A few wrong turns and a bit of bad luck proved the difference between a college degree and sleeping on the street for Dorchester native Maurice Harris.
“My story is that things didn’t work out as good as they should have, and I’m homeless,’’ said Harris, 31, as city leaders gathered around him near a Downtown Crossing storefront, trying to get him to go to a shelter for the night. Harris is one of many who have nowhere else to go, except the streets, on a cold night.
Last night, with temperatures dipping into the 30s, Mayor Thomas M. Menino led more than 300 volunteers - including college students, business owners, and city leaders - in the city’s 32d annual homeless census, gauging the scope of the problem on the streets of Boston.
“I’ve always believed that government is about helping people, especially the most vulnerable in our society,’’ Menino said. “The street count is a hallmark of my administration’s efforts to put this belief into action.’’
Preliminary results should be out by the end of the year. Last year, 182 homeless people were found on the street, and there were 7,371 counted in shelters and services.
Teams fanned out in every neighborhood last night to count the homeless on the streets and try to encourage them to accept shelter for the night. Menino’s team was joined by Superintendent in Chief Daniel Linskey of the Boston police, other city officials, and, as always, Jim Greene, the director of the Emergency Shelter Commission and the city’s top general in the war on homelessness.
“This is the night we put a number to the need,’’ Greene said. “The census is how we craft our policy and priorities.’’
In turn, the city’s homeless shelters, mental health programs, and other homeless programs will count their clients over the next few weeks and plan a report to be released next year.
“We track certain trends,’’ Greene said. “The mayor is very concerned about homeless veterans, particularly reentering and returning veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan.’’
Despite the offer of shelter, Harris opted to stay outside.
Things were not always like this, said the young man with a friendly disposition. Harris said he played basketball at Fresno State on a scholarship but broke his ankle and lost the scholarship and the opportunities that college provided, he said.
Menino and Greene spent several minutes talking to Harris, as an activist passing by with a tray of sandwiches from an Occupy Boston meeting handed him one.
“I’ve been feeding the homeless for a long time,’’ said the activist, David Lamoso, 30, of East Boston. “We did it a lot in Dewey Square’’ where Occupy Boston had been located.
As the night and the count went on, some homeless residents accepted transportation to shelters, while other refused.
Courtney Smith, 35, originally from Ashville, N.C., opted to stay outside. Smith said he has been homeless since leaving his wife last year. He has been trying to get Section 8 housing, but complained that the process is slow. He has been waiting 15 months for public housing.
“I really love Boston; it’s not New York,’’ Smith quipped.
Smith declined a ride to a local shelter, saying he would rather spend the night with his friend, John Filliger, outside Macy’s in Downtown Crossing. But Smith said he was very impressed with city services that are offered to people like him.
“I am going to be honest with you,’’ he said. “I don’t like the shelters but everything else is top-notch.’’
The leading causes of homelessness are mental illness, drug abuse, and a lack of services and affordable housing, according to a 2009 report by the US Conference of Mayors.
Families with children tend to be homeless because of poorly paying jobs, domestic violence, and also a lack of affordable housing.Globe correspondent Garrett Quinn contributed to this report. John M. Guilfoil can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @globe_guilfoil.