Metro

Number of homeless families in Boston up 25%

The tally of homeless families in Boston spiked by 25 percent this year, a result of “stagnant wages and increasing costs of housing, child care, and other essentials,” an advocacy group and a city official said Tuesday.

FamilyAid Boston, the group that tracked the statistics, said in a statement the city’s annual homeless census in February showed there were “1,543 homeless families in the city, an increase of 25% over last year’s census.”

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Lisa Conley, a lawyer with the Boston Public Health Commission, confirmed the alarming number of families and said the problem is not confined to Boston.

“Family homelessness has increased across Massachusetts, with much of the increase here reflecting additional family shelter units contracted by the state in an effort to reduce the use of motels as emergency shelter overflow,” she said, adding that rates are up nationally as well, in part due to lack of funding of the Section 8 housing voucher program.

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Shannon Arnold, a spokeswoman for FamilyAid Boston, said Tuesday in an e-mail that affordable lodging is a key component to reducing homelessness.

“My agency . . . is seeing many, many families with working parents who still can’t afford rent in the Greater Boston area,” Arnold wrote. “We’re hopeful that Governor Baker will keep the $90.9 million in the proposed state budget for the Massachusetts Rental Voucher Program, which will release an estimated 700 additional housing vouchers to low-income residents and would help to alleviate the crisis.”

Also Tuesday, the public health commission said hundreds of volunteers counted 7,663 individual homeless men, women, and children during a walk through the city in February, the 35th annual tally of the most vulnerable population in Boston. That figure is a 5.6 percent increase from the 2014 census, officials said.

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“Boston continues to see low numbers of homeless adults living on the streets compared to most major cities,” the health commission said in a statement. “The street population this year was approximately 1.7% of the total homeless count.

“Despite the Long Island bridge closure in October, Boston’s homeless provider community ensured that the adult emergency shelter system was able to meet a substantial increase in demand for the third consecutive year during an extremely cold winter that set a new snowfall record.”

The Long Island homeless shelter, which also offered recovery programs for those with addictions, closed abruptly in October after officials flagged structural problems with the aging bridge that carried people to the facility, forcing hundreds of homeless people and patients in recovery to seek alternative housing.

The city opened another shelter in the Newmarket area of Boston in June to offset many of the housing losses.

Conley said city officials “do not believe that the increase in homelessness of 5.6 percent . . . is attributable to the closure of the facilities on Long Island. . . . The increase in the total number of homeless is being driven by the significant increase in the number of homeless families in Boston.

“This population was not served by the programs located on Long Island and is increasing for reasons that involve stagnant wages and increasing costs of housing, child care, and other essentials in Boston,” she said.

Conley said homeless families are housed by the state in various settings including “congregate housing, scattered site shelter, hotels/motels, transitional housing, [and] domestic violence programs.”

‘My agency . . . is seeing many, many families with working parents who still can’t afford rent.’

Shannon Arnold, FamilyAid Boston spokeswoman 
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Other advocates said the homeless spike was alarming and issued general calls for more options for low-income residents in the city, while offering few specific proposals.

“We have to look at all of our future housing plans and determine how those plans meet our needs,” City Councilor Tito Jackson said.

Former state representative Carlos Henriquez echoed Jackson’s remarks.

“I think we have to do more, and we can’t be arresting and confining” the homeless, said Henriquez, who is considering another run for public office.

Darnell Williams, chief executive of the Urban League of Eastern Massachusetts, said homelessness is “a major societal problem that we have not been able to deal with effectively.”

The city’s homeless census was a staple of the administration of former mayor Thomas M. Menino, who walked city streets every winter with his top aides and key players from the private sector to get a firm grasp on homelessness statistics.

J.W. Carney Jr., a prominent Boston defense attorney who regularly walked with Menino’s staff during homeless census tallies, said tracking the number of people without housing is a vital mission for the city.

“I feel that we in the community who are fortunate enough to have a roof over our head have an obligation to help people who don’t,” Carney said.

Travis Andersen can be reached at travis.andersen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @TAGlobe.
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