A New Point in Time: A more positive narrative surrounds Walsh’s second homeless census as mayor

Last year, Marty Walsh’s first homeless census as the mayor came months after he closed Long Island, an incident that displaced hundreds of homeless folks and recovering addicts in Boston and led to tough criticism of how he handled the event. To recap, the main access route to the island, a rusty 64 year old bridge, was closed with only four hours notice. Weeks of blizzards and a lack of restored treatment beds didn’t ease the media’s scrutiny. Even after restoring 100 shelter beds at the new, mainland Southampton shelter, many activists, outlets, and politicians still called the homelessness situation a crisis. Mayor Walsh consistently called the closure a tough but necessary decision, citing the now-demolished bridge’s unstable structure, but city hall never managed to put a good spin on the narrative, despite insisting it would find a way to not just rectify the situation but revamp the whole shelter system.

This year, his second census—also called the “point in time” count—comes in the wake of much more positive news: that the city of Boston has officially ended chronic veteran’s homelessness. The accomplishment is impressive, but, as some have noted, it may sound a bit more dramatic or impressive than what it is. Even the mayor acknowledges the reality is more complicated.

“Ending chronic veteran homelessness doesn’t mean we don’t have homeless vets,” Mayor Walsh told the crowd of 400 volunteers in City Hall on Wednesday. There are still homeless vets on lists waiting for housing, which should pan out soon, and still vets out on the streets, avoiding shelters and outreach. There will always be a new wave of vets seeking emergency shelter and housing assistance. A “function end” to chronic veteran homelessness doesn’t just mean fewer vets in shelters, it means shorter waiting periods to get rehoused and more support to keep them housed. The term “chronic,” after all, refers to a consistent reliance on shelters, a reliance that lasts years. As Mayor Walsh later told Spare Change News, “it’s a full time job.”

Mayor Walsh also told the volunteers about his plans to end chronic individual homelessness by 2018, a task they’ll have to work on everyday to accomplish.

After some advice from Jim Greene, director of Boston’s emergency shelter commission, the volunteers took to the streets. They’re goal that night was to take count of every homeless individual they encountered that evening, and check whether they needed blankets, food, or wanted to enter the shelter for the evening. The numbers counted that night will be sent to the federal government, which tallies the numbers to figure out the current homelessness situation. Last year’s census saw a drop in Boston’s individual adult homeless population, from 3,714 in 2013 to 3,383 in 2014. However, a rise in family and youth homelessness saw the overall homeless population rise by 5.6 percent from 2013 to 2014.

The mayor’s team was the first one out of City Hall, a relatively warm night that, he noted, became much colder the longer you stayed out. Roaming down Marching Street and into Downtown Boston, the mayor met with a man smoking in an alley way, two men camped out under a tent that covers an unused fruit stand, men and women camped in front of storefronts with blankets and tarps and walls made of cardboard.

“That looks like the mayor,” said Lisa, a homeless woman hanging out in front of a McDonald’s across the street from Team Walsh.

“It is the mayor,” Mayor Walsh said back. He and Lisa entered the fast food restaurant and chatted for a bit. She explained her story, that her teeth were damaged in an attack, that she misses smiling and is worried about getting good dental care and that it can be difficult to say all she wants to say about being homeless and she tries to write about it but she loses the words after she starts writing. She showed the mayor pictures of her old smile on her phone. He asked if she’s tried places like Boston Healthcare for the Homeless or Pine Street Inn. He encouraged her to go find help again—“tell ‘em the Mayor sent ya,” he said.

The recent encounter in mind, I asked the mayor about Woods Mullen’s conversion to a women-only shelter. (The new Southampton shelter is for men.)

“We’re doing a lot of work on the place,” he said. “It’s not really designed for women. It was kinda gross, needs to get cleaned, and needs a new coat of paint.”

Also in the Mayor’s team is Jim Greene, director of Boston’s emergency shelters. Greene often lagged behind the rest, ensuring whether every individual they met needed help or not, his phone in hand ready to call an outreach van should they need a ride to shelter, or even if they just needed a blanket or some soup. Not too many people wanted help, and many refused to go into shelters.

“I don’t do shelters, shelters do me,” said Mark, who has been homeless since 1990, after the mayor approached him. Mark also told Greene that ever since quitting hard drugs, he tries to avoid certain shelters. I asked Greene how he took such refusals for help.

“This is just one night, we’re working on this every day of the year,” he said. “It’s about doing the best you can. It’s about creating a network, sharing responsibility.”

As Spare Change News has previously reported, homeless folks avoid shelters for various reasons, such as wanting to avoid theft, or avoid beef with workers, or preferring to stick close to a partner. Some people even get barred from shelters, but in extreme conditions, like last winter’s barrage of blizzards, workers ease such restrictions.

When asked about the new Southampton shelter, Greene points out one new advantage of the mainland location: “One thing is that people aren’t on buses for 45 minutes every night heading to a shelter. So certainly people are getting more service more quickly.” He’s referring to the bus trip that took clients from Woods Mullen shelter to Long Island.

With winter underway, the city also points out they’ve been keeping up with demand, which, as WBUR noted, has been high since the summer. “We’re meeting all the capacity, we haven’t turned anyone away,” said Beth Grand, director of Boston Public Health Commission’s Homeless Services Bureau.

Grand mentions that most of the homeless in Boston—about 52 percent—are originally from out of state. In fact, during the count, the mayor’s crew only met one local out on the street, a homeless young man from Mission Hill.

It’s a very common for the city to point out this influx of non-Bostonians when it comes to the homeless population, and even suggest that many homeless folks travel from several states away to Boston specifically to receive such services.

When asked what the biggest challenge to meeting his 2018 goal, the mayor said “it’s housing.” The city needs to figure out how to create more housing and how to better track opening in units. “It’s gonna come down to a good strong system,” said Mayor Walsh. “You can’t let up, we’ve gotta constantly look for housing, look for apartments…”

Mayor Walsh told Spare Change News that a housing coordinator will soon be joining the administration, reporting to the mayor and coordinating with service providers and city departments like the public health department. The city also hopes to announce the winner of a bid to develop a coordinated access database within a few weeks. The database would electronically connect all service providers in the city and keep them informed of openings in other agencies, ideally matching new clients with the appropriate services (like treatment centers for addicts and assisted living for the disabled). These were included in his plan to end chronic homelessness by 2018.

The results of the census won’t be announced for a few months.

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