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In bitter cold, Boston counts its homeless

Volunteers Cristina Munk, Tony Barros, and Altagracia Lorenzo studied a map of Boston’s streets before heading out on the homeless census.

Kayana Szymczak for The Boston Globe

Volunteers Cristina Munk, Tony Barros, and Altagracia Lorenzo studied a map of Boston’s streets before heading out on the homeless census.

Of the 25 annual homeless counts Jim Greene has been involved in, he said, Monday night’s was by far the coldest. Yet the brutal December winds and bitter temperatures did not hinder him or the 350 volunteers who spread through the neighborhoods of Boston to help chronicle the homeless population and offer food, shelter, and medical assistance.

“This is a way to put a face and a number to the needy, and the most effective way to canvass your area tonight is to imagine yourself in the shoes of a homeless person,” Greene said, as he addressed the volunteers in City Hall, prior to heading into the streets. “Where would you go on a night like this to stay warm and dry? I think this is the coldest night in the 25 years I’ve been with the census.

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“Would you stay in an ATM machine [booth]? A T station? A restaurant? Go look where you might look to stay warm.”

Greene, director of emergency shelters for the Boston Public Health Commission, took one of the numerous teams to begin a count in the Downtown Crossing area, as part of the city’s 34th Annual Homeless Census. He, along with his team of volunteers, helped record the numbers and get people fed and out of the biting cold.

A man who identified himself as Brodeur was one of those people.

With white hair and a long beard, the man had nothing but a simple coat. He said he had just been released from Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. When asked where he normally stayed, he responded, “Wherever I am. Wherever.”

His voice was soft, and he began to tear up. Greene put a hand on Brodeur’s shoulder and called in a van to take him to a shelter.

The temperature in Boston was brutally low Monday night, estimated to be about 12 degrees, and snow is expected Tuesday afternoon, the National Weather Service said.

Before the census began around 9 p.m., Mayor Thomas M. Menino addressed the volunteers. “I have to tell you folks, this isn’t about numbers. It’s about people,” Menino said. “The people you’ll see tonight are hurting, not just from homelessness, but from mental illness or substance abuse, also. You may meet homeless veterans out there.”

Menino has gone on many of the counts in his tenure. On Monday, he sadly announced that he would not be attending the final one of his stewardship.

“I wish I could, but I’m not able to,” he said. “I’ll be here encouraging them, supporting them, and make sure things work well for the count.”

He stressed that the census was important and addressed the increase in the homeless population from 2011 to 2012.

“It gives it a good number of what we have to deal with every year,” Menino said. “We showed a 5 percent increase in homeless individuals, saw more families out there. . . . We’re not funding affordable housing like we have in the past. That’s a big problem.”

Last year, 6,992 homeless men, women, and children were counted during the census, a 5.2 percent increase from 2011, according to the Health Commission.

During the census last December, 193 homeless were counted on the city’s streets, 12 people more than the 181 in 2011.

Derek J. Anderson can be reached at derek.anderson@ globe.com.
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