On a sweltering July afternoon, Jasmine Gunn pointed to a stretch of Commercial Avenue in the South Chicago community and gave a brief history of the neighborhood.
“We had the big steel mill; it produced the most steel in the country, and a lot of the [materials for] skyscrapers in Chicago were made at the steel mills here,” said Gunn, 27, a project manager at Claretian Associates, a nonprofit in South Chicago that provides affordable housing and other services.
She added that Commercial Avenue used to be a bustling downtown of sorts for people in the community. “Since the steel mills closed, a lot of people have left the community,” Gunn said. “And the people that are left really feel like no one really pays attention to this area.”
For the next eight months or so, Gunn — who mostly works on real estate development for Claretian Associates — will be in charge of census outreach for the organization. It’s an important role because the stakes are high, especially in Illinois. The state stands to lose up to two congressional seats. Furthermore, billions of dollars in federal funds could also be cut if there is an undercount of the state’s population.
To reach hard-to-count populations like the residents in South Chicago, Illinois lawmakers appropriated $29 million to prepare residents for next year’s headcount. In June, Gov. JB Pritzker signed an executive order fleshing out the state’s census program. He tasked the Illinois Department of Human Services (IDHS) with doling out the census outreach money.
But some are raising questions about whether that money will get to groups fast enough to ensure a robust Census 2020 count in Illinois. The U.S. Census Bureau is set to send out mailers to households in March.
IDHS Secretary Grace Hou said her department is working as fast as it can.
“We are deploying … a procurement dream team to make sure that the census dollars are going to be executed in an efficient and effective way,” she said. “We do hope the majority, if not a very significant portion of the funding, will be awarded by the fall.”
The state is aiming to post its Notice of Funding Opportunity (NOFO) — essentially a call for grant proposals — on or before July 31, per the executive order. After that, according to the department’s timeline, applications from local groups would come in by mid-August, followed by a review process. Groups would be notified about their grants in mid-September, and outreach work would ideally start in mid-October.
Jay Young, executive director of the watchdog group Common Cause Illinois, said that timeline is too tight.
“I keep saying, I’m supposed to be celebrating right now — 29 million — we’re setting the pace for the nation,” he said. “There is so much work to do and not really a lot of time to do it.”
Young said getting the funds in the fall doesn’t leave enough time for groups to strategize and staff up — or even adjust their plans if they don’t get the full amount they ask for. He also said many of the same groups involved in census outreach will be busy with election-year, get-out-the-vote efforts.
Claretian Associates’ Gunn said her group is planning to apply for some of the state money, but added that she wishes her group could have received the census funds sooner.
“We could’ve had more money to plan out the summer outreach and really put our boots on the ground when it’s warm outside and people already hanging out with their families and their friends on the streets,” she said, adding that the bulk of the census work will have to be done in the colder months.
They plan on hiring people to do door-to-door census outreach, and they will distribute flyers and weave census education into their community events, Gunn said. When the census starts, Claretian staff will help people fill out the questionnaire — especially non-English speakers and those without internet access. Next year’s census will ask households to fill out the questionnaire online or over the phone.
In 2010, South Chicago’s census participation rate — the percentage of households that mail in their questionnaires — was low, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau. While Chicago’s overall participation rate was about 66%, in some parts of South Chicago the rate was as low as 41%. The census bureau considers communities with large minority populations, lower incomes, renters, and non-English speakers as “hard to count.”
Data from the census bureau shows that the neighborhood is about 75% black and 20% Latino. And according to Gunn, the neighborhood’s black population includes immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean.
Gunn said a robust count “would really put the South Chicago area on the map and make people pay attention and give more resources and to show that there are still people here.”
Just outside the Claretian offices, 64-year-old Gilbert Ortiz and his wife, Irma, tended to a garden kitty corner from the church they attend.
Ortiz, who grew up nearby but moved out many decades ago, said he remembers when the steel mills were still in South Chicago.
“No money in here, like it used to be,” he said. “When I was a kid, mills were going, and there was money, stores. Everybody was working.”
“It’s a little forgotten part of the city,” Ortiz said, adding that he hopes everyone in the neighborhood is counted in next year’s census.
Esther Yoon-Ji Kang is a reporter for WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities desk. Follow her on Twitter @estheryjkang.