraption developed by one census worker, which strapped the device to a cold pack around his neck, Ferry said.

Ferry said the rehearsal gives the county a significant head start on making sure things run smoothly for the 2010 count.

"What we're doing now will really put us in a very good position, and increase confi- dence that we are delivering an accurate count in 2010 because of the procedures, and also the personnel," Ferry said. "They will be able to roll right back into those positions."

Bee staff writer Inga Miller can be reached at imiller@modbee.com or 599-8760.