Jason and Michelle fill out the census at the DCM. Photo: Lee-Anne Duncan

In the census, do the homeless count?

With the 2018 census pushed online there’s been much discussion about reaching those without computer access, who still need someone to knock on their door. But what about those without even a door to knock upon? Lee-Anne Duncan visits Wellington’s Downtown Community Ministry

The southerly marks a sharp turn from a stunner summer to chilly autumn. At the start of each season, the Downtown Community Ministry marks the change with “Seasonal Kai”, a lunch they put on for their “taumai” – which is what DCM calls the people it supports, Wellington’s vulnerably housed or homeless.

Some 30 taumai – meaning “to settle” – have come to the lunch. About half are Māori and there’s only one woman, a fair representation of DCM’s clientele.

They’re very welcome. With the food waiting, a karakia is given and everyone is asked to consider what the change to the colder months means for those sleeping rough, those without a home.

It’s happenstance the quarterly kai has fallen on that day, one of three in early March that hi-vis-clad Statistics New Zealand’s field officers are at DCM to guide taumai through filling out the census forms. But it likely means a few more have turned up and will agree to add their details to the national count – something DCM encourages those assembled to do.

“This is a really important time for taumai to have a voice and tell the government we need to build more houses and feed more support and resources back to you. Filling out the census helps you add your voice,” the group is told.

Situated on the site of Wellington’s Te Aro Pā, DCM’s kaupapa follows what would have happened at the pā all those years ago.

“This is where people came for food, for shelter, for community, to have a voice, to speak, to be heard, to be lifted up, to be counted,” says DCM’s Michelle Scott. “So for us, supporting our people to be included in the census reinforces the kaupapa of this place.

“It’s been a great opportunity for our community to get together, to chew the fat about what’s important, what’s necessary for them to move forward, and what society should be prioritising.”

That’s exactly what Statistics NZ’s Dr John Mitchell set out to record when refocusing on how to count the hard-to-reach. “Many of them have high needs in terms of government services. Since government spending decisions are made on the basis of census data it’s even more important they are counted.”

Without needing as many people to go door-to-door this time, John says they could dedicate field officers to target people who couldn’t be reached with an internet code.

“That includes groups who are low responding and need more encouragement and assistance to be enabled to do the census. We had a community engagement team out talking to many communities – Māori, Pacific, culturally and linguistically diverse communities – getting the message across why it’s important to do the census, and looking at ways to enable them. A subset of that was obviously the rough sleeping homeless.”

As John’s team was out engaging, Michelle was also looking for ways to enable taumai to take part in the census. The organisation had worked hard to encourage them to vote in last year’s election, and many did. The feeling of empowerment, of having a say and being heard, remained.

John and Michelle came up with the idea of having census officers at the ministry – and other similar organisations around the country – to help marginalised people fill in the census.

“Usually that’s done by a street count,” says John. “Where field officers walk along looking for people sleeping rough, and try to persuade them to give enough information to complete at least some of the individual form.

“This census we’ve taken a multi-faceted approach. We’ve done a street count, but in eight cities we’ve worked with organisations who engaged directly using different approaches depending on what would suit their clients.”

“It seems to have gone well, with lots of buy-in by letting the people the rough sleepers know and trust recommend doing the census.”

Trust is certainly a major issue for  taumai and others like them. While voting is just ticking a box, filling out the census means handing over personal information.

“But they trust DCM and trust us not to get them into trouble,” says Natalia Cleland, one of DCM’s social workers.

“We’ve been talking about the census for weeks. We put up notices covering what the census is about, why it’s useful and what happens with the information. Our taumai also had the chance to tell us their concerns, then we could get the right information to give them confidence.”

“It also gave them time to gather the information they needed,” says Michelle. “We could say, ‘If you’re Māori and you aren’t sure about your iwi, go away and find out so you can include it in the census’.

“We wanted them to come with that rich part of who they are and what’s gone before them. It really appealed to them as a topic of conversation and it was fascinating to see them connecting and discussing their various backgrounds. So lots of other positive things have come out of doing the census here.”

But for the country the main benefit of having three days of census filling at DCM, and like organisations, is that many people have registered their existence who otherwise wouldn’t have.

“A lot of our people don’t have any ID and may not even be recorded on any databases. If they’ve filled out the census they are recorded somewhere as a human being and as a New Zealander,” says Michelle.

While not having an address is one barrier to filling out the census, low-to-no literacy is another. Even taumai who DCM has supported into housing came in for support, with one knocking at DCM’s door at 8:55am on census day morning, waving his census form.

DCM’s Al and Ula cook food for the quarterly “Seasonal Kai” lunch

Yes, Statistics NZ offered to send field officers to people’s homes if they needed help, but that wouldn’t have worked for all of DCM’s taumai, says Michelle. “This is where their whānau is. Here, some of them have sat in our marae atea and discussed their answers with each other. They had kōrero with others who had already done it, and they’d say, ‘Well, I did that, I ticked that box’, so they got a huge resource from one another.”

Robert is one who wouldn’t have completed the census without DCM’s help. Released from prison in 2016, he slept for a while in his van. He’s housed now, but came to DCM to do this census – his first ever. “If someone hadn’t helped me, I would have just got pissed off with trying. We were told the story of why you should fill it out, and then it made sense to me so I did it.

“I encourage people who have been in prison all their lives to do this. It’s a piece of the puzzle that is missing. When we include ourselves in things like this, it helps us to feel part of the bigger picture and you want to do it more and more. It feels pretty cool to fill it out.”

Jason sleeps anywhere that’s (hopefully) warm and dry. Along with homelessness, literacy issues would have prevented him filling out the census.

“I understand we’re not counted but they’re trying to make a change, the government. I wanted to fill it out because it adds to the big picture. But without someone helping me, I couldn’t. I appreciate DCM giving us the opportunity to have a voice.”

The staff at DCM are happy to play their part in drawing that big picture. “It’s not giving an accurate picture of New Zealand society if we count only people who are willing and able to fill out their census forms,” says Natalia.

“We’re helping provide New Zealand build an accurate picture of who we are, and who are the ones with the highest needs. That feels really valuable.”

Statistics NZ can’t pinpoint when this year’s data will be available, but be sure everyone at DCM will be watching to see how that data is used.

“We’ve reinforced that this is about reciprocity – ‘tuki atu, tuku mai’, another of our kaupapa,” says Michelle. “We told our taumai that they give their information so, in turn, the government can support them – with enough houses, hospitals, doctors, etc.

“They now feel like they have a voice, that they count. Now they are watching to see if they’ve been heard.”

Freelance journalist Lee-Anne Duncan contributed this piece as a volunteer for The Community Comms Collective, whose pro bono clients include DCM 

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