Census takers, and Paterson’s mayor, hit the streets

Paterson Mayor Andre Sayegh canvassed the First Ward handing out masks and urging people to fill out their 2020 census forms. He’s deeply concerned that less than half the city’s residents have been counted so far, including Ilumi Rodriguez and her two kids.

“People think it’s a waste of time, sometimes, to just fill that out. They don’t think we counted, as a community,” Rodriguez said. “I’m going to do it because this is my community and I would like to see it better.”

“Whatever it is that the town needs, it’s very much dependent on the census” said Paterson resident Linda Zicherman.

“We think that we are undercounted, severely. If we get to 150,000 we could be designated a Class One City and with it comes more federal funding,” Sayegh said.

The last census counted just over 146,000 people in Paterson. But this time, COVID-19’s complicating the count. The Census Bureau delayed door-knocking during the pandemic’s height. Workers just hit the pavement this month. Since January, 9,807 have been hired or are in the training pipeline in New Jersey, with 1,463 in Essex County, 1,054 in Hudson County and 374 in Passaic County.

But fear of COVID-19 is reportedly pushing some people to quit. The Census Bureau will just keep hiring.

“We’re confident that with the amazing applicants we had so far, we’re able to get them trained, provide them the PPE they need, the training they need, the device they need, we’re going to get this done in New Jersey,” said Jeff Behler, the New York regional director of the U.S. Census Bureau.

“I’m concerned because I know when I looked at the last numbers that we had for New Jersey, we were just shy of two-thirds of being counted,” Williamson said.

New Jersey Counts director Patricia Williamson points to Paterson where 87% of children under five live in hard-to-count areas. Another hurdle is that more than 37% of households in the city don’t have internet access to fill out forms online.

Inge Spungen, the executive director of the Paterson Alliance, says some high rise apartment dwellers didn’t even get paper census forms.

“They didn’t get to people’s mailboxes. They were thought to be junk mail and were just left on the counter inside the buildings. So people didn’t necessarily get the paper forms that they needed to fill out,” Spungen said.

Another obstacle: Paterson’s a city where families share tight housing.

“There are a lot of people in Paterson who are living multiple families in a home, and they don’t want other people to necessarily know about that because they might be breaking rules about that,” Spungen said.

Sayegh can hear the clock ticking down to a shortened Sept. 30 deadline.

“I don’t think people understand how significant this is, and it only is, what, once a decade,” Sayegh said.

The mayor says he’s going to canvas every evening after office hours. He’s aiming to get 150 residents to fill out the form.