One morning earlier this month, about 500 fellow San Franciscans and I got up early and did something that, as a nation, we only do once every 10 years: We counted the homeless among us.
It was part of a nationwide effort, conducted during the same morning hours on the same day, and bureaucratically known
as the Targeted Non-Sheltered Outdoor Locations (TNSOL). In our day-to-day lingo, we simply called it the homeless count.
At 3 a.m. we gathered, bundled against the morning chill, at a dozen places around the city. The streets were practically deserted, with only gas stations and a few fast-food joints providing signs of life.
All of us were temporary workers for Census 2000. Some of us were hired specifically as "liaison to the homeless" for the few hours of this special operation. We all live in the city and were generally assigned to our own neighborhoods. A few of us were actually homeless, though in typically San Franciscan discretion, we left that question unasked. As required by law, we all took an oath of confidentiality and pledged to keep the information gathered absolutely protected from everyone outside the Census Bureau.
To everyone's surprise, we did not find as many homeless people as we had anticipated.
After two decades of encountering panhandlers on the streets and averting our eyes from encampments in public parks or under freeway overpasses, most of us had come to think that there must be thousands of homeless folks in a city of 800,000. The actual count will be published sometime next year, and when combined with people counted at soup kitchens, overnight shelters, and the like, the nation will get a firmer handle on this social problem.
Eventually we will also find out whether the low count this time was a result of the booming economy, or the consequence of a preemptive police sweep by a city concerned with its image, or simply that the homeless folks, not unlike you and me, wanted some privacy and some shred of dignity, so they just made themselves scarce that morning.
I leave such questions to political leaders, bureaucrats, and advocates around the nation to ponder in the years ahead. I'm still busy pondering something else far more fundamental to our society in this new century: democracy and decency.
The primary purpose of the decennial census, as mandated by the Constitution, is to redistrict congressional seats. Other uses of census data, such as academic research, interest advocacy, business planning, and marketing, have far outweighed the political reapportionment. But the mission remains unchanged: a guarantee that each vote is weighted equally around the nation.
In its short 224 years of existence, American democracy has had its share of injustices and abuses. It was only in the last 50 years or so that the nation began to seriously address and redress such egregious mistakes as the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II and the de facto apartheid system in the South.
Today, even as we still struggle with fundamental problems of equality involving race, gender, age, health, poverty, national origin, sexual orientation, disabilities, our focus has shifted from what should be done to how our collective aspirations can be achieved.
The homeless population, in this context, presents a problem unique to our time. In the middle of unprecedented wealth and prosperity, the Department of Housing and Urban Development estimates that 800,000 among our population of 275 million still sleep under the stars and often go to bed hungry.
One of my fellow counters had the unusual experience of interviewing a 19-year-old-woman through the closed door of a public toilet. The young woman had carefully posted an "out of order" sign outside the door to discourage any intruder during the night and responded only to the persistent knock from my fellow census taker. She refused to show herself, but agreed to answer a few questions asked through the bathroom door.
The magnificent dawn that morning could not shake the incongruity of the situation, and I kept thinking back to that improbable scene all day long. Nineteen years old is the time for learning, for love, or at least for working. A whole life still lies ahead, and it should be full of promise and potential.
In an economy flooded with money, short of labor, and wildly optimistic, how can it be that a 19-year-old must sleep in a public toilet? In an age of budget surplus at every level of government, how can we accept that 40 million citizens of this country don't have even basic health insurance?
Throughout history, the human species has admired the splendor of earlier ages. We marvel at pyramids, castles, temples, cathedrals, and tombs. We glorify conquests, explorations, crusades, occupations, and war. We cherish statues, paintings, jewels, and coins. But we pay scant attention to how the common folks lived.
Perhaps we judge the past, and eventually our own civilization, by the wrong standards: It isn't how the rich and powerful live and impose their will that should be intrinsically interesting or representative of their age. Rather, a society should be judged by how well the majority of its people are treated, and most important of all, how well it takes care of those least able to fend for themselves: the very young and very old, the disabled, the stranger, and the poor.
By this yardstick, we as a people still have a long way to go, even as we attempt to count the least fortunate among us.
* Vu-Duc Vuong lives in San Francisco. He teaches social work at the University of California, Berkeley, and manages the Census Bureau office for the west side of San Francisco.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society