On the night of February 23, Mayor Wu led a group of volunteers, including City and federal officials, homeless service providers, and public health and safety first responders in conducting the City of Boston’s 42nd annual homeless census. During the annual census, the City of Boston collects data on individuals spending the night unsheltered on the street, and individuals and families staying in emergency shelter, transitional housing, or domestic violence shelter programs. This point-in-time count is a national requirement for cities who are receiving funds from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development.
“This year’s census data helps us better shape Boston’s work to support our unhoused residents, coordinate effectively with our state and federal partners, and move closer to ensuring everyone has a safe, healthy home,” said Mayor Michelle Wu. “As we continue our work to tackle housing across all of our neighborhoods, these results will guide our efforts to serve all of our residents and end homelessness in our city.”
Overall, the number of individuals experiencing homelessness in Boston on the night of the census decreased by 2.4 percent, from 1,659 individuals in 2021 to 1,545 individuals in 2022. This reduction builds on a decrease of 24.7 percent from 2020 to 2021 which was due in part to a coordinated effort by city agencies and homeless service providers to create alternative housing, shelter and healthcare options that de-concentrated shelters during the first wave of the pandemic. It also reflects sustained and successful efforts in housing individuals experiencing homelessness and at-risk individuals and diverting individuals from emergency shelter to safe alternatives when possible.
The number of unsheltered persons staying on the street on the night of the census decreased by 30 percent, or 51 individuals, from 170 individuals in 2021 to 119 individuals in 2022. There were no unsheltered families on the streets of Boston on the night of the census, as has been true for more than the past decade. After two years of increased unsheltered homelessness, this year’s street count is slightly lower than the total of 121 in 2019. The number of veterans experiencing homelessness decreased by 15.5%, from 213 veterans in 2021 to 180 veterans in 2022.
“The homeless census is an important tool in understanding the status of unsheltered veterans,” said Andrew McCawley, president of the New England Center and Home for Veterans. “As an organization deeply engaged in efforts to end homelessness among veterans, this data provides us with a further understanding of the trends in our community so that we can plan for and deliver services. Even with this decrease, ONE unsheltered veteran is too many. We appreciate the City’s work to conduct this census and its collaboration with our organization to move forward a coordinated strategy to end veteran homelessness in the City of Boston.”
In 2021, the Mayor’s Office of Housing, Mayor’s Office of Recovery Services, Boston Housing Authority and a collaborative of homeless services and housing providers launched the Street-to-Home (S2H) Initiative focused on placing persons experiencing long-term unsheltered homelessness in permanent housing with wrap-around services. Participants were identified from a city-wide list of unsheltered individuals with a particular focus on the area centered at Massachusetts Ave. and Melnea Cass Blvd. By the night of the unsheltered count in late February, 150 individuals had been housed. The Street-to-Home Initiative is an ongoing part of a larger effort by the Mayor’s Office of Housing to invest Emergency Solutions Grant (ESG-CV) funding from the CARES Act to provide housing assistance and stabilization services. As a result of this funding, an additional 215 adult individuals experiencing homelessness were housed through ESG-CV rapid rehousing (RRH) programs over the 12 months prior to the 2022 census.
In November 2021, Mayor Wu brought in a special advisor, Dr. Monica Bharel, M.D. to accelerate efforts to mitigate the growing encampment crisis in the Newmarket triangle area at Mass Ave. and Melnea Cass Blvd. The Boston Public Health Commission, Mayor’s Office of Recovery Services, and numerous public health, behavioral health and health care agencies worked with the Mayor’s Office of Housing to support six low-threshold sites providing interim housing, access to much needed medical and substance-use disorder care and ongoing housing navigation. This effort resulted in placement opportunities for more than 150 individuals who had been living in unsafe and dangerous encampments in the depth of winter. By focusing on public health, substance-use and trauma-informed approaches, persons suffering from substance use disorder and other challenging life struggles were able to transition to safety and begin to navigate treatment, safe shelter, family reunification and housing pathways. Both the Boston Street-to-Home initiative and the low-threshold housing sites continue to work to assist and stabilize clients as they transition to treatment and supportive housing, helping break the cycle of homelessness for vulnerable unsheltered individuals.
“This census data is a valuable tool in devising strategies to solve homelessness in Boston,” said Lyndia Downie, president and executive director of Pine Street Inn. “We are pleased to see a decrease in Boston’s numbers, especially given the national picture, where street homelessness is at 39%. We know we still have work to do, and we look forward to continuing our partnership with Mayor Wu and the Mayor’s Office of Housing to scale up permanent supportive housing. Moving individuals off the street and out of shelter into the safety and stability of housing is the solution and will benefit not only those experiencing homelessness, but all residents and businesses in the city.”
With insights gained from addressing the intersecting crises of unsheltered homelessness and the substance use epidemic during the last two pandemic years, the Wu administration will invest new resources and strengthen partnerships to address low-threshold shelter access, substance use treatment access and permanent supportive housing strategies to improve unmet needs for outreach, engagement, and intervention. In the coming year, the Mayor’s Office of Housing, the Mayor’s Office of Recovery Services, Boston Police Street Outreach Unit, Boston EMS, Fire and Public Works and Parks will work with a newly appointed Coordinated Response Director, Tania Del Rio, and her team to ensure a continued coordinated response to street homelessness and the successful implementation of the plan developed over the last six months by former Senior Adviser Dr. Monica Bharel. The Mayor’s Office of Housing will invest up to $1 million in funding to work with Pine Street Inn, Eliot Community Health Services and other street outreach providers to strengthen diversion and housing navigation for unsheltered individuals, and to enhance housing stabilization for individuals who transition into permanent supportive housing. Additional funds will be dedicated to ensure ongoing client engagement, behavioral health and substance use treatment access, housing navigation and rehousing for participants in the six low-threshold sites set up to mitigate last year’s encampment crisis.
The number of homeless families increased slightly this year, from 843 to 929, and Mayor Wu, the Boston City Council and a number of dedicated family homelessness providers, people with lived experience of family homelessness, and advocacy agencies have joined a Commission on Ending Family Homelessness to explore strategies and develop a plan to address the housing, childcare, education and family support needs of homeless children and adults in families.
The census helps inform the City of Boston’s policy development and allocation of resources. The information gained through the census is shared with other homeless service providers to aid in the coordination among the Continuum of Care members. Boston has one of the lowest percentages of unsheltered people living on the street of any major city conducting a census, with under 4 percent of Boston’s homeless population sleeping on the street in 2021, the most recent year for which HUD has published national data. HUD did not publish national data for the total number of homeless persons who were unsheltered in 2021, because many Continua of Care waived their unsheltered count due to COVID-19. In 2020, 39 percent of all homeless persons were unsheltered nationwide.
The Mayor’s Office of Housing is responsible for housing people experiencing homelessness, creating and preserving affordable housing, and ensuring that renters and homeowners can obtain, maintain, and remain in safe, stable housing. The department develops and implements the City of Boston’s housing creation and homelessness prevention plans and collaborates with local and national partners to find new solutions and build more housing affordable to all, particularly those with lower incomes. For more information, please visit the MOH website.