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Annual Winter Walk brings awareness to Boston’s efforts to combat homelessness

About four thousand people participate in the eighth annual Winter Walk at Boston Common.Danielle Parhizkaran/Globe Staff

A mother and daughter stood in the chilly morning air, joining thousands of others in the annual Winter Walk, specifically to honor the son and brother they lost one year ago to a battle with opioid abuse and homelessness.

“She lost her son, and I lost my brother,” said Kimberlee Cogan, 38, of Beverly.

The two walked for Eric, who they said they remember as a brave soul who had served in the US Air Force.

“I think there are stories like that all over here,” said his mother, Renee Cogan.

Thousands of registered community members, volunteers, students, and advocacy groups gathered on the Boston Common Sunday for the eighth annual walk to raise money for a coalition of organizations, including Boston Medical Center, Pine Street Inn, and the St. Francis House.

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“I walk to end homelessness because I care,” read a bright-blue sign that Valerie Gomes wore around her neck.

Gomes is a supportive housing manager at Commonwealth Land Trust, a nonprofit development agency that helps vulnerable individuals find housing.

“When you see that person come off the street, and see their success afterward, it gives you a reason to get up in the morning,” she said of her motivation to do the work and to participate in the walk.

The Winter Walk was established by Paul English, co-founder of travel websites Kayak and Lola, who nine years ago spent a night riding along on Pine Street Inn’s outreach van, and was incredulous after seeing how many homeless were on the streets, Dr. Jim O’Connell told the walkers Sunday.

“How can we allow this in a city like this?” O’Connell, president of the Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program, said English asked him that night.

O’Connell told the walkers how English sought to raise awareness by having the people of Boston walk during the coldest month of the year to gain perspective on the reality that homeless people face daily.

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The 2-mile walk serves to raise money, develop connections among people who are personally and professionally affected by the issue, and garner support to combat homelessness in the city. One hundred percent of the money raised by walkers is donated to organizations supporting those experiencing homelessness, according to organizers.

“This is such an important day for all of Boston,” said Mayor Michelle Wu to the sea of neon-blue Winter Walk beanies congregated on the Common. “We are making sure we are talking about people, and we’re walking the walk, putting our resources and attention where our words usually are.”

Frank Mangini, 61, is one of those people to talk about. He knows firsthand what the experience of being homeless is like and has served on BACHome Council, a city homelessness advisory council, for the past seven years. He told the Globe he’s proud of how far he’s come and how his voice has been given a platform.

He said he uses “perseverance and patience” to help city leaders understand how to help those caught in the deadly cycle and how to improve shelter systems.

Sheryl Katzanek has worked at Boston Medical Center for 20 years as the director of patient advocacy. Along with psychiatric nurse practitioner Dina Sattenspiel and clinical engineer Mike Hurley, she walked Sunday morning to “continue raising support for underserved populations.”

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The three recognize the importance of “meeting homeless patients where they’re at,” and “thinking outside the box” to help combat the issue.

Though professionals say fewer homeless people have been seen living on the streets since the November dismantling of Mass. and Cass, the city’s former epicenter of homeless encampments and drug use, they also say the recent influx of migrants has posed a new challenge to organizations that aim to keep individuals off the streets.

O’Connell, who has spent nearly 40 years at the head of Boston Health Care for the Homeless, said his organization wasn’t ready for the “influx of thousands of families.”

His main concern, he said, lies in how to care for the number of single Haitian men he said the influx has brought, as well as the families.

As the crowd geared up to walk at 9:45 a.m. with coffee in hand, an air of hope and the buzz of conversation about solutions lingered in the air.

Mark Lippolt, former treasurer of Women’s Lunch Place, an organization that provides daytime activities and meals to homeless women, was participating in his eighth Winter Walk with his team from St. Cecilia Parish.

Lippolt said he found it encouraging that thousands of people got up on a Sunday morning to do the walk.

“We all know how severe the issue is, and you always need that jolt of good news to keep going,” he said.


Alexa Coultoff can be reached at alexa.coultoff@globe.com. Follow her @alexacoultoff.