On a cold night in February, city officials counted fewer people living on the streets of Boston than in previous years, a decline that officials attributed to a concerted effort to get people into housing during the COVID-19 pandemic and to clear out the tent encampments by the troubled area known as Mass. and Cass.
On the night of Feb. 23, city officials and volunteers counted 119 individuals living on the streets, a 30 percent drop from the 170 counted in 2021, in the thick of the pandemic. There were 121 people on the streets in 2019.
The overall number of homeless people in Boston — living on the streets or in shelters — dropped 2.4 percent, from 1,659 people in 2021 to 1,545 in 2022. The decrease follows a nearly 25 percent drop from 2020 to 2021, after the first wave of the pandemic forced officials to look at new ways to provide shelter for the homeless.
The data was collected under an annual citywide census count of all people believed to be living without a home on a singular night; the census is required by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, which uses the information to calculate how much federal grant money to dole out to cities across America.
Jim Greene, the city’s point person on homeless initiatives, has participated in 35 consecutive counts, spanning the terms of five different mayors, canvassing city streets and alleyways into the dark of night to make sure people are counted. He reflected on the city’s findings from the February count, the first full tally in which city workers engaged with people on the street since the pandemic began. Here are a few of his observations, as told to the Globe (Responses have been edited for length and clarity):
What is your initial reaction to the census findings?
After a spike in the number of people living on the streets in 2021, spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic, Greene said he found that way the city responded is proving effective. City officials and homeless shelter providers reimagined the congregate shelter setting to move people into their own spaces, in supportive housing units where they could receive health care while socially distancing themselves. That effort in turn was productive in helping people stay in housing units they liked better than large shelters.
“We were not only creating new shelters but creating pathways for people who were on the streets,” he said.
The effort was critical, he said. Through the first wave of the pandemic, the plight of people living on the streets was laid bare. The tent encampments in the area by Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard, the center of the region’s opioid epidemic, grew larger.
“We saw an unprecedented growth,” especially at Mass. and Cass, he said. “That was something we didn’t see every year.”
Two things happened as a result, he said: The Wu administration broke down the tent encampments in January and moved more than 150 people to transitional housing units, where they received wraparound mental health and substance abuse treatment. And, he said, the city by then had embarked on a Street-to-Home Initiative that helped transition chronically homeless people, many who had been staying in shelters, into supportive housing.
“We really tried to line people up with housing opportunities that we didn’t have [before], so we were really targeted and intentional in starting to help people who were on the street stay off the street,” he said.
“If we hadn’t been able to offer people those pathways, we probably would be recording an unprecedented number of people on the street,” he said.
Anything stand out from the night of Feb. 23?
In years past, advocates for the homes and care providers, Greene said, would know the individuals living on the streets, at least those who are chronically homeless. He has counted them by the hundreds over the years. “We stay with people, we have a list of people we engage, we know the agencies working with them,” he said.
But in February, he said, “we didn’t have that same degree of chronic, long-term people on the street without shelter,” he said.
Of the 119 people living on the streets that night, he said, most of them were new faces.
The challenge now, he said, is the “sudden homelessness” crises that are caused by the fentanyl and opioid epidemic, as well as the region’s housing crunch.
Though the city saw an overall drop in homeless individuals in February, the number of families living in shelters and without a home increased, from 843 last year to 929.
What lies ahead as the city looks at combatting homelessness?
“The most important thing about the census isn’t just what we see on one night, but what we do the other 364 days of the year,” Greene said.
The city, he noted, has hundreds of permanent housing units in the construction pipeline; they are designed to help people make the transition from the streets to long-term, stable housing.
“We want to make sure the real story that’s next is to try to strengthen our housing pathways and to build on really strong partnerships we’ve had around the most vulnerable populations in our city,” he said.
“It’s continuing to pull together and hopefully, collectively as a city, charter a better course toward supportive housing for the homeless and the most vulnerable.”