Census officials say accurate count key to reducing overcrowding in rural Alaska

A home in Savoonga is weathered by the harsh, coastal Bering Strait climate. (Emily Hofstaedter/KNOM)

Rural Alaskans are expressing concerns with the counting process as the 2020 Census begins Jan. 21 in Toksook Bay. Some fear there will be repercussions if they share details about their cramped living conditions, but census leaders say accurate data could reduce overcrowding throughout the state.

“The Census has failed Alaska we’re (using) multi-generational households,” said Tresia Coleman. “If they’re only counting one, then they aren’t getting an accurate count. We have overcrowded schools and no funding for that. There’s no access to housing.”

During this year’s Alaska Federation of Natives convention, Coleman, from the Native Village of Eklutna, voiced her concerns at a break-out session focused on the 2020 Census.

She questioned the panelists from the U.S. Census Bureau on how they intended to ensure the upcoming count would be done correctly and accurately. Coleman was the only one in attendance during this specific AFN session.

Donna Bach, Tribal partnership specialist for the census, addressed some of Coleman’s concerns. She agreed that the overcrowding issue is a reason to justify accurately counting Alaskans, not to discourage it.

“I think it’s common in a lot of households, not just in rural Alaska, to have multigenerational homes,” Bach said. “The emphasis I think, should be on essentially ensuring that every resident gets counted that resides in that household.”

As Coleman said before, she believes that multiple generations living in each household leads to overcrowded conditions and this indicates a failure of the census to count how many people actually live in each house across rural Alaska.

According to a Counting for Dollars report from George Washington University, which Bach has referenced before, about 6 to 8 percent of Alaska Natives were not counted in the state during the last census.

Coleman told the panel at AFN that she and her children weren’t even counted during the 2010 Census.

“Because of the past generations where they would ignore us as Native people, there’s going to be a lot of animosity and a lot of hesitation,” Coleman said. “But the only way we can move forward at this time is if we make them count us, make them count the kids, the nieces and nephews that live us. Because the only way to ensure they have a better future, is to make sure they have access to things we don’t have”

Potentially, Coleman hopes, a future without overcrowded living conditions.

For the Bering Strait Region, the latest report from the Alaska Housing Finance Corporation found that 27 percent of housing units are either overcrowded or severely overcrowded. According to AHFC, this rate is more than eight times the national average and the third most overcrowded region in the state.

Former CEO and President of Bering Straits Regional Housing Authority, Chris Kolerok, said BSRHA has been given other striking data.

“In the Bering Straits outside of Nome, the overcrowding rate is 37 percent. Nineteen percent of that are homes being classified as severely overcrowded and during community meetings we have been confronted with the heart-breaking stories of 21 people sharing a small three-bedroom home,” he said.

Kolerok shared that testimony during a Senate Indian Affairs Committee field hearing in Savoonga in fall 2018. The current CEO of Bering Straits Regional Housing Authority, Matt Ione, was unavailable for comment before the airing of this story.

The 2018 Alaska Housing Assessment from AHFC also says the state needs 16,000 housing units to be built in order to alleviate overcrowding. According to Bach, the 2020 Census data can provide information to support a solution to overcrowded housing conditions in Alaska.

“It helps inform what the crowding issue is, to possibly help inform those housing authorities to say, ‘We are over capacity, there is a lack of housing, there is a lack of low-income housing that is not meeting the population that we need to build and plan for 10 years in advance,'” she said. “So that snapshot in time is extremely informative and important.”

Bach says the more than 320 federal programs that benefit Alaska, including housing development, all rely on accurate census data.

“I think of bypass mail for the aviation industry in Alaska,” she said. “I think of free and reduced lunch programs. I think of migrant education funding, SNAP, TANF, Medicaid”

According to Bach, Alaska receives $3.2 billion in federal funding each year, and any sort of undercount in the upcoming census would mean losing some of that money.