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Boston takes a census of its homeless population

Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh (right) and Jim Greene, director of Boston’s Emergency Shelter Commission, talked to Edward John Jeske, a homeless man, Wednesday.
Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh (right) and Jim Greene, director of Boston’s Emergency Shelter Commission, talked to Edward John Jeske, a homeless man, Wednesday. (Scott Eisen for The Boston Globe)

More than 300 city officials and volunteers, led by Mayor Martin J. Walsh, braved the winter cold Wednesday night and walked the streets of Boston to conduct the annual count of homeless residents.

For Boston’s homeless population, this season’s record-breaking snowstorms, low temperatures, and the loss of an important homeless shelter have brought particular hardships and tested support systems, officials said.

Walsh and Dr. Huy Nguyen, interim executive director of the Boston Public Health Commission, praised the city’s network of shelters for stepping up to confront the problems.

“The closure of the Long Island Bridge and our very difficult winter have placed extra strain on Boston’s shelter system and have made us realize how fortunate we are to have such wonderful partners,” Nguyen said.

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The mayor said he hopes that with the help of a homeless task force convened after the closing of the Long Island shelter, the city can find a permanent solution.

“Hopefully in my time as mayor of the City of Boston, we’ll be able to hold this census count in my office, where we only need a handful of people to go out in the street,” Walsh said. “We need to make sure that we end homelessness in the City of Boston.”

Walsh participated in the census, walking through downtown with city officials including Jim Greene, director of emergency shelters for the Health Commission.

At Washington and Water streets, just a couple of blocks from City Hall, Walsh and Greene stopped to speak with Edward John Jeske, who said he is disabled and has struggled to obtain disability benefits and housing.

“I was in quite a few places, and I got thrown out of one,” said Jeske, 45, who explained that shelter staff had objected to him bringing a backpack inside. Walsh told him he would see what he could do about the policy.

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Greene encouraged Jeske to accept a ride to a shelter if the cold got to him.

“If you need to, look for us. There’s other teams out,” Greene said.

Wednesday’s census was the city’s 35th annual count. Results will be announced in the coming weeks.

The last census, conducted in December 2013, found 7,255 homeless people in Boston. That was 3.8 percent more than the 2012 total of 6,992, which was itself a 5.2 percent increase from the 6,647 counted the previous year.

Boston has more residents living in emergency shelters than any other of the 25 major cities across the country included in a December report by the US Conference of Mayors. But relatively few live on the streets because the Commonwealth’s “right to shelter” law -- the only such law in the nation -- guarantees them refuge.

At about 10 p.m., Walsh and Greene entered the Downtown Crossing MBTA station. In the long corridor beneath Summer Street, they encountered about a half-dozen men and women huddled in an alcove.

A bearded man told Greene of his struggles with addiction.

“Awful,” the man said. “I’m in the grips of it, you know.”

Walsh approached others and asked, “What could I do better, as mayor, for homeless people?”

Offered sandwiches and blankets, a woman who said she had been homeless for six years responded, “We need blankets. Me and my husband got nothing.”

After speaking to a homeless couple, Walsh stepped away and reflected on the difficulty of providing food and warmth through this trying winter.

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Beverly Scott, general manager of the MBTA, has kept stations open overnight so that homeless people who did not want to go to a shelter would not be left in the cold, he said.

But there remained the challenges of providing medical care and food to those in need.

“The first storm we had, we stocked up for three days, and then we’ve had to keep replenishing it,” he said.

Walsh said that he had observed signs of drug abuse among several of the homeless people he had spoken to on Wednesday night.

“It’s hard,” he said. “You get caught up in the addiction, and when you get caught up in the addiction, you’re not going to have the clarity to want to help yourself.”


Jeremy C. Fox can be reached at jeremy.fox@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeremycfox.