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Annual Count Shows Homelessness In Boston Down, Unsheltered Population Up In Pandemic

People experiencing homelessness stand in line outside St. Francis House in Boston, in October 2020, waiting for the day shelter to open. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
People experiencing homelessness stand in line outside St. Francis House in Boston, in October 2020, waiting for the day shelter to open. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Data from the city of Boston's annual homeless census that took place in January show homelessness in the city dropped overall since the start of the pandemic, but the number of people who were unsheltered increased.

The one-night count on Jan. 27 found 1,176 single adults staying in emergency shelters — a 26% percent decrease from a year before, according to the report released Tuesday. But 170 people were recorded sleeping on the streets — a 26% increase over last year's count of 135 unsheltered individuals. Boston has a relatively small population of people living on the streets compared to most other large cities around the country.

Several factors related to the pandemic helped drive the changes, city officials say. Those include people's fear of staying in shelters due to COVID, stepping up of programs that help people find alternatives to shelter — such as staying with family or getting short-term financial assistance, and efforts to continue placing people into housing with support services.

City officials say they and their nonprofit partners have worked together to house more than 700 individuals experiencing homelessness to this point in the pandemic — a slower pace than normal, but a number that's allowed them to avoid a big spike in people seeking beds in shelters or staying on the streets.

Meanwhile, they opened seven auxiliary shelters, including places like college dorms and rented hotels, in order to follow the CDC's distancing guidelines and reduce density at the permanent shelters.

"I think this was an anomalous year because of COVID," said Jim Greene, the city's assistant director for street homelessness initiatives. "But it wasn't like there was a wholesale outflow from shelter. Fortunately, there was more of a migration from shelter to auxiliary sites into housing than there was out to the streets."

People's choices around where to stay changed in the pandemic, says Laila Bernstein, deputy director of the supportive housing division at Boston's Department of Neighborhood Development.

"But we were seeing a trend slightly down, even the previous year, in how many people were coming to shelter," Bernstein said. "So we also think that our housing response work is working, and now our scaled-up triage work [to help people avoid having to enter shelter] is also having an impact."

City officials point out efforts by the state and other municipalities to use hotels as emergency shelters during the pandemic helped take some of the pressure off of Boston, which in recent years noted that more than 50% of people experiencing homelessness in the city came from other places.

"What I hope is that people across the commonwealth have learned that there's an important role in taking care of people in your community that are in need and not defaulting everything into Boston's shelter system, because everyone knows we can't go back to that system," Greene said.

Family homelessness in Boston was found to be down in the January census, with 863 families staying in emergency shelters in the city, compared to 1,240 families in January 2020. There were also slightly fewer families in transitional housing than the year before. Boston Housing Authority and family shelter providers have continued placing families in permanent housing during the pandemic, while the state eviction moratorium also helped.

Greene is worried about that picture changing.

"I'm concerned if evictions really start to hit a certain measure of scale, the shelter system cannot possibly be a shock absorber for people at risk of eviction in the Commonwealth," he said.

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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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