Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, left, and Emergency Shelter Commission director Jim Greene, right, speak to a recently housed young woman.
On Wednesday night, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh led the annual homeless census, joining hundreds of volunteers who combed through the city to tally the homeless population. It was his fifth point-in-time count as the mayor, and while last year’s census reported a five percent decrease in overall homelessness in Boston, the night reminds Walsh there’s still work ahead.
“We’ve made some progress by housing 1,300 plus people but tonight we’re going to meet people that aren’t housed,” said Walsh, referring to the housing efforts of his Boston’s Way Home initiative. “I think that’s the importance of this, it’s a reminder that regardless of what we do, no matter how many people we house, we always have more work to do.”
Boston’s Way Home is the city’s push to end veteran homelessness and chronic individual homelessness within the city by 2018. In 2016, the city announced it ended chronic veteran homelessness. Specifically, it achieved a functional zero that meant more veterans were receiving or preparing to receive housing than entering the shelter system.) The program housed over 850 vets and, as of October 2017, over 400 chronically homeless individuals. Last year’s census numbers also reported a six percent drop in single adult homelessness.
However, that census still reported over 2,000 people in shelters and in the street. However, it’s unclear how many fit the description of “chronically homeless,” which HUD defines as a person with “a disabling condition” who experiences homelessness continuously or frequently for more than a year.
Walsh believes ending chronic homelessness in 2018 is still possible, but added, “It’s a tough goal.” He said that a lot would depend on housing placements, and incentivizing landlords to house the homeless. (Boston launched one such effort, the landlord guarantee program, back in October 2017.) Walsh also pointed to the city’s new database tracking the clients of homelessness services as a helpful tool in preventing chronic homelessness.
As dozens of groups fanned across the city, Walsh and his group of volunteers made their way from city hall to downtown. While there didn’t seem to be as many people on the streets as past years, the group met a handful of homeless folks. The mayor traded stories of recovery with a couple of older men, shook hands with a young man in a 7/11, and spoke to women huddled in doorways. Emergency Shelter Commission director Jim Greene was nearby, ready to call in a van to escort them to a shelter if needed. Other volunteers held green canvas bags filled with blankets, hats, and toiletries.
Outside the Primark on Washington Street, Walsh spoke to a woman he recognized from last year’s count named Jeannette Tetreault . Tetreault, 29, had met the mayor twice before during point-in-time counts. But this evening, she announced she had found housing. After living in the streets for five years, she stayed at Pine Street in for nine months and got into single-room occupancy housing. It wasn’t easy for her.
“I’m used to being completely by myself and not being around other people… it was a little bit difficult,” said Tetreault. Strangers and curfews were tough—but she needed to endure it to get housing. She was happy to tell the mayor the good news. “It’s nice to say thank you,” she said.
The news also encouraged Greene, who later told Spare Change News that housing is critical to combating homelessness.
“We need more housing,” said Greene. “That’s the core issue for ending homelessness.” He also called for more supportive housing, which provides help to those he dealing with health concerns or recovering from addiction. “Anyone who walked with Mayor Walsh tonight also saw people with mental health needs, substance abuse issues… so I think the supportive housing that links the services and treatment people need with a roof over their heads, that is what’s working.”