CENSUS SHOCKER: Walsh spearheads efforts to count the city’s unsheltered

Photo By Zhihong Li

Mayor Martin J. Walsh and over 300 volunteers took to the streets of Boston for the 35th Annual Homeless Census on Thursday, Feb. 25. Alongside the Boston mayor were city officials like Boston Public Health Commission Director Huy Nguyen, Emergency Shelter Commission Director Jim Greene, Chief of Health and Human Services Chief Felix Arroyo, Commonwealth Secretary of Health and Human Services Marylou Sudders and Bob Pulster, the regional coordinator of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness.

While the census provides data that helps the city and other agencies shape homelessness policy, the night was also a chance for Mayor Walsh to respond to critics of his record with a night of one-on-one encounters with the city’s cold and unsheltered.

Since October, the mayor has been under attack.

The census is held nearly five months after the closing of the Long Island bridge, which resulted in huge challenges for the homeless and recovery communities… and for the Walsh administration. Long Island bridge was closed last October 8, with only a four-hour notice, after the city had determined it was unsafe (the Mass. Department of Transportation also advised closure). The bridge provided the only access to Long Island shelter, the largest emergency shelter in the city, and a number of recovery beds, a detox house and a reentry program.

The city set up a makeshift shelter at the South End Fitness Center two days after the closure. The gym held about 250 men who slept on cots and mats, and some clients complained about a lack of toilets and showers. Many still had belongings on the island. With winter approaching, the city scrambled to find shelter, but didn’t even have a proposed site ready until one month later.

Finally, in January, after three months without a true replacement shelter, the city made 100 beds available at the brand new Southampton Street shelter. The new shelter is clean, has more toilets and showers and features offices for recovery, housing and social services assistance. Another 300 beds are expected to be available by spring, though the second phase of construction has yet to begin. Furthermore, many recovery programs are still in limbo and the city has yet to replace the detox and recovery beds. None of the new Southampton Street beds are for women. The city’s slow actions have been criticized by advocates from the religious community and by newer groups like the Boston Homeless Solidarity Committee and Hand Delivered Hope.

Mayor Walsh has called his decision to close the bridge the hardest one he’s had to make as mayor so far. When criticized for his response to the closure, he’s pointed to his record of securing funds for recovery and treatment programs during his time as a state representative. He was very proud of the new Southampton shelter, which was built in two weeks after the site was finally secured. Some, however, like the religious leaders who founded the BostonWarm day shelters, call it “too little, too late.”

With homeless rates throughout Boston and the Commonwealth increasing over the years, the closure has highlighted a crisis that many, both citizens and politicians, had never really considered.

The census was a night for the mayor and others to show they’re paying attention and, more importantly, they care.

The 300 volunteers who showed up included city employees, university students, service workers and members of the faith community. The annual census is made up of a street count of unsheltered homeless around Boston as well as a point-in-time survey from emergency shelters. Volunteers weren’t just counting individuals but also encouraging them to head to the shelters—outreach vans were on call to transport anyone who wanted to go.

“The census is an annual opportunity for us to put a number and a face to the need for housing, shelter beds and treatment resources in our city,” says Director Nguyen. “The closure of the Long Island bridge and our extra difficult winter have put a strain on Boston’s shelter system and made us realize how fortunate we are to have such wonderful partners.”

He notes that the shelters take in upwards of 1,700 individuals a night, many of whom are staying inside during winter—about 80 percent, according to one Boston Health Care for the Homeless spokesperson. Dir. Nguyen also mentioned that the shelters don’t just provide warmth, safety and supplies, but also a host of medical, behavioral and substance abuse help and management as well as vocational training.

There was a sense of excitement in City Hall, but Mayor Walsh reminded the crowd of how somber the night can be and how haunting it is for some. About 14 years ago, “[Pine Street Inn President] Lyndia Downie asked me to go out in the Pine Street Inn van… I still remember very vividly where people lived. On the grates behind the McCormack building, on Devonshire in the ATM office, behind Our Lady of Good Voyage Church, under the Longfellow Bridge…” Later that night, Walsh went out to his parents’ house: “My father asked how’d the night go. I said, ‘Dad, compared to what I’ve seen tonight, we’re millionaires.’”

“In the coming years, I want our numbers to diminish,” emotes the mayor. “Not because people don’t want to go out and help, but because we don’t have as many people to help.”

