CENTRAL FALLS, R.I. — Three years ago, the tiny city of Central Falls faced a huge task: trying to ensure a complete census count in one of the state’s most hard-to-count communities.
“It seemed almost impossible at the time,” City Solicitor Matthew Jerzyk said.
To begin with, the 1.2-square-mile majority-Latino city contains many undocumented residents who often fear revealing personal information to the government. And at the time, President Donald J. Trump was trying to add a citizenship question to the 2020 Census — a move that critics saw as a way to discourage participation among noncitizens and Latinos and to skew the results in favor of Republicans.
Central Falls joined a legal battle against the citizenship question, and the US Supreme Court ended up blocking Trump’s attempt to add it to the census. But just as the city was ramping up its census outreach efforts, the pandemic hit, focusing its fury on this small, impoverished city.
“It was like: Are you kidding me?” Jerzyk recalled. “Now it’s not ‘How do we count our residents?’ — it’s ‘How do we save our residents?’ "
Facing those obstacles, Central Falls marshaled an intensive three-year effort to get as complete a census count as possible.
In interviews with the Globe, city officials described key strategies, such as updating the census addresses ahead of time and using trusted, multilingual voices to reach undocumented families through churches, schools, and food pantries. They also employed campaign-style staples such as phone banks, direct mail, and oversized signs.
Last week, the results of those efforts became clear.
The US Census Bureau released 2020 data raising the Central Falls population count from 19,376 to 22,583 — a 16.6 percent increase. (Only the Block Island town of New Shoreham posted a higher proportional increase, with a 34.2 percent spike bringing its population to 1,410.)
The increase in the Central Falls population count was part of a broader increase seen in Providence County cities and towns, including Providence and Pawtucket. It was part of a nearly 40 percent spike in the state’s Hispanic or Latino population. And it was part of the overall growth that helped Rhode Island to avoid losing a seat in the US House of Representatives.
But the increase in the Central Falls population count is not simply an indication that more people are moving to the city, observers say.
“I think it mostly reflects a better job counting rather than an influx of new residents,” Common Cause Rhode Island executive director John M. Marion said. “There has not been a large increase in the housing stock in the city, but there was a concerted effort by the community to encourage participation in the census.”
Ten years ago, Central Falls was plunging into bankruptcy during the administration of former Mayor Charles D. Moreau, but in recent years the administrations of Mayor Maria Rivera and former Mayor James A. Diossa have been encouraging people to take part in the census, Marion said.
City officials agree that the new census data partly reflect a correction of past “undercounts.” Over the years, Central Falls has seen its population fluctuate from 23,550 in 1950, to 16,995 in 1980, to 18,928 in 2000, according to state documents.
“With a Trump administration intent on throwing up every roadblock possible, Central Falls faced a daunting 2020 census challenge,” Rivera said. “This is more so since it was the city’s belief that Central Falls was undercounted in 2010, even with a Democratic president, more resources, and no pandemic.”
But the 2020 census results “speak for themselves,” Rivera said. “This new, more accurate count means more federal dollars for our residents in health care, education, and housing.”
From the outset, she said, it was clear that many city residents, including undocumented families, were not going to come to city officials to be counted — city officials had to find ways to reach out to them.
“We tried to do crazy things,” Rivera said. At one point, she stood on the back of a flatbed truck, speaking through a microphone, as part of a parade that went around the city, spreading the word about the census. “We even had a Dominican singer. People were walking alongside handing out census literature, T-shirts, and gift cards.”
Rivera helped to organize the Central Falls Emergency Fund for Undocumented Families, which raised more than $17,000 and provided gift cards for many families in the city during the pandemic. In the process, she said she would talk to those families about the importance of taking part in the census and how it would help bring in more federal funds for housing, health care, schools, and roads.
Many of those undocumented families harbored fears about the government and the possibility of deportation, but it helped to hear assurances from her, City Council members, and other trusted members of the community, she said.
“Trust was key,” Rivera said.
She said many played a role in building that trust and advocating for investments in census organizing, including former Mayor Diossa and state Health Department Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott — the co-chairs of the Rhode Island Complete Count Committee.
