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Boston Reduces Chronic Homelessness As It Rises Nationally

This article is more than 1 year old.

Boston has reduced chronic homelessness 20 percent since 2016, according to new data to be released by the city Thursday.

This decrease has happened at the same time the problem is growing nationally, city officials say. A U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development report found chronic homelessness increased 12 percent between 2016 and 2017.

The city launched an "action plan" to end veteran and chronic homelessness in June 2015. The following January, Mayor Marty Walsh announced the city had effectively ended chronic veteran homelessness.

The government defines a chronically homeless person as someone with a disabling condition who's been homeless for at least 12 consecutive months or has had at least four periods of homelessness totaling at least 12 months in the previous three years.

At the beginning of 2016, there were 612 people known to be chronically homeless living in emergency shelters and on the streets in Boston. Since that time, the city and its homeless service providers have placed 580 chronically homeless individuals in permanent supportive housing.

More than 800 additional people have become chronically homeless since January 2016. When the city last compiled its official list of people who are chronically homeless, over the winter, there were 493 on it. The list is updated and released a couple of times a year.

As part of the action plan, the city implemented a software program that matches people on the chronically homeless list with available housing units — including subsidized housing run by Boston Housing Authority and private units with rental assistance vouchers tied to them or that accept vouchers from tenants.

All of the homeless shelters and homeless service providers are tied into another computer system that allows them to see where a homeless person has been staying night to night.

Another program offers so-called "front-door triage" services to people when they first enter the public or private shelter system. The goal of that program is to move people out of homelessness very quickly or to find a way for a person to not have to stay at the shelter at all — thereby averting chronic homelessness.

Laila Bernstein, who is heading up the city's effort to end chronic homelessness, says a shortage of affordable and subsidized housing in the city is a huge barrier.

"It's hard to make a ton of progress without more federal investment. And part of why we saw so much success on the veterans initiative... is because there's a huge federal investment in housing for homeless veterans. And there was all this political will," she says.

The opioid epidemic has also contributed to homelessness over the last few years. But, Bernstein says, one of the biggest factors affecting the city's ability to end chronic homelessness is that before the initiative started, city officials really didn't know how severe the flow of people into the emergency shelter system was. The different shelters and service providers just weren't communicating, coordinating and tracking numbers like they are now.

"The number of people coming in has been overwhelming — into chronic homelessness," Bernstein explains. "But I also think that we have better data now than when we started. So we didn't have a way to have a very precise understanding of how many people were coming in every month, whereas now we have a database that allows us to see that. And we see more chaos, really, in the in the flow of the population than we could have known."

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Lynn Jolicoeur Twitter Producer/Reporter
Lynn Jolicoeur is the field producer for WBUR's All Things Considered. She also reports for the station's various local news broadcasts.

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