FAMILY HOMELESSNESS: Census results show rise in homeless families

The Boston Public Health Commission recently released the findings of its 35th annual homeless census, which tracks the homeless population in the city of Boston.

The census found an unsettlingly large increase in the amount of homeless families: the number grew a full 25 percent, up from 1,234 households last year to 1,543 this year. Additionally, the total number of people in those families rose by 20.9 percent, from 3,541 individuals to 4,281.

One piece of good news is that not one of those families was found unsheltered: all were in some form of shelter or transitional program.

One nonprofit working to help this underserved population is FamilyAid Boston, which is Boston’s largest provider of emergency shelters for homeless families. Executive Director of FamilyAid Boston Richard Ring, when asked why he thinks there was such a dramatic increase in the population of homeless families, states: “There’s a growing gap between people with means and people who lack means. When you look at the rents and you look at all the new construction, there’s so much money in the city that it’s pushing [costs] up, and those who don’t have [money] are getting squeezed out.”

According to a report by the nonprofit Brookings Institution, Boston has the third highest rate of income inequality among the 50 largest cities in the United States.

Also, according to a another report by apartment rental website Zumper, Boston has the third highest rental prices in the country, after only New York and San Francisco. These two factors can mean that families, even with both parents working, may not have enough money for a place to stay.

Ring continues, “There’s a story within the story. [The working poor] is a subpopulation within this overall number that is growing and is really posing some concern. There are people who are employed, and working low-paying jobs. They have been housed, but are vulnerable because of that lack of income. If something goes wrong, they lose hours on their job or have a major expense: these are families who are on the edge, and what happens is they start to fall behind in their rent, and they become at risk of being homeless.

“There are so many wage-earners, but their incomes are just at that level that [their situation is] precarious.”

FamilyAid, in cooperation with the City of Boston, runs the Family Emergency Solutions Program, which offers 24/7 emergency services to homeless families. However, in the twenty year existence of this program, there has never been so much demand: Ring called this past year “unprecedented,” and FamilyAid, since they do not have the financial or logistical capabilities to house so many families, needed to start a waitlist for the program. This waitlist now has over 30 households on it.

While no one is completely sure why there has been such a dramatic increase in families needing support this year, Ring has a theory: “The winter was so severe. Especially the breakdown in transportation prevented people from putting in their full amount of work. So as people lose income, what they’re going to do is pay the most pressing bills. Over time, what that can mean is that they fall behind on their rent.”

“Possibly, these are the ramifications of people losing wages in the wintertime,” he concludes.

On February 25, the day the census was given, Mayor Martin J. Walsh led a group of 300 volunteers around the city, who spent the night talking with the homeless population and taking detailed notes. Walsh has been criticized for his decision to close the Long Island Shelter (which housed only individuals and no families) last October after the only access bridge was found to be unsafe. However, with the expansion of the Southampton Street shelter and, in January, the release of his long-term, $73.6 million plan entitled An Action Plan to End Veteran and Chronic Homelessness, he has regained some supporters.

The plan aims to offer more permanent housing solutions: the initial press release states that even though “the task force identified that Boston has one of the lowest rates of urban, unsheltered street homelessness in the United States, as a result of steadily increasing the number of housing units for homeless individuals by targeting resources and committing to new investments,” nevertheless the issue had not been solved. “To truly solve homelessness in Boston, it is imperative for the city and its partner providers to implement critical system reforms,” the press release continues.

It is important to note that the census data was gathered on one night only and, though it certainly reflects a troubling trend, it is not an estimate applicable for every month in the year. Additionally, it reflects the data for a winter rather than a calendar year: for example, the last census was taken on December 16, 2013.

When the city or FamilyAid finds some sort of permanent housing for a family, the next year can be a difficult transition. In collaboration with the City of Boston, FamilyAid participates in the Housing Access Collaborative program, which aims to provide “stabilization” to families.

However, Ring states: “The demand outstripps our ability to do that for everybody.”

When asked how a concerned citizen can help, Ring cites the fact that many families may lack the means to get basic items: “When we help a family move out of a shelter and go into their own apartment, the families have a host of basic housekeeping needs,” he states. “Think of the most basic items people need to manage their lives and think about making some kind of contribution along those lines.”

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