Dressed in a flannel shirt, red jacket, and knit winter hat, Jim Greene led one of 48 volunteer teams into Downtown Crossing on a chilly night Wednesday as the city set out to conduct its annual count of the homeless population, as well as to offer them aid, shelter, and medical assistance.
Greene, director of emergency shelters for the Boston Public Health Commission, approached two homeless women on Washington Street and was greeted by a warm, “Hey, Jim!” He has been working with the homeless for 27 years.
“How are you doing?” said Greene, kneeling down before the women bundled in blankets outside a storefront.
“Well, not so well,” responded one of the women, who identified herself as Cheryl.
The two women, Cheryl and Elizabeth, were offered shelter and assistance for the night, but refused because they were worried they would be split up.
Elizabeth, 20, said she was pregnant and that Cheryl probably felt the urge to protect her, Greene said afterward. He said they would attempt to speak with the pair later with a smaller group of volunteers.
As Greene’s team swept through downtown during Boston’s 33d Annual Homeless Census, some 350 other volunteers, including a number of city officials, went through neighborhoods to count and assist those without homes, said Dr. Barbara Ferrer, executive director of the Public Health Commission.
The workers and volunteers met at City Hall, split into 48 teams, dispersed into the neighborhoods around 9:45 p.m., and worked late into the night. Alongside them, eight vans from various organizations aided in the census, transporting homeless to available shelters and providing food and medical attention.
“The most important thing we do as a city government is help people,” said Mayor Thomas M. Menino, who could not attend because he is recovering after a recent hospitalization. “And our annual census does so much more than just count the homeless. The volunteers out there in every neighborhood are lending a helping hand to our most vulnerable citizens and helping them take the first step toward a better life. I commend them and their efforts, and I wish I could be out there with them tonight.”
Last year, the census counted a total of 6,647 homeless men, women, and children, a 2.4 percent decrease from 2010.
The number included those living in shelters and the 181 people living on the streets, the lowest number of homeless recorded living outside since 1997, the census report said.
Boston is the first of nine cities in the country to pilot a new initiative from the US Interagency Council on Homelessness called Youth Count! in an attempt to count the number of unaccompanied youth ages 14 to 24, Ferrer said.
“We want to identify a very hard-to-reach population on the streets,” said Robb Zarges, executive director or Bridge Over Troubled Waters, an organization focused on helping runaway, homeless, and troubled youth. “It’s a tougher population to find. It’s a tougher population to serve.”
Youth Count!’s survey-based work will extend beyond Wednesday night’s census, Zarges said. Over the next five to six days, volunteers will attempt to count youth and receive numbers from city shelters and clinics, Greene said.
Barbara Poppe, executive director of the Interagency Council, came to Boston for the census on invitation from Menino. He “really leads the country in compassion on this issue,” Poppe said.
“I really appreciate your willingness to do everything you can,” she said to volunteers before teams headed out across the city, “because you’re really going to teach us at the federal level and make it possible for other communities to do better counts because of the work you do here tonight.”