THE Tompkins Square Park band shell is filled each night with piles of ragged blankets. A passerby might hear sneezes and snores and realize there are people underneath, but certainly would not know how many, or their sex, race, or age. That is what census workers are being asked to find out - without waking anyone up - from 2 a.m. to 4 a.m. March 21.
The New York survey is part of an unprecedented nationwide count in shelters, parks, subways, vacant buildings, doorways, and bank-machine vestibules.
In New York, city officials, homeless advocates, transit police, and others have compiled a list of 2,167 such sites where homeless people congregate. For safety reasons, some places, such as train tunnels, will not be surveyed.
``We are deliberately staying away from defining this as a census of the homeless,'' said Kenneth Meyer, assistant regional census manager. ``It's going to give us some idea of the characteristics of this group but not necessarily the true size of it.''
Still, critics have a long list of complaints about the timing of the count, its organization, the data to be collected, and the recruitment of people to do the counting.
City officials and advocates for the homeless say the plan is doomed to undercount the homeless, estimated by the Coalition for the Homeless to number 70,000 to 90,000 in New York City alone. They fear a low count will be used to justify social service budget cuts.
From 6 p.m. to about midnight March 20, census workers will visit shelters and hotels used by the homeless, where they will help homeless people fill out the same census forms everyone else gets in the mail.
The 2 a.m.-to-4 a.m. outdoor count will be followed by a 4 a.m.-to-6:30 a.m. count of those leaving abandoned buildings. For safety's sake, enumerators will not be sent inside. Critics want the counters to stay later.
Enumerators counting homeless people in places like streets and parks need only record age, sex, race, marital status and whether the person is of Hispanic origin. If the homeless person is sleeping, the counter must guess.
Census workers are forbidden to ask people whether they are homeless, and may miss people as a result.
``Part of surviving on the street is being able to hide or being able to look like they're not homeless,'' said Kristin Morse, assistant director at the Coalition for the Homeless.
Estimates of the number of homeless nationwide have ranged from 250,000 to 3 million in recent years. A decade ago census-takers went to shelters but did not try to count people living in alleys, under bridges, and in similar locations.