Jerzyk, the city solicitor who co-chaired that panel’s government subcommittee, said state Senator Sandra Cano, a Pawtucket Democrat, played a key role in spurring creation of the Complete Count Committee, and the Rhode Island Foundation and other groups helped the state fund the complete count effort.
Jeryzk said Marion, a Complete Count Committee member, made clear early on that one key to success would be an obscure process known as LUCA (Local Update of Census Addresses). LUCA provides the only opportunity for state and local governments to review and comment on the US Census Bureau’s residential address list for their jurisdiction before the actual census count.
“We had to do something because it was the fundamental assumption on which the census was built,” Jerzyk said. “And we were deeply concerned that the census records didn’t reflect the reality of Central Falls.”
For example, census officials were likely to assume that the traditional New England triple deckers throughout Central Falls each contain three families. But Jerzyk, who has helped organize political campaigns in the city for years, said, “We knew differently. We knew that when you look at a triple-decker, there are probably six or nine families in it.”
The key, he said, was reaching the people who might live in a basement apartment or a fourth floor apartment with no doorbell, he said.
To get more accurate information, the city secured a Rhode Island Foundation grant for the latest community-organizing software (from Community Connect Labs) and hired local canvassers who spoke multiple languages. Wearing bright yellow “Central Falls” T-shirts, they went door-to-door with iPads, gathering information on the number of mailboxes, air conditioning units, and electric meters on each building, for example. And if they met people at the homes, they’d ask how many people live there, he said.
“As a result of this grassroots organizing campaign, we found 500 units of housing that previously were not included in the census database,” Jerzyk said.
The outreach effort included posting 4-by-6-foot signs in multiple languages at a dozen locations around the city, with a message from then-Mayor Diossa about how important it was to fill out census forms. The effort also included sending direct mail to every residential address in the city, he said.
“We absolutely used the same tactics used in political campaigns — texting, phone banking, door-knocking, social media, direct mail, signs,” Jerzyk said.
But those tactics could only go so far because phone calls, mail, and social media posts were unlikely to reach many of the undocumented residents, green card holders, and other city residents working multiple jobs, he said.
So the census-outreach strategy turned to schools and churches, Jerzyk said. “We knew the school district had the best organization of non-citizen engagement in the city,” he said. “We also knew the churches in the city had great influence in the undocumented community.”
Jerzyk said another key was the work of Luis Estrada, a man who spent 22 years behind bars before becoming a political adviser to Central Falls mayors and the current governor. Estrada served as the Complete Count Committee’s field coordinator for urban communities such as Central Falls, he said.
But just as the city was ready to ramp up its census outreach campaign, the pandemic hit. “All of our plans for a citywide campaign were frozen in their tracks,” Jerzyk said.
As the city became the state’s hot spot for COVID-19, attention focused on how to contain the outbreak and provide services to residents, including undocumented families. And as those programs took shape, officials realized that the COVID-19 and census outreach efforts could merge, he said.
“Everyone involved had a light bulb moment,” Jerzyk said. “We had just spent 18 months trying to talk undocumented residents about the census, and now they are here in front of us.”
Tracey Giron, who served as chief of staff for then-Mayor Diossa, said residents were coming to the Knights of Columbus Hall on Claremont Street for a food pantry, so the city’s bilingual health ambassadors began bringing iPads there and asking residents to fill out census forms as they waited for groceries.
“There was definitely some hesitancy, with people thinking ‘Who are these people and why do they have iPads?’ “ Giron said. “But one of the good things about Central Falls is that it’s such a small community, and people are united and recognize the familiar faces.”
Marion said Central Falls can’t be compared to wealthy communities, such as Barrington and East Greenwich, which have a history of high participation in the census. “On paper, Central Falls should have been one of the hardest places to count in the census,” he said. “They had to overcome a lot of skepticism in Central Falls.”
They succeeded not only through the efforts of elected officials but also of local nonprofits such as Progreso Latino and Fuerza Laboral, Marion said.
So, he said, the lessons are clear for other communities in the future: “Start early and engage the community authentically with trusted voices.”