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Mayor Walsh leads 41st annual homeless census with precautions due to COVID-19 pandemic

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Neighborhood Development

The annual count of Boston's homeless individuals guides the City's resources

BOSTON - Thursday, January 28, 2021 - Mayor Martin J. Walsh yesterday led a reduced group of volunteers, including City and State officials, homeless services providers, and public health and safety first responders, in conducting the City of Boston's 41st annual unsheltered homeless street count. Census organizers intentionally reduced the number of volunteers this year as a safety measure in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The street count also started later and did not include the usual kickoff event at City Hall, to prevent volunteers from gathering as a large group. The street count is part of the City's comprehensive census of homeless adults, youth and families in emergency shelters, transitional housing, and domestic violence programs, and individuals staying outside in Boston each year. 

"Every year, our homeless census guides our work to dedicate programs and resources to support individuals who face homelessness, and it plays a vital role in our larger goal to prevent and end homelessness in the City of Boston," said Mayor Walsh. "The homeless census also serves as an important reminder of our shared commitment to helping our most vulnerable residents. In Boston, we know everyone should be cared for and respected, and deserves a place to call home."

The annual homeless census is usually required by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) as a key component of Boston's $31 million federal grant for housing and services for homeless households. This year due to the COVID-19 pandemic the homeless census was not required by HUD, but was still conducted. The census also helps inform the City of Boston's policy development and allocation of resources. The information gained through the census is shared with other homeless service providers to aid in the coordination among the Continuum of Care members. Boston continues to have the lowest percentage of unsheltered people living on the street of any major city conducting a census, with under 2 percent of Boston's homeless population sleeping on the street in 2019, the most recent year for which HUD has published national data. Nationwide, 37 percent of all homeless persons were unsheltered in 2019.

This year, roughly 80 volunteers canvassed 45 areas after midnight, covering every city neighborhood, Logan Airport, and the transit and parks systems. Volunteers canvassed their assigned areas, identified those sleeping on the street, and conducted a short survey, when that could be conducted safely, per COVID-19 guidelines. The surveys will be closely analyzed to ensure accuracy and then cross-checked and combined with the results of the simultaneous shelter count. 

"When we first thought about conducting our street count this year, we wondered how to do so given concerns about the coronavirus," said Jim Greene Assistant Director for Street Homelessness Initiatives for the City of Boston. "We surveyed long time census team leaders and the response was amazing; everyone agreed to help in any way they could. The overnight and daytime emergency shelter staff, street outreach teams, homeless youth workers, substance abuse and mental health clinicians, and first responders who joined us for the count have been on the front lines of this work every day throughout the pandemic. They have the skill and experience to conduct a count and keep homeless people safe. We appreciate them stepping up again tonight."

The City of Boston's collaborative work to house, shelter, and keep homeless individuals and families safe has continued throughout the pandemic. In December, Mayor Martin J. Walsh announced that, despite the pandemic, since the launch of Rising to the Challenge: Boston's Plan to Prevent and End Youth and Young Adult Homelessness in December 2019, the City of Boston has housed more than 100 youth between the ages of 18 and 24 years old experiencing homelessness. As part of the continued effort to end youth homelessness and support youth at risk of becoming homeless, the Mayor also announced $335,000 to support career training and college courses for 40 young people aged 18-24 at risk of homelessness. 

Boston's Way Home, the City's plan to end chronic and veteran homelessness prioritizes the housing first approach, an evidence-based approach to ending homelessness that uses principles such as everyone is deserving of permanent and stable housing without preconditions like sobriety or treatment. Since the plan's launch in 2015, City agencies and community partners have dramatically redesigned the way services are delivered to homeless individuals, increasing resources devoted to housing and deploying new technologies to match homeless individuals with housing and services.

Since the launch of Boston's Way Home, the City has:

  • Housed more than 1,064 chronically homeless individuals, representing more than 6,700 years of homelessness ended. (The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services defines chronically homeless individuals as adults with a disability who have been either living in an emergency shelter or a place not meant for human habitation continuously for 12 months or more, or who have had four occasions of homelessness in the past three years that total 12 months or more.)
  • Reduced chronic homelessness in Boston by 19 percent since 2016, at a time when chronic homelessness has been rising nationally
  • Housed more than 1,300 homeless veterans and ended chronic homelessness among veterans
  • Reduced the number of homeless veterans in Boston on a single night by 32 percent since 2014, when Mayor Walsh launched his Homes for the Brave Initiative to end veteran homelessness
  • Partnered with six affordable housing owners in Boston to create a homeless veteran preference within their housing
  • Announced an action plan to support young Bostonians experiencing homelessness and awarded $4.7 million to create 157 housing opportunities for youth and young adults that have already housed more than 100 young people experiencing homelessness.
  • Reached the goal of raising more than $10 million for the Boston's Way Home Fund to build 200 new units of supportive, long-term housing for chronically homeless men and women.

The City of Boston anticipates receiving more than $31 million from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to support Boston's homelessness programs in 2021 through HUD's McKinney Homeless Continuum of Care program. The funding was awarded through the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021, which renewed existing Continuum of Care grants for another year. 

To further prevent displacement, which can lead to homelessness, Mayor Walsh filed and advocated for several pieces of legislation during the 2019-2020 Massachusetts legislative session aimed at protecting residents. The bills passed provide the City of Boston with more flexibility to leverage the strong development market to fund affordable housing and workforce training programs, and increase the State CPA match, allowing Boston to invest more in our communities and support affordable housing, historic preservation, and parks and open space. This work builds on Boston's commitment to ensure all neighborhoods have affordable and equitable housing options to benefit the most vulnerable and least represented communities. Mayor Walsh was supportive of Governor Baker's housing choice legislation that was recently signed into law. This policy supports other municipalities in building up their affordable housing stock which will provide more options for residents across the Commonwealth and help ease Boston's housing burden.

The results from this year's homeless census will be available in the coming months.

About the Department of Neighborhood Development (DND)

The Department of Neighborhood Development is responsible for housing the homeless, developing affordable housing, and ensuring that renters and homeowners can find, maintain, and stay in their homes. As part of the ongoing coronavirus response, the Office of Housing Stability is also conducting tenant's rights workshops to educate residents about the eviction moratorium and their rights. The Boston Home Center continues to provide down payment assistance to first-time home buyers and home repairs for seniors and low-income residents. The Supportive Housing Division is working with various partners around the city to rapidly house individuals who are experiencing homelessness. For more information, please visit the DND website.