CHICAGO (AP) _ A decade ago, Leona Torres didn't fill out her census form. This time around, she is a census ``enumerator,'' pounding the pavement _ and on doors _ to help anyone who hasn't yet filled out and returned a census form.

In some major cities, that's a tall order. While 65 percent of households nationally mailed in their forms, only 59 percent of Chicagoans and 58 percent of New Yorkers returned theirs.

``We need better schools and better hospitals. We need a lot of help with our parks,'' the 44-year-old mother of two tells naysayers as she stands outside their doors in her predominantly Hispanic, working-class neighborhood just southwest of downtown Chicago. ``Think about your future and your children.''

Officials say it is frequently people in neighborhoods like these _ often poor, often minorities _ who are left out of the count that authorities use for such things as budgeting for social services and drawing up congressional districts.

``The very people who aren't counted are often the ones who need the services most,'' says Don Davis, who is coordinating census activities for Chicago Mayor Richard Daley.

An enumerator's job can be a tough one, often requiring detective work in neighborhoods not known for their safety.

Michael Nicodemus, a 57-year-old enumerator who also has a security systems business, went to one address in a poor Philadelphia neighborhood Wednesday and found a corner store gated and locked, the apartment above apparently vacant.

Eventually he learned from a passer-by that the owner of the store had been shot and killed, and his son, who used to live there, had closed up and left the area.

There are challenges in rural areas, too.

In North Dakota, census workers have encountered wary residents and remote homes _ some without telephones _ on the state's four Indian reservations.

Karen Hoovestol, Census Bureau office manager in Bismarck, N.D., said some workers have been ``up to their hubcaps in mud'' and have had to walk three miles to get someone to pull them out.

Census officials say such extra efforts are crucial for an accurate count. They estimate 12.5 percent of American Indians on reservations were missed in 1990, making them the most undercounted minority in the nation.

A key to a successful count is having enumerators canvas their own neighborhoods.

``A lot of people know me or they've seen me walk my dog. It helps a whole lot,'' says Sandra Limbrick, an enumerator who's already helped several people, many of them elderly, fill out forms in her neighborhood on the east side of Louisville, Ky.

The Census bureau also is also trying to hire enumerators who speak other languages. It's a critical point in the area east of Boston that census supervisor Francisco Dominguez oversees, where more than 20 languages are spoken.

Even if there is a language barrier, face-to-face contact helps, he said: Non-English speakers are ``more likely to respond to somebody than to forms.''

Census workers also try to ease any fears residents may have, carrying with them forms that explain the bureau's strict confidentiality policy. They're allowed to skip some questions, including those about household income, if a person insists.

But Joseph Trinidad, a 22-year-old Michigan State University student who's taking the semester off to do census work in New York City, says it's not usually fear or privacy concerns that keep people from filling out their forms. More often, he says, it's simple forgetfulness or lack of interest.

``They threw it away or the April 15 deadline for returning it had passed,'' said Trinidad, who makes $18.50 an hour _ among the highest hourly rate for enumerators, many of whom will work well into the summer.

The government still has enumerator jobs open. In Virginia, 4,200 enumerators began work Thursday, while 6,800 positions were still waiting to be filled.

``It's the most important job in the Census,'' says Christina Flores, a team leader in one of the bureau's Chicago offices.

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On the Net: http://www.census.gov