Boston To Conduct Annual Homeless Census, With Some Pandemic Alterations

In this photo from 2013's homeless census, Jim Greene, the director of emergency shelters for the Boston Public Health Commission (in red), and another volunteer lift a blanket off of a homeless woman at Downtown Crossing to check if she is OK. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
In this photo from 2013's homeless census, Jim Greene, then the director of the emergency shelter commission for the Boston Public Health Commission (in red), and a volunteer lift a blanket off of a woman at Downtown Crossing to check if she is okay. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

City leaders and advocates will conduct the annual census of people experiencing homelessness in Boston overnight Wednesday into Thursday. But the undertaking will look and feel a lot different than in years past.

Due to concerns about coronavirus transmission, both for people experiencing homelessness and for those helping to count and survey them, the city is heavily restricting the number of volunteers who will take part in the census, according to Jim Greene, the city's assistant director for street homelessness initiatives.

"We want to conduct the count thoroughly and compassionately, but also safely," Greene said. "So COVID's been kind of on our minds a lot, throughout the planning process."

About 80 volunteers — mostly from city departments and local homeless service organizations — have been invited to take part based on their past training and experience in conducting the census. They'll meet in small groups around the city, as opposed to the typical 300-plus volunteers — including college students and groups from local corporations -- fanning out from a kick-off event at Boston City Hall.

The volunteers will try to safely survey people, asking questions about their histories, what help they've received, and how the pandemic has factored into their lives, Greene explained.

"You know, 'Has the COVID-19 pandemic affected your ability to access services or assistance, or housing?' We want to understand everything we can about the impact of the pandemic on people's lives and what we can do to make their lives better, and get people safely housed and off the streets," he said.

Shelters and transitional housing programs will also provide data on their populations.

The annual homeless census, also known as the point-in-time count, happens on the same night in cities and regions all over the U.S. It's required by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development in order for the agency to get a snapshot of homelessness around the country and make decisions about funding for housing and anti-homelessness initiatives. HUD uses the data to put together its annual report on homelessness for Congress. The agency requires the unsheltered population — people staying in places not fit for human habitation — be included in the count every other year, but Boston has counted its entire homeless population annually for four decades.

Mayor Marty Walsh released a statement saying the homeless census "plays a vital role in [the] larger goal to end chronic homelessness in the City of Boston."

Walsh, who has been nominated by President Biden to serve as U.S. Labor Secretary, typically takes part in the census and leads the kick-off event. His office said his participation this year is up in the air due to the changes in how it is being conducted. In addition to restrictions on the number of people taking part, it's happening much later at night than normal.

HUD made the census optional this year because of the pandemic, and many places canceled it. Greene said that option wasn't given much consideration in Boston.

The city is considered a national leader in sheltering its homeless population; about 2% of people experiencing homelessness were found staying on the streets in last year's census. The national average for major cities is 37% unsheltered, according to HUD.


Lynn Jolicoeur 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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