It won’t be easy. Last year’s census found a 3.8 percent increase in the homeless population. Furthermore, while the rate of unsheltered homelessness in Boston is one of the lowest in the nation, it has one of the highest shelter populations in the United States and last year the shelter population saw the highest increase rate in the country.

walsh7Later that night, Mayor Walsh says he thinks reports about Boston’s homelessness crisis may be misrepresented. Many of the homeless are from outside of Boston, he notes, and likely come here because the city has more resources to help them.

The teams of volunteers split up to tackle different regions of the city. They were able to use an app to both count the homeless as well as call for help and assistance. Mayor Walsh took to the street, just as his predecessor Mayor Menino did each year.

The mayor and his team met a variety of people on the streets. The first was John Jeske. When asked why he is on the street, he tells the mayor and director Greene that he isn’t allowed to bring food into the shelter and also lists other concerns and complaints about the shelter system and its restrictions. Jeske says he has a disability and has been in and out of many shelters, even being kicked out of at least one.

“I’ll look into it,” promises Mayor Walsh, regarding Jeske’s concerns.

At the Downtown Crossing causeway, Mayor Walsh met a group of four homeless people huddled along the walls beneath sweaters and blankets. One man complains about the police harassing him on three different occasions—sometimes physically.

After the conversation, Mayor Walsh began talking to another reporter about drug abuse: “You get caught up in the addiction, and when you get caught up in the addiction, you’re not going to have the clarity to want to help yourself.” I ask if the mayor meant he didn’t believe the young man’s account.

“Who knows?” replies Mayor Walsh. I ask if tensions between police and the homeless seemed heightened during the past winter, and he says he didn’t think so. He points out that many stations are staying open overnight during the harsh winter and that the MBTA police are encouraged to help the homeless out and let them stay inside.

Returning to the topic of drug abuse, I ask, “Substance abuse must be especially tough these days, since we’re still missing beds from Long Island.”

“There are never enough beds,” says Mayor Walsh. “And really, when it comes to recovery you need more than just a bed. You need a real program.”

“True,” I respond. “Long Island had a good ecosystem for that.” On the island, recovery clients could graduate from detox, get a bed in a recovery program, get a job at the shelter or another program and eventually get a room in Hello House or a similar program. It let clients put their recovery first, focus on staying clean and transitioning back to society. I ask Mayor Walsh how the city will replicate that system.

“We’re working on it,” he says. “Once our shelter on Southampton is fully built out.” He also advocated a need for more dry shelters to help those in recovery and to categorize types of homelessness to better help people’s needs.

Sites in Roxbury and Mattapan have been considered as potential detox and recovery locations, but Boston is still short of the 60 detox beds while some private and city programs are still in limbo. Mayor Walsh pointed out similar programs exist at Pine Street Inn. However, expanding such programming is a much-needed step toward combating drug abuse and homelessness.

I ask Greene if he notices any patterns or common threads among that night’s unsheltered. He says he noticed a lot of people who first became homeless in their youth and haven’t yet been housed—some have been homeless going on 10 years or more.

“I saw a young couple, an 18 and 16 year old, out on the street,” he says. “My hope is that they don’t become that 40-year-old person who’s still homeless.”

This year’s point-in-time also marks the third annual Youth Count. The Youth Count lasts more nights than the adult census. Youth are tougher to count, since they’re more likely to couch surf with friends or gather in spots away from homeless adults. The Youth Count seeks to determine the number of unaccompanied youth under 24 in shelters, drop-in centers, projects and programs. The count will last until March 7.

Outreach vans are also out patrolling the street and responding to census teams’ calls for help and supplies. Mayor Walsh and Director Greene spot one man outside a 7-11 and approach him. They asked him what he was doing outside, how he planned to stay warm and how long he’d been homeless.

At one point, tears began to run down the man’s cheeks. “Sometimes I think I should be arrested,” he says. “You get three meals, a warm bed.”

Greene offers to call a van to take the man to a shelter. The man turns to Mayor Walsh. “Why are you out here tonight?”

“Because I care about you,” emotes the mayor.

Eventually a van pulls up. These outreach vans patrol the city every night, taking people to shelters and handing out supplies.

I don’t know if the man from the 7-11 got in the van or not. I overheard one volunteer from the van say “another one changed his mind.” He sounds frustrated. As Mayor Walsh’s security tells me, “you wouldn’t believe how many refuse help.”

As previously reported in Spare Change News, not all homeless people want to be in the shelter system. They may have issues with the rules and restrictions or choose to endure the outdoors with friends or want to avoid theft and abuse.

Mayor Walsh and his team returned to City Hall around 11 p.m. Some teams were still out, but the data was already being compiled. The official report will be released in the coming weeks.

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