On Western Slope, Census count requires snooping
DENVER – It took trekking in snowshoes, riding horses and snowmobiles to deliver census questionnaires to some residents of Colorado’s vast and rugged Western Slope.
Now, the follow-up requires scouting out “For Rent” signs, quizzing neighbors, or digging through assessors’ databases.
“It’s like being a detective. You just have to snoop around for clues. It’s not just knocking on doors, you have to be smart and think like Columbo,” said census worker Cindy Kleh, 51, referring to the 1970s television detective played by Peter Falk.
The workers, also known as enumerators, are back in the area’s rugged terrain to track down those who didn’t return their forms or to figure out whether those homes are occupied by part-time residents. The Western Slope, with its resort vacation homes and often isolated rural properties, presents a unique challenge for the U.S. Census because the decennial survey only counts where residents live more than 50 percent of the time during the year.
About 250,000 census forms were delivered by hand instead of by mail in western Colorado this year – the most in the contiguous United States – during the first phase of counting because a large number of people have P.O. boxes and the form has to be delivered to an actual property to be counted.
Some areas along the Western Slope have the lowest participation rates in the state so far, but their rates are expected to increase in the coming months as workers rule out some of the properties as vacation homes in resort towns. The Census hired about 1,500 workers to return to some 142,000 homes in the area that didn’t return their forms by April 1.
Kleh, who works as an census enumerator in Grand County, said that because most of the homes are only used in the summer, she has learned to look for fresh tire tracks in driveways for signs or life or empty bird-feeders that show an owner may be away.
Mounds of untouched snow can also be a clue – and a pain to walk through – but Kleh, a national champion snowboarder for her age group, said she carries her snowshoes with her. She said sees her job as a way to stay fit and train when she hikes up to houses at 10,000 feet of elevation.
Others have used personal snowmobiles to get to their destination, and someone once even proposed a loftier form of transportation.
“People have questioned whether they could use a helicopter, though that’s not fundable, but the question was raised,” said Deborah Cameron, a Census spokeswoman.
The workers began returning May 1 to residences where people did not mail back a form, a task that will continue through the end of July and can include up to six visits before they conclude no one lives there year-round.
Sometimes it takes chatting up neighbors to figure that out.
Adelaide E. Currier, a 58-year-old retired teacher working as an enumerator in Mesa County, said she was able to find the home she was looking for only after a young girl advised her that a nail holding down the address outside the home was loose and made one of the numbers appear as a six instead of a nine.
At another property, a neighbor told her the place she was looking at was a homestead that had been unoccupied for decades.
The census relies on workers like Currier and Kleh, who live in the area where they work, to be savvy and for residents to alert them of the curveballs they may encounter during their visits.
“So it really is our neighbors, our friends, the people you see at church or the grocery store – these are the same people who will be knocking on your door – so I hope they’ll be welcomed,” said Kathleen DuHamel, the Census office manager for western Colorado, an area west of the Continental Divide, from Rangeley in the northeast and the Southern Ute and Ute Mountain Ute tribes in southwestern Colorado.
Their work will help remove vacation homes from the list of non-respondents in resort areas where the participation rate lags far below Colorado’s average of 70 percent. The national participation rate so far is 72 percent.
Pitkin and Summit counties, with its popular ski spots in Aspen and Breckenridge, have participation rates of 39 percent and 28 percent respectively. In Grand County, the participation rate is 33 percent. The task to find out which homes are used most of the year can be a painstaking one, but one that Kleh welcomes.
“Every single house is a different story and I just try to solve the mystery,” Kleh said.
On the Net:
U.S. Census: http://www.census.gov/