The message was clear — it’s time for New Haven to count.

The Elm City’s preparations for the 2020 United States census began on Tuesday at a public meeting hosted by Mayor Toni Harp. The city’s leaders gathered to emphasize the importance of the upcoming census for New Haven’s foreseeable future. The accuracy and effectiveness of the once-per-decade official count of the city’s population affects a wide range of issues, from federal funding allocation to the drawing of district lines. Speakers and organizers acknowledged the unknowns and challenges that New Haven will face in this census — including a highly controversial question on citizenship status that is currently facing a legal challenge, as well as new data-gathering procedures — and called on the Elm City’s residents and leaders to join efforts to account for the city’s diverse population.

“It’s really important for our city that we get an accurate count,” Harp told the News in an interview. “Federal funds are distributed according to how many people live in your area … . We want to do our part in New Haven to make sure that we are well-represented and that everyone who lives here is counted.”

The meeting, held in the city’s Hall of Records, drew attendance from throughout the city and the state. Harp’s administration — including City Plan Director Michael Piscitelli — sent several representatives to the meeting along with the mayor. But the issue is not just a New Haven question, as newly inaugurated Lieutenant Governor Susan Bysiewicz ’83 and her aides also attended the meeting, alongside various political and nonprofit leaders.

Harp, Bysiewicz and other community leaders offered the opening remarks. Afterwards, attendees listened to presentations from DataHaven and participated in discussions on how to promote census participation.

Harp and Bysiewicz stressed that among the things at stake in the census include the allocation of $675 billion in funding from the federal government that impacts a wide-ranging slew of issues including benefits for families, education and other critical city services. Connecticut faces the dual reality of being one of the nation’s top donor states — which pay more to the federal government than they get back — and one of few states that has lost population in the last five years. Given that reality, ensuring that all citizens are accounted for could be critical in guaranteeing funding in a cash-strapped state.

“We are going to be working very hard with our congressional delegation to stand up and make sure that Connecticut and New Haven gets back their fair share of federal funding,” Bysiewicz said. “New Haven and other parts of the state face some challenges [in getting a complete count].”

Census results, broadly speaking, determine everything from how lines are drawn for political districts — at all levels of government — to the economic development decisions that will be made for years to come.

But the Elm City and the Nutmeg State face a number of challenges in counting every resident. At face value, 22 percent of Connecticut resides in hard-to-count districts, where the mail return rate is upward of 70 percent. A disproportionate portion of the 22 percent lives in urban areas such as New Haven.

Aside from the issue of reaching people, this year’s census has an extra element of concern for some of New Haven’s residents — undocumented individuals. As the Trump administration has become increasingly hostile in its rhetoric and policy toward immigrants, particularly those who are undocumented, the Elm City has remained a relative safe haven and declared itself a sanctuary city.

But the current proposed census includes a question on citizenship, which advocates worry will translate into consequences for undocumented populations. The inclusion of the citizenship question is currently being challenged in the court system, and Tuesday’s attendees acknowledged the concern and recognized it as one of the issues the count effort will have to work to overcome.

Daniel Reyes, executive director of the nonprofit Junta for Progressive Action, advocates on behalf of New Haven’s Latinx community. Reyes expressed his concern on the citizenship question and its potential to deter members of the community from counting themselves.

Reyes suspects that litigation on the question will continue past the date when the census form is finalized and, as of now, suggests that the best route forward would be to encourage filling out the census form and leaving that question blank.

Several speakers on Tuesday made clear the importance of reaching the communities that are most at risk of being undercounted, which includes undocumented individuals, minorities and low-income communities. Efforts to increase the accuracy of the count include increased methods of submitting information — for the first time, an online response will be an option — as well as hiring local members of the community for various employment opportunities with the Census Bureau.

William Ginsberg, who leads the Community Foundation for Greater New Haven, told attendees that the census is a political weapon and a “partisan issue” — vulnerable groups are potentially made even more vulnerable by not being counted.

“There is a deliberate effort to marginalize people,” Ginsberg said. “If we’re not prepared to fight it, we are going to lose it and lose big.”

As of the 2010 U.S. census, New Haven’s population was estimated to be 129,890.

Angela Xiao | angela.xiao@yale.edu