Temperatures plunged during homeless census count

With bitter cold, many wonder why people just don’t go to shelters

AS SNOW SQUALLS and plunging temperatures took over Massachusetts for much of the last two days, no one felt it quite as hard as the homeless. The polar vortex arrived just in time for Boston’s 39th annual homeless census Wednesday night.

City and state leaders and volunteers canvassed much of Downtown Crossing and other parts of the area to track information about homeless individuals. The intention is to use the data to identify gaps in housing and other services. But Wednesday night was different than other nights, with wind chill temperatures between 15 to 25 below zero in the city.

At times when it’s that cold, people begin to wonder why the homeless don’t go to shelters. Suffolk District Attorney Rachael Rollins was out with the volunteer for the count. “I’ve seen a mayor and a commissioner and members of Boston police and Governor Baker’s team that are helping people and trying to find out why there are some people that on the coldest night are choosing not to go in,” she said.

Some people are traumatized by past experiences in shelters. Others are too intoxicated or suffer from mental illness and are unable to help themselves. In some instances, the most volunteers could do was offer hats and blankets to anyone who chose to remain outside. The census is used to collect data on the demographics and income levels of the homeless, including people in transitional housing and shelters.

Jim Greene, the city’s point person on homelessness, told WBUR he has been doing the census for more than three decades. Wednesday night’s count, he says, was far and away the coldest count he’s experienced.

Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, who was among the group sweeping through the area, announced Wednesday that the city was receiving nearly $26.3 million in federal funding to support chronic and veterans’ homelessness programs.

In 2017, Boston was identified by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development as the city with the lowest percentage of unsheltered people living on the street of any city conducting a census. In 2017, less than 3 percent of Boston’s homeless population was sleeping on the street. The annual homeless census is required by the federal agency as a key component of Boston’s $26 million federal grant.

Walsh in 2015 set the goal of ending chronic homelessness in Boston by 2018. That didn’t happen, but the federal money will help. The city did manage to reduce chronic homelessness in Boston by 20 percent from 2016 to 2018, and partnered with affordable housing owners to create a homeless veteran preference within their units.

City Councilor Annissa Essaibi-George, who heads the Committee on Homelessness, Mental Health and Recovery, recently filed hearing orders to discuss the census and the construction of Long Island Bridge, which used to lead to a shelter that provided treatment for the homeless.

Walsh has promised to open shuttered Long Island for addiction recovery services, but with Quincy opposed to the plan, it remains to be seen when that solution can be reached.

Meet the Author

Sarah Betancourt

Reporter, CommonWealth magazine

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a bilingual journalist reporting across New England. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, social justice, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a bilingual journalist reporting across New England. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, social justice, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

Homelessness is not a problem restricted to Boston. According to a federal report published in December 2018, the Massachusetts homeless population increased by 2,500 people in 2018, or 14 percent. That brings the total statewide to around 20,000.

Some of those may have been a wave of Puerto Rican evacuees who relocated to western Massachusetts following the destruction of Hurricane Maria to the US territory. Massachusetts is the only state with a right-to-shelter law, meaning state and local officials must provide shelter to those requesting services.

Gov. Charlie Baker just announced four pilot projects to help homeless students with lodging and food at state and community college campuses. A 2017 survey of Massachusetts public college students reviewed that nearly two-thirds of community college students who participated in the study suffered from food insecurity and inability to find housing. Forty-nine percent of community college students reported housing insecurity specifically in the 2016-2017 time period.