He said his name was Edward and his bed for the night was the inside vestibule of a Citizens Bank in Downtown Crossing. He had a bottle of water by his side and a pack of cigarettes. Dinner was a slice of pizza earlier from the nearby 7-Eleven.
The 42-year-old man was encountered by city workers late Wednesday during the Homeless Census that Boston conducts one night every year, always during one of the coldest months. It was also the first census as mayor for Michelle Wu, who knelt by Edward’s side and gently sought to engage him.
“Thank you so much for talking to us tonight. I just became mayor not so long ago,” she said softly.
Is there anything the city could do to help? she asked. She encouraged Edward to seek shelter, especially ahead of the expected snowstorm Friday. He nodded, but turned down the offer of a homeless shelter. He said he wasn’t drinking, or doing drugs. “Just homeless,” he said.
All the mayor and other city officials could do was give him a blanket.
It is a snapshot in time. But the yearly count of people living on the streets, in shelters, and in transitional housing programs helps Boston shape its policies on addressing homelessness. It can also be used to calculate how much the city could receive in federal funding for housing programs.
Wednesday night was the 42nd such undertaking, and occurred on the eve of Wu’s 100th day in office. It was fitting, the mayor said, to mark the milestone by focusing on one of the city’s most “important and meaningful” efforts to help those in need, an endeavor she has prioritized in her administration.
“It’s important for us to be out, having conversations with residents who have every right to a safe, warm, healthy home,” she said. “In a city with so many resources, we want to make sure that every single person can be connected to what we know is possible here and that means checking in doorways, and on the streets. We’ll make sure to keep working until every single person has a home.”
Just before midnight Wednesday, street outreach workers and other city officials gathered at City Hall, clipboards in hand with surveys to gather information about the people they would encounter: What is your name and age? Have you eaten? Do you need a blanket? Are you on a housing list?
“It’s one of the times we are able to connect with people in their time of need, to connect them with housing,” Arthur Jemison, principal deputy assistant secretary for the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, told canvassers at City Hall before participating in the survey.
The federal agency requires the annual count, and uses the data to calculate the amount of federal housing money that local communities receive. The city could receive $40 million next year in federal grants for housing and services for homeless individuals, based on past counts.
Jim Greene, the city’s assistant director for street homelessness initiatives, told participants, “Tonight, we’re going to see people who need support, who need a friend, and who need all that the city can do.”
Greene, a City Hall veteran taking part in his 35th count, escorted Wu and her group, Team 13, through the side streets and alleyways of Downtown Crossing where people are known to seek shelter, just as he did for the late Mayor Thomas M. Menino, one of Wu’s political mentors, who long championed the importance of the annual count.
There were seemingly fewer people on the streets on this night, he told Wu as they walked briskly through the cold. About 18 years ago, he recalled, crews counted just over 300 people living on the streets on a random night. Three years ago, there were 122 people, one of the lowest.
Overnight into Thursday, Greene sensed, there could be even fewer. It could be days before he has a final tally: Federal guidelines require that the city follow certain standards for counting, so the numbers must be analyzed. But he saw fewer people on the streets compared with previous years, in spite of comparatively warmer temperatures Wednesday that tend to make people more willing to stay outside than go to a shelter.
Maybe, Greene surmised, the city’s efforts to boost available housing over the years, most recently with the clearing-out of the tent encampments at the area known as Mass. and Cass, have been successful in getting people shelter.
“You hope there’s a tipping point, a level of change,” he said.
But some people remain. Officials worried about them as colder temperatures returned to the area and the snowstorm loomed.
During their walk, Greene brought Wu to the back stairwell of an entrance to the Orange Line’s State Street station, where a man was hunched over, leaning against the wall. He had a blanket over him and a large black backpack in front of him, as well as a quart of milk.
“We just want to see how you’re doing, and see if there’s any help we can get you,” Greene told the man. “Can we try to get you some help from the Pine Street Inn?”
The man refused help, and asked to be left alone. Greene told him, “We’ll check back with you later.”
A block away, Greene checked a stairwell on the side of Old South Meeting House, a common resting spot for people on the streets, but no one was there. Further up Washington Street, in the center of Downtown Crossing, a man was tucked under a blanket on the front steps of the Xfinity store. Greene introduced himself, and the mayor. The man told them he was OK.
Later, Wu said that the walk reinforced the need for new housing initiatives, such as transitional housing that welcomes people off the street with immediate shelter, including those still in the throes of substance abuse, while they transition to stability.
“What we experienced tonight is just a glimpse of the depth of challenge that so many of our residents face because of systems that are broken and doors that have been closed,” she said. “Our job is to meet people where they are. . . . It’s incredibly real what being on the streets after midnight during the winter feels like.”