In recent months, even as temperatures plunged, Aheem Heywood has huddled by the drafty doors of the Sleepy’s in downtown Boston, passing hours dozing just feet from the dozens of plush, empty mattresses. With a wall blocking some of the frosty wind and most shelters now at full capacity, the perch on Franklin Street has been a popular place for people with nowhere else to sleep.
“You just wish you could sleep on one of the mattresses,” Heywood said.
The 23-year-old, estranged from his family in Quincy, is among an increasingly visible homeless population living amid the pricey new condos, boutique hotels, and upscale restaurants of downtown Boston. He is also among a growing number of youth and young adults struggling to survive on the streets, even as the weather has turned blustery and dipped some days into the single digits.
Local, state, and federal officials have reported record numbers of homeless people, especially families and youths. In late 2012, city officials counted 6,992 homeless men, women, and children in Boston, 5 percent more than the year before and 17 percent more than in 2001.
The increase has been highly visible in the city’s commercial heart.
Officials at the Downtown Boston Business Improvement District have reported a rise in calls about homeless people panhandling and sleeping in the area. As a result, this summer they began conducting monthly counts at night. In October, they found 40 people sleeping in the street around Macy’s.
With several shelters, soup kitchens, and a range of other services in the area, the homeless have long taken refuge in the alleys and alcoves from Boston Common to the Greenway. What’s changed are the expectations of new residents, business owners, and others who now frequent the neighborhood, said Rosemarie E. Sansone, president of the district.
“What’s happening is that property owners are seeing improvements in investments, and the area has become cleaner,” she said of an area that was once called the Combat Zone. “They’re seeing all these improvements and wondering why we haven’t made an impact with homelessness.”
The US Department of Housing and Urban Development reported last January that the state’s homeless population had risen 14 percent since 2010 to nearly 20,000 people. The number of homeless students, preschool through 12th grade, is at a record high and has doubled in less than a decade in Massachusetts, with 935 living without their parents or legal guardians last academic year, nearly triple the number of the 2004-2005 academic year.
In October, the state put up an average of 2,100 homeless families a night in motels, a record. On some days, for the first time, this number exceeded the number of families living in shelters, according to the state Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development.
The problem of homeless youth, who local officials say account for a rising number of those living on the streets in Boston, has become so magnified in recent years that Bridge Over Troubled Waters, the city’s leading provider of social services to homeless youth, opened the state’s first shelter for them in 2011. But demand has continued to rise, and the nonprofit organization last year began allowing additional youths to sleep on mats on the floor of its recreation room.
Between September and November this fall, Bridge Over Troubled Waters has provided services to 394 youths, nearly triple the number it helped last year over the same period.
“We usually have a boom in the summer, and then it slows in the winter,“ said Mark McLaughlin, coordinator of the organization’s outreach team. “That isn’t happening this year. We’re seeing kids stay with us year-round.”
Through early December last year, the Pine Street Inn, one of the region’s largest shelters, had accommodated 663 youths and young adults — those between ages 18 and 24 — which was double the number in 2010 and quadruple the number in 2008.
At Youth on Fire, a drop-in center for homeless youth and young adults in Harvard Square, more than 500 visitors are regularly seeking services, about five times that of nearly a decade ago, said Ayala Livny, the organization’s program manager.
She and others noted that homeless youth often end up on the streets because they are uncomfortable in the sometimes harsh conditions of adult shelters, where many feel vulnerable to crime and abuse.
Adult “shelters are not appropriate for 18- to 24-year-olds, and I think it’s criminal that we don’t have more shelters for them,” Livny said. “If you are young and on the street, there aren’t many safe places to be. That’s a massive failing of our system.”
The rise in homelessness has many causes, including the long stagnation of the economy and persistently high unemployment rates, surging rents throughout the state, and sweeping federal spending cuts that have taken a toll on some housing and food subsidies for the poor. For many, mental health and addiction issues and the weight of past criminal convictions can make it easier to tumble into, and harder to escape, homelessness.
Why the toll seems to have hit young people so hard is less well understood, but they are affected by the same trends that have stressed families across the country. Many of them gravitate to Boston, where they can blend in with the thousands of college students, find services that are not available elsewhere in New England, and live in a city more tolerant of differing sexual orientations.
To better understand youth homelessness, the state convened a special commission in 2012 that this month will launch the first statewide census of those homeless and alone up to age 24. That follows the first count of homeless youth the previous December in Boston, where city officials counted 191 unaccompanied young people.
“Young people will be asked to stand up, be counted, and share their experiences of homelessness and housing instability, with the goal of using those responses to shape policies, housing programs, and comprehensive services,” said Kelly Turley, director of legislative advocacy at the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless and cochair of the commission.
Sergeant Tom Lema, who oversees community relations in the downtown area for the Boston Police Department, called the number of homeless on Boston Common last summer “off the charts.”
He said his officers are working with Bridge Over Troubled Waters and the St. Francis House, a daytime shelter near the Common, to furnish identification badges to those who stay there, allowing police to better track them.
Among those who should be counted in the census is Darius Pinion, 23, of Hyde Park, who became homeless after leaving foster care when he was 18, following a beaten path of former foster care children.
“I’m in the reorganizing phase of my life,” he said while preparing to sleep on a mat at Bridge Over Troubled Waters last month. He said he does occasional day-labor jobs and hopes to go back to school to study global and environmental health.
“I just want something stable,” he said.
Roger Gordon has been homeless since he was 21, and over the past five years he has made a circuit of sleeping in doorways and in MBTA stations.
“It’s hard to get a place,” said Gordon, now 26, who grew up in Lowell.
On a recent night, when the temperature dropped into the teens, he stood by a stairway leading into the Downtown Crossing T station, where he arranged a cardboard box and several ratty blankets.
As he smoked a cigarette, he said he would be fine sleeping in the cold.
“This is my family out here,” he said. “We get by.”