Homelessness surging as Boston mounts yearly count

Printed from: https://newbostonpost.com/2016/01/26/homelessness-surging-as-boston-mounts-yearly-count/

BOSTON – Last year brought its challenges to the homeless in Boston, with record  snowfall and the unexpected closure of the Long Island shelter, eliminating 700 beds. Now, as winter deepens once again, the city aims to come up with a plan to end chronic homelessness.

To gather data to help inform policy makers trying to combat the problem, the city on Wednesday will conduct its 36th Annual Homeless Count, in which Mayor Marty Walsh will join 375 volunteers on 36 teams traversing neighborhood streets, T stations, parks, and doorways in search of people who don’t have shelter. The teams will also work to provide transportation to shelters for those in need.

“The homeless census helps us put a number to the unmet need for housing, shelter, treatment and other kinds of services that people need to break the cycle of homelessness,” Jim Greene, the director of the Boston Public Health Commission, said in an interview. “The census is like a one-time snapshot of the year-round challenges of the homeless.”

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(Photo courtesy of the City of Boston)

A look at the previous year’s results showed there were 7,663 homeless men, women and children in Boston, a 5.6 percent increase from a year earlier. Perhaps more worrying, the number of homeless families jumped 25 percent.

“Things can fall apart so quickly if a family has a medical emergency or loses their job,” said Libby Hayes, the director for Homes for Families, a nonprofit advocacy group based in Boston. Hayes said she’s seen rents skyrocket while the wages of lower income workers remain stagnant, resulting in many working families becoming homeless.

As of last year’s census, the number of homeless families in Boston stood at 1,543, including 4,281 men, women and children.

“It is really just working families or families that have disabilities or children with disabilities that are unable to afford the high cost of rent,” Hayes said.

She added that shelter providers have done a great job at expanding programs and adding family units, but there are definitely still many families who are in motels. Last year, 176 families were housed in motels in Boston, up 17 percent despite efforts to re-house families.

Across Massachusetts, 1,730 homeless families stayed in hotels or motels last year, according to a state auditor’s report. The state was on track to spend more than $40 million on hotel and motel costs for the program in the 2015 fiscal year, up from only $1 million six years earlier, according to the report.

Using figures from the report, which states that it cost an average of $2,500 a month to put a homeless family up in a hotel or a motel and the average stay was seven months, the housing costs for the 176 homeless families in hotels or motels in Boston in 2015 would have been roughly $3 million.

There was also a 35 percent increase of homeless youth last year, to 54, according to the census. The numbers only count those accommodated by dedicated Runaway and Homeless Youth services.

Screen Shot 2016-01-21 at 2.05.25 PMThis growing need sparked the opening of  Y2Y Harvard Square, a student-run overnight shelter that uses a person-to-person model to provide a safe and affirming environment for young people who are living on the streets.

Common reasons behind homelessness for this group, according to the Y2Y website, include families that aren’t supportive of homosexuals or transgender people, not having a home to go to after leaving foster care or their current home is unsafe.

The 2015 census counted 139 homeless adults living on the streets, down almost 23 percent from 180 a year earlier.

Walsh said in his recent State of the City speech that Boston has replaced every shelter bed from Long Island, including by opening a new state-of-the art homeless facility, the Southampton Street Homeless Shelter, with more than 400 beds. He also announced an end to chronic homelessness among veterans in Boston.

The city hopes to end all chronic homelessness by 2018. It is defined as when a person has a disabling condition, has been continuously homeless for a year or more, or has had at least four episodes of homelessness over three years. In 2015, there were 600 chronically homeless individuals in the city.

As laid out in the mayor’s action plan, new resources are being put in place to ensure the goal is met. The fiscal 2016 city budget provides an additional $12.7 million, on top of the $60.9 million in existing resources, that will be used to streamline the process for homeless individuals to get shelter and permanent housing. It is estimated that an additional 950 units of permanent supportive housing will be needed for the effort to succeed.

“Family homelessness is probably one of the most simple and complex issues at the same time,” Hayes said. He said the root cause of the problem comes down to “the wage-rent gap, and then how you prioritize vouchers and target sub-populations. It’s both an expensive problem to fix and it’s an expensive problem not to fix.”

As in the past, this year’s homeless count will take place during the chilliest time of year.

“Mayor Walsh hopes that we will have many more volunteers out on the street than we do homeless people, given how cold it is, with everyone working to get people into shelter and care,” Greene said.