Making The Count: Cambridge/Somerville Conduct 2011 Homeless Census

Cambridge and Somerville conducted their annual census of homeless individuals on January 28.

Cambridge and Somerville have conducted a joint homeless census for the past eleven years. The two cities have co-coordinated a homeless census because homeless individuals cross between neighborhoods like Porter and Inman Square that straddle both cities.

“The Cambridge/Somerville homeless census is a joint operation,“ said Fred Berman, Cambridge Department of Human Services census co-manager. “Since both cities share a border which homeless individuals frequently cross over it makes sense to do the census together.”

Berman also pointed out that a common border makes traveling between North Cambridge and Davis Square a daily activity.

“Homeless people routinely crisis cross our municipal boundaries,” said Berman. “Places like Porter and Inman Square are a close proximity to both cities.”

The count of homeless individuals in shelters and transitional housing is coordinated by each city’s municipal staff. The survey of unsheltered men and women in Cambridge is coordinated by the Department of Human Services under the leadership of Berman.

“The counts of people in our shelters and transitional housing programs are accurate, the street counts represent our best efforts,” said Berman. “We know, that we may miss some of the people, but it is inevitable. Some of the people staying on the street do not want to be seen and do a good job of staying out of view.”

The survey of the unsheltered men and women living in Cambridge was conducted by six teams consisting of 4-5 volunteers and experienced professional staff. These teams followed a prescribed route throughout the city, and were led by professional staff from the Cambridge and Somerville Alcoholic and Drug Rehabilitation Program (CSPAR) First Step Outreach Program. This outreach program works with homeless street men and women, engaging them with services focusing on mental illness, substance abuse and medical issues.

“CSPAR‘s First Step Outreach Team serves both cities,” said Berman. “CSPAR operates the street outreach team program, and therefore its staff has the most experience, and is the most knowledgeable about what is going on.”

This year’s homeless census workers were a mix of experienced volunteers and first-time participants who were trying to build up community experience by working with the homeless.

“This is the first homeless census that I am working on,” said Minka Vanbruzekena. “I am interested in developing community outreach experience.

“This maybe an important skill in my future career search.”

Jason Betterncort, a professional staff person from CSPAR, spoke about his participation in the census.
“I am part of the Cambridge First Step Outreach Night Program,” he said. “I do a lot of outreach with old school homeless who are set in their ways and alcoholic dependence.”

The original date of the census had to be changed due to inclement weather. “The 2011 count was moved up one day because we didn’t want to go out during a heavy snowfall,” said Berman. “Other communities went ahead with their count during the snowfall and probably countered fewer people in unsheltered situations.”

Berman noted that the results of the 2011 census were not yet available.

“The census is still being tabulated,“ said Berman. “The city is awaiting data from human service agencies that provided shelter or transitional housing to Cambridge homeless individuals the week of January 28 census’

Berman highlighted that the 2010 census is available and reported a sheltered count of 193 homeless individuals, similar to census results in 2007 and 2008. A street count of 61 individuals was recorded and that paralleled 2008. The one major area of change in the homeless census concerned homeless families and was reflective in a reduction in the number of homeless families in state funded units of family shelter within the city (from 32 to 27 units) and also a decrease from (73 to 38) in the number of metro Boston families temporarily sheltered by the state at the Cambridge Gateway Inn. Overall the census reported a 12 percent drop in homelessness from 637 in 2009, to 559 for 2010.

“Counting the unsheltered homeless is an inexact science,” said Megan Goughan, director of CSPAR’s first Step Outreach Program and census co-manager. “The counting of the unsheltered is largely weather-related.

Goughan noted that 2009’s street count of 40 individuals was so much lower because of icy street conditions and a foot of snow blanketing the city, forcing otherwise unsheltered individuals into protective situations.

According to Ellen Semonoff, Assistant City Manager for Human Services, changes in homeless families counted by the census reflected state trends of aggressively utilizing federal stimulus funds to move families out of motels and prevent new homelessness. In Cambridge alone, 95 households have received rental or utility assistance to prevent or end their homelessness under the Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program.

The 2010 homeless census has helped Cambridge receive 3 million federal dollars to address, among other things, homeless and housing placement.
The city is continuing to work to leverage its partnerships with the state, HUD, and with local non-profits to ensure that Cambridge residents receive the help they need to remain housed and end homelessness.

(Photo: REUTERS/Jim Young)

Robert Sondak is a vendor and a writer for Spare Change News.