Boston sees increase in homelessness, according to annual census

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A man walks his scooter loaded with his belonging down Southampton Street in the "Mass. and Cass" area in 2021. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
A man walks his scooter loaded with his belonging down Southampton Street in the "Mass. and Cass" area in 2021. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

The number of people experiencing homelessness in Boston increased this year, according to the city's annual homeless census.

The census took place the night of Jan. 30. City workers and volunteers fanned out across Boston to talk with people living on the streets and collect data from shelters.

There was a 17% increase in solo adults experiencing homelessness in Boston, and a similar increase in families staying in shelters and transitional housing.

The biggest jump — 42% — was among unsheltered adults in the city. Nearly 170 people were found staying on the streets, up from a 30-year low of 119 last year.

"As a percent increase, it's large. In terms of the number of individuals on the street, we're concerned about everyone out there," Jim Greene, Boston's assistant director for street homelessness initiatives, told WBUR's All Things Considered. Greene pointed out that Boston shelters a much higher percentage of its homeless population than many other major cities.

According to Greene, the relatively warm winter with very little snow contributed to more people staying out in the elements and turning down offers from outreach workers to go to shelters. And census takers, many of whom work for homeless service organizations and city departments, noticed many "new faces."

"We know that people migrate into Boston," he said. "There's a lack of an adequate safety net in many other communities across the commonwealth, and, in fact, throughout the Northeast."

The city has experienced a continual recurrence of tent encampments near the area known as "Mass. and Cass," where there's a concentration of shelters and service organizations that help people who are experiencing homelessness and substance use disorders, as well as an active drug market. That's despite "really robust efforts" that have resulted in hundreds of people from the encampment entering shelters and permanent supportive housing, according to Greene.

The census found 1,343 solo adults staying in emergency shelters in the city, a 20% increase from last year. Greene said increased capacity as a result of the city and nonprofit service providers creating new shelter programs for people who were living at Mass. and Cass contributed to the increase in the shelter population.

"We're still far below the numbers we were seeing a few years ago, but every bed we open up, there's someone in need who's seeking assistance," Greene said.

An increase in migrant families arriving in Boston has contributed to the state-run family shelter system being over capacity. As reported by WBUR, many migrant families awaiting shelter have been showing up at hospitals looking for help. Boston Medical Center recently ended a policy of allowing unhoused families to shelter at the hospital overnight.

This segment aired on July 14, 2023.

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.


Steve Brown Senior Reporter/Anchor
Steve Brown is a veteran broadcast journalist who serves as WBUR's senior State House reporter.



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