City officials looked for creative ways to spur participation in the 2020 Census with Covid-19 taking a big hit out of in-person efforts.

Evanston officials had to do some creative scrambling to reach residents about participating in the 2020 Census after the Coronavirus hit earlier this year, making in-person efforts more difficult.

At the Fifth Ward Community Meeting July 8, Sarah Flax, the City’s Division Manager of Housing & Grants, offered a special “shoutout” to a group of residents from that west side community who were part of a phone bank recently, reaching out to fellow residents who had not filled out their census forms.

“Since late June, our phone bank callers made over 2,000 calls and reached more than 1,300 people directly – either spoke with them or left voice messages with them, and it really makes a difference,” Ms. Flax reported.

Residents’ urging other local residents to sign up carries a particular weight over some other methods.

“You know one of the things the census has really focused on is what we call ‘trusted messengers,’” Ms. Flax said at the meeting, held via Zoom because of social distancing constraints. “You know, there can be a lot of reasons not to do something like the census. But when somebody – a neighbor, a friend, says ‘Have you done it and, if not,  you need to,’ it really motivates people.”

Officials saw the method do that in the phone banking calls to census tract 8092, which has been the City’s lowest responding tract, said Ms. Flax. The tract sits in a part of the Fifth Ward west of Green Bay Road, and had a self-response rate of 60.6 percent in the 2010 Census, said Ms. Flax.

This time around, “we had got to the 55.7 percent mark at about June 21 and we had just been sitting there,” she said, “and then we did phone and things like that, and we jumped up to 56% from 55.7%.”

As a result of the phone bank activity, “we went up three tenths of a percent in about three days, which may sound like a tiny movement, but it really is significant,” Ms. Flax said.

Officials are looking for similar methods to boost the numbers at another census tract, 8094.02 –located on the northern edge of downtown, around where Elgin Road crosses Emerson Street.

The tract currently is currently the farthest from its 2010 self-response rate – 58.1% compared to 71%.

Officials speculate that the falloff may due to the new construction and many new units added to the area, which has includes the E2 and The Link apartment buildings.

Also the area is home to a lot of students – or was home, before Northwestern University suspended classes on campus earlier this year because of the Coronavirus.

College students living on campus or in off-campus housing are to be counted at school facilities or at their off-campus housing, under the census rules, even if they visit home on holidays and breaks, Ms. Flax noted.

“We have been working the university and they have been doing outreach to the students,” Ms. Flax said. “We’ve tried to get posters out to landlords to put up in lobbies near mailboxes about the importance of the census.”

Ms. Flax along with Kamil Szalewicz, a U.S. Census Bureau partnership specialist who also participated in the July 8 virtual meeting, are looking to do more.

“We’re in this unique environment where obviously a lot of our operational side of things had to be switched to COVID-19,” Mr. Szalewicz said. “But we can’t stress the importance of the census, because again we’re looking to distribute funds that will go to many things – schools, programs, roads and other places.”

Next week, he said, the Census Bureau is looking to kick off “what we call our Census 2020 Census Search Week. And we’re looking to recreate the energy that we had during the Census Day, which was April 1,” he said.

He said the Bureau is also looking at holding events locally at some point, including providing mobile questionnaire Assistance Centers, where census staff or local partners will help with informing community members and assisting them in filling out  the 2020 Census forms.

The Bureau’s “non-response phase” is then to start on Aug. 11 and is scheduled to run until the end of October, he said.  During that period, households who have not responded before the August date can probably expect a knock at their door, he said.

“And a lot of people won’t be particularly happy about that,” Mr. Szalewicz conceded, “So right now people can either call the Bureau, they can send back the paper questionnaire, or they can go on line and 2020 and self-respond.”

“But at this time we’re just looking to see how we can get the community to respond,” he said.

Alderman Robin Rue Simmons, 5th Ward, chairing the meeting, expressed hope that some more volunteers will step forward to do phone banking. “I will do a couple of hours of phone banking, if you’re scheduling it again,” she said to Ms. Flax and Mr. Szalewicz.

“We all need to be counted,” Ald. Simmons said. She suggested in some cases residents might have to dispel new residents’ concerns about participation.

In the Fifth Ward, she noted, “we have a large immigrant community, we have a refugee community, we have English as a Second Language community that may have concerns about what it means for their safety in the community. Please do spread the word that this is not going to make anyone vulnerable or will displace them, but it will give us a better opportunity to support them in City services.”

City officials are looking at starting the phone banking in a couple of weeks, said Ms. Flax. “We’re also looking at doing some more direct mail, which I think when we did it earlier also showed a bump in the wards, so we’re going to keep working at it.”

Overall, Evanston self-response rate, pandemic and all, stands up 71 percent, less than two percentage points below the 72.8 percent response rate achieved in the 2010 Census, Ms. Flax said. “So we’re getting there,” she said.

As the City’s point person on the federal grants which come in, Ms. Flax sees first-hand the importance data gained through the census.

“The one that gets talked about the most is the allocation of federal financial resources, because so much is done based on the census,” she said.

Census data is used to determine the allocation of $675 billion in federal funds annually to states, counties and cities across the country, officials said on the City’s website,

The data is also used for research, and academic institutions, medical facilities, and businesses all utilize census data for a variety of purposes, they noted.

“If we don’t have people counted,” Ms. Flax observed, “they don’t exist in the eyes of government, and arguably it’s the same thing as voting from that standpoint. If you don’t vote, your voice isn’t heard. If you aren’t counted your needs are not going to be taken into consideration. Stacy Abrams says next to voting, doing the census is the second most important thing one can do.”

Bob Seidenberg is an award-winning reporter covering issues in Evanston for more than 30 years. He is a graduate of the Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism.