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Survey finds acute homelessness in Boston

Kayla Nauti (left) and Susan Bakerjones slept at Trinity Church in Boston early last month.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

More Boston residents are living in emergency shelters than in any of 25 major cities surveyed nationwide, according to a report released Thursday by the US Conference of Mayors.

The survey provided a detailed snapshot of Boston’s homeless population, including the revelation that a quarter of the city’s homeless adults have jobs. In Trenton, N.J., by comparison, only 4 percent are employed.

Still, these jobs don’t pay enough to put a roof over their heads.

“The gap between incomes and housing costs is extreme here,” said Jim Greene, director of the Emergency Shelter Commission for the Boston Public Health Commission. “We have one of the highest rates of family homelessness of any state in the country, and there are not affordable housing resources aligned to the emergency system.”


Few of the homeless people in Boston are on the streets, in part because of the Massachusetts “right to shelter” law that guarantees qualified families a place to stay. But traditional shelters have been over capacity for years — thousands are being put up in motels — and getting people into permanent housing is a constant struggle.

The number of homeless families increased by almost 6 percent in Boston in the past year, higher than the average rise of the cities surveyed, and the demand for shelters is roughly 22 percent higher than the number of beds available.

Greene cited several reasons that homelessness has become such a major problem in Boston, all stemming from state and federal policy changes in the mid-1990s: welfare reform, the end of rent control, and substantial cuts in the state’s rental assistance program.

Nearly 17,000 people were in emergency shelters in Boston over the past year, according to the report, with an additional 3,900 in transitional housing. More than a third of them are severely mentally ill and nearly a third are physically disabled.


Services for people struggling with mental illness or addiction are lacking, Greene noted, and as a result, many of these people end up homeless, further straining the system.

Boston data in the annual Hunger and Homelessness Survey are based on a one-night census conducted in December of 2013, as well as data collected by the city throughout the year. Among the major cities that took part in the survey were Chicago, Los Angeles, and Dallas.

Statewide, homelessness is increasing faster than anywhere else in the country – up 40 percent since 2007, according to a US Department of Housing and Urban Development report released in October, even as the nationwide homeless population declined slightly.

Requests for emergency food in Boston were down slightly from the year before, but the demand still exceeded the amount distributed by more than a third, even as the city increased its food distribution by more than 4 percent over the past year.

Despite the increase in need, state funding for homeless families has decreased 6 percent since 2011, according to the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center. But efforts are being made to shore up assistance. Earlier this week, the state launched an initiative to house up to 800 chronically homeless individuals, using $3.5 million from private investors.

One “bright shining spot” in the US Mayors report, according to Greene, is the reduction in homeless veterans. Nationwide, about 11 percent of homeless adults are veterans, down by a third over the past five years – a result of federal efforts to devote resources to veterans and their families.


In Boston, more than 400 homeless veterans have been housed in the past year. A group of local agencies in the city collaborated to create a registry of homeless veterans and then matched each veteran with services, including aid to help maintain housing after they were placed.

Katie Johnston can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @ktkjohnston.