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ENUMERATORS HIT STREETS AS MILLIONS WAIT TO BE COUNTED

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An army of census counters has hit the streets to fill in the blanks on some 37 million American households whose residents have yet to be counted.

Thousands of "enumerators" began their door-to-door mission Thursday in 100 metropolitan areas nationwide. U.S. Census Bureau officials, concerned about the response to the pavement beaters, sought to assure people that it was safe to open doors."They're people from your neighborhood," said B.J. Welborn, a spokeswoman for the Boston regional office of the U.S. Census Bureau. "We're trying to put a human face on the count."

Nearly 40 percent of more than 95 million census questionnaires sent out in March haven't been returned, and millions more people never received forms. The door-to-door canvassing is aimed at filling in all those missing names.

The next phase in the $1.3 billion census, beginning May 3, is to take the door-to-door counting to 300 smaller communities.

The 1,200 Boston area counters sworn in Thursday were looking at a long afternoon of dancing around potholes, befriending neighborhood dogs and knocking on doors when no one is at home.

"I don't like going into strange people's houses," said Sheila Moretti, a mother of two and lifelong fixture in this city's close-knit, mostly Italian North End neighborhood. "But it helps that I'm a familiar face. People know they can trust me."

But getting in the door is only half the battle.

"Then you have to convince people that everything we ask is confidential," said Paula DeCosta, who manages a district census office. "We would be fined and imprisoned if we gave out any information."

New immigrants, who sometimes associate the federal government with taxes or deportation, are often among the most reluctant to confide in badge-carrying counters.

"They don't know it's for their own good," said Yuri Quinnie of the city's Hyde Park section. "I didn't understand it at first either."

Mike Costelnik, an enumerator in Bayonne, N.J., wasn't discouraged by getting replies from only five of the 50 households he tried on his first day on the job.

`It was the afternoon," Costelnik said. "I can always come back and get them tomorrow night. I am confident I will get them at some point."