BOSTON — Some 350 volunteers worked in the bitter cold Monday night to conduct Boston’s 34th annual homeless census.
The participants, who gathered prior at City Hall, were a rag-tag army — armed against the cold with coats, scarves, boots, hats and gloves.
“On a night like this our earnest hope is that we will see very few people on the street,” said Jim Greene, the director of Boston’s Emergency Shelter Commission and a longtime census veteran. “This is probably the coldest night I can remember in 25 years of doing the census.”
For three nights beforehand, volunteers passed out fliers on the street, talking to the homeless and encouraging them to go to shelters so they could get counted.
“The shelters are at capacity but they will make room for any person in need,” Greene said Monday night. “They will put them in the lobby, they will put them downstairs, but we’re gonna try to get everyone inside.”
Last year, volunteers counted 6,992 homeless individuals living on city streets and in shelters — a 5.2 percent increase from the year before.
By far, Greene said, most homeless are family members caught between two opposite realities: stagnant incomes and soaring housing costs.
“There’s kind of a great divide in our society and a lot of the homelessness we see among families is an issue of economics,” he said. “People’s incomes are far too low to afford the rent here, so without rental assistance and without a safety net, they’re on the street.”
Compared to other cities, Boston has very few people living on the streets — less than 200. The shelter system is large and well organized, coordinated by city, state and private groups.
Before heading to the streets Monday, census volunteers were given instructions on how to approach homeless people — in shelters and un-sheltered.
And Anne Quinn, of the city’s Department of Innovation & Technology, handed out walkie-talkies so teams of volunteers could stay in touch.
“We’ve got about 30 radios,” she said, “and then we have four vans, so we’re coordinating the vans to pick folks up or bring food, gloves, hats, blankets, etc.”
And this year, for the first time, teams went out with a phone app supplied by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.
“HUD has developed a mobile point-in-time tool to allow volunteers like the ones in Boston to enter the data in real time,” said Nick Martin, with the Boston Public Health Department.
This year special attention was being focused to count those who served in the armed forces.
“I just look for any opportunity to give back to the community as an active duty military personnel,” said Alicia Flanagan, a volunteer census taker who’s with the Coast Guard. “The community gives back so much to us and [offers] support, it’s the least I could do. I’m not a native to Boston so this is my nexus with the community.”
Census takers also tried to get an accurate count of the high users of emergency services (HUES), the relatively small number of homeless people who cycle through the system again and again, in shelters, emergency rooms and on the streets.
Joe Meuse was among the HUES. Now he lives in affordable housing in Brookline and has a full-time job as a shipping clerk. On Monday he was a volunteer helping count the homeless.
“I was one of the ones that were out on the street on the Boston Common, sleeping on a grate, drinking alcohol,” he said. “I had a lot of help getting me to get where I am now from the people at Pine Street Inn. There is hope. There is a way out.”
Before they headed out to count, Mayor Thomas Menino gave volunteers a pep talk. Menino has made fighting homelessness one of his administration’s top priorities, and he said the census is far more than just numbers.
“Tonight’s street count is about putting a face and voice to homelessness,” he said. “It’s much harder for people to attack safety nets when the policy has a human face, when you meet the people in need. We can’t lose sight of the ultimate goal: The only way to combat homelessness is to find more affordable housing options.”
The census’ final tally will be released in a few weeks.