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Boston census finds 3.8 percent increase in homelessness

The number of men, women, and children living in shelters or on the streets in Boston continues to increase, growing 3.8 percent in 2013 over the previous year, according to an annual city tally.

The city identified 7,255 homeless people living in the city when volunteers conducted the annual homeless census last month, up from 6,992 during its 2012 count.

The census found 1,234 homeless families on the night of the survey, as well as 2,056 homeless children, the first time Boston counted more than 2,000 homeless children since the city began keeping track more than three decades ago.

It’s a statewide crisis,” said Jim Greene, director of emergency shelters for the Boston Public Health Commission, who has helped oversee the annual census for the past 25 years. “The income levels of poor families are extremely low, and rental costs in Massachusetts are some of the highest in the country. What we’re seeing is more families that just can’t address that gap.”

While the raw number of homeless people in Boston continues to increase year after year, city officials stress that very few of the city’s homeless adults, just 2.5 percent, are living on the street. The number of homeless living in emergency shelters, domestic violence shelters, hospitals, and substance abuse homes saw significant increases from 2012.


The citywide census located 180 adults who were living on the street, down from 193 in 2012.

City officials say that those increases were especially important because of the bitter cold temperatures that have plagued Boston and the region this winter.

“With the kind of winter we’re having, we’re glad to see the street number come down.” Greene said.

The census is conducted by a team of hundreds of volunteers who fan out across the city to locate and chronicle the homeless, as well as to offer them food, shelter, and medical assistance.


“The census gives us a good sense of where we stand around the issue of homelessness in the city of Boston,” said Sheila

Dillon, who is Boston’s chief of housing and director of the

Department of Neighborhood Development. “We’ve been working on ending homelessness in Boston for a very long time, and it remains a pressing problem.

For the second consecutive year, the city recorded an increase in the number of homeless adults who are enrolled in substance abuse treatment programs and living in recovery homes.

Mayor Martin J. Walsh “has stressed that we have to do a better job here because, unfortunately, right now it’s feeling like a vicious cycle,” said Barbara Ferrer, Boston’s public health director. “It’s really hard to stay sober if you’re cycling from a treatment program back to a shelter. With the mayor’s leadership, we’re really anxious to move forward.”

Walsh, who took the reins from Thomas M. Menino in January, made his personal struggle with alcohol a major part of his campaign and has spoken often about the need to provide more support for addiction treatment resources.

“If you go to our shelters, you will see the vast majority of people are also struggling with substance-abuse issues,” Ferrer said. “While we’re offering some great and effective programs, by no means are we reaching even most of the people who are presenting to us with substance-abuse disorders.”

Walsh has vowed to make reducing the number of homeless people living in Boston. He plans to visit a city-run shelter at Long Island Friday as he continues his tour of shelters and other facilities that serve the homeless.


The Walsh administration has said it will push a three-pronged approach to addressing homelessness: increasing access to affordable housing; expanding drug and alcohol rehabilitation; and asking other municipalities in the region to address their own homelessness problems, which have spilled over into Boston.

Census-takers found that 36 percent of Boston’s homeless people were living in another city when they first became homeless. “Boston is sheltering not only our own homeless adults, but there is also a regional demand,” Greene said.

While city officials say there is no silver bullet to addressing homelessness, they believe that by keeping more people in their homes, providing additional housing options, and pushing a regional approach to shelters, they can significantly cut into the Boston numbers.

“We’re going to focus on really reducing the amount of evictions; it’s where the city can really have a major impact on the number of homeless,” Dillon said. “We don’t want families and kids to enter this system.”

Wesley Lowery can be reached at wesley.lowery@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @WesleyLowery.