As the sun rose over the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway on a recent morning, figures huddled next to a statue, their heads resting on backpacks as men in ties and women with dogs walked briskly past. A few hours later, tourists on the plaza at Copley Square snapped selfies not far from a person enshrouded in a gray blanket lying on a piece of cardboard.
In Boston, as in most other major cities, homeless people dot the sidewalks, streets, and parks, but recently the problem has become more prevalent in several neighborhoods better known for tourists and high-end shoppers. This shift reflects a steady rise in homelessness in Boston — an increase of more than 15 percent between late 2011 and early 2015, including those staying in emergency shelters and temporary housing. And as more upscale stores and condominiums crop up, more people are taking note of the problem.
“There’s some sort of a critical mass happening,” said Meg Mainzer-Cohen, president of the Back Bay Association.
The uptick in homelessness, as well as panhandling, prompted the city to reach out to social service providers, police, and the business community last year to form a task force that tackles the issue from all angles. By getting a variety of groups to communicate what they are seeing and doing, the task force aims to more readily pinpoint hot spots and coordinate efforts.
On the Greenway, for instance, newly hired park rangers are being directed to get to know, and help, the people sleeping on benches and under bushes. Shopkeepers and property owners near Boston Common have started meeting with the day shelter on Boylston Street.
In the Back Bay, where the issue has recently come into stark relief, so many people are setting up cardboard-box shelters in front of lower-level shops on Newbury Street and camping out beside the Boston Public Library — some storing blankets and food in unlocked newspaper boxes — that the head of the business association requested a meeting with the police commissioner.
The general manager of the Fairmont Copley Plaza said he has been seeing double the number of people on the street that he usually sees.
“If a hotel guest feels unsafe in the area, there’s a concern that it’s detracting from all that our neighborhood has to offer,” said Mainzer-Cohen, of the Back Bay Association, which represents business interests. “If there’s panhandlers who are regularly harassing pedestrians, it’s impacting the quality of life.”
It’s hard to tell why more homeless people and panhandlers have found their way to areas like the Waterfront and the Back Bay, but service providers say recent crackdowns on Boston Common and in South Station could be forcing people to migrate to surrounding areas.
For private businesses, the balance is a delicate one: making their neighborhoods welcoming for customers without turning their backs on the poverty, mental illness, and addiction on their doorsteps.
They aren’t simply trying to clear the sidewalks in front of their stores, although that is part of the motivation. They are reaching out to the people they see there, and to service providers, to help those in need get housing or treatment.
“We need to work with them; in many regards we’re really happy to work with them, because they have just as much right to be in the city as anyone else,” said Joseph Larkin, a principal at Millennium Partners, which is erecting a 60-story residential tower in Downtown Crossing, an area that was a hotbed of homelessness long before new developments arrived. At the same time, he noted: “You want to make sure that people don’t come away with the impression that the homeless population is what the neighborhood is.”
Across the Charles River in Cambridge, Harvard Square businesses have also been working more closely with the police and social service agencies to address homelessness. One recent collaboration brought a free outdoor cellphone charging station to JFK Street, on the edge of the Harvard campus. It features a code that users can scan with their freshly charged phones to donate directly to the soon-to-open youth homeless shelter.
The reasons cited for the rise in homelessness, even in a strong economy, are many: high housing costs, the heroin epidemic, the loss of detox beds after the Long Island Bridge was condemned nearly a year ago. Despite the overall increase, the number of unsheltered people living on the streets is lower in Boston than in many other cities (less than 2 percent of the total homeless population) and was down this past winter from the previous year, due in part perhaps to the massive snowfall.
But in the last few weeks alone, two homeless men died on the streets, including a man who was run over while sleeping under a Goodwill trailer in Roxbury, and a man who went by “Chief” who collapsed in a Downtown Crossing doorway.
These issues are discussed at weekly task force meetings, when groups around the city report what they are seeing, down to the names, locations, and needs of people they talk to on the street. The city is also working on a computer system that will combine data from shelters and housing providers to digitally track supply and demand for the first time.
“There is an increased focus on those partnerships offering resources to try and break the cycle of homelessness,” said Jim Greene, director of the city’s Emergency Shelter Commission, which runs the new task force with Pine Street Inn and the Boston police. “It’s bringing a heightened level of attention to address the growing problem downtown.”
One task force member that has much to offer is the Downtown Boston Business Improvement District, which represents commercial property owners in and around Downtown Crossing. For several years, its ambassadors have talked to people on the street every day to see if they can help — directing individuals to soup kitchens, taking them to fill out housing applications, storing extra belongings, even buying bus tickets home.
This type of hands-on approach seems to be taking hold. On the Greenway, the rangers have become familiar with the people huddled under blankets and know many of them by name, said Jesse Brackenbury, executive director of the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway Conservancy. “It is very much our goal not to just push this problem somewhere else but to actually try to address it,” he said.
Paul Tormey, general manager at the Fairmont Copley Plaza, is hoping to do just that for the people struggling outside his storied hotel.
“Everyone wants to help these people,” he said. “Winter’s coming.”