On Wednesday, January 29, 2020, 350 volunteers gathered at Boston City Hall Plaza at 9:30 PM to canvas the city as part of the City’s 39 th Annual Homeless Census. Mayor Martin Walsh thanked people for coming out and shared a vision of caring about our Boston neighbors who may be particularly vulnerable and disconnected. “Every single person deserves respect and this is simply about reaching out to another human being,” he said.
Annual Homeless Census at Boston City Hall; speaker Mayor Walsh
Credit: Deb Putnam
Outside, temperatures were below freezing (29° F) and 45 teams were bundled up ready to head out into the night. This is part of a national effort each January in which communities receiving homeless services funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development conduct a one night “point-in-time” count and collect data from people experiencing homelessness who are willing to answer some questions. Boston’s census details were overseen by Jim Greene and Jordan Smith of the Boston Public Health Commission’s Emergency Shelter Commission.
We were part of two teams charged to canvas “bridges and tunnels” this night. We met other professionals dedicated to serving people experiencing homelessness as well as folks from other professions. Two of our teammates were Massachusetts State Police officers: Sgt. Matthew Cotugno and Trooper Jason Beausoleil. They provided safe access to tunnels, on-ramps, off-ramps, and areas under bridges near the main thoroughfares of U.S. highways 90 and 93. The officers blocked traffic so we could walk across the pavement and over concrete guard rails to find people living there. Yes, living there.
Traveling with these officers gave us access to the crevices and hidden corners of the city: highway underpasses, and patches of dirt and concrete in the highway tunnels, and tunnels within tunnels. Places where people went to hide or went because they felt they had no alternative.
Our first stop was on the underpass at the water treatment station. There is a little stretch of grass between highway roads with frigid winds from the traffic: loud cars carrying people racing home to warm beds. We got out of the van with Officer Beausoleil and met “Jerry” (not his real name) who was experiencing homelessness. Jerry recognized the officer and asked about Sgt. Cotugno whom he seemed to know better. Sgt. Cotugno has been doing street outreach for 25 years and knows many people experiencing homelessness by name as did Trooper Beausoleil. After determining Jerry was okay and did not want shelter for the night, I asked if he would be okay with questions for the City of Boston census, which could help us better identify services in needs in the city. “Sure,” he said. I proceeded to ask him his initials, date of birth, race, how long he’s been homeless, where he first became homeless, any history of addiction to a substance, health issues or behavioral health issues and if he was a veteran. I found out that Jerry was living on the streets for years on nights like this struggling to maintain his space with other people experiencing homelessness. When I asked him his date of birth, he told me. It turned out we shared the same birthday just few years apart. Somehow I felt connected to him.
We were struck by the compassion and dedication of the police with whom we worked. These officers were not on a punitive mission to catch drug users, or trespassers, or to teach anyone a lesson. They were out to help. They were thoughtful about conditions that lead to homelessness and what can be done to help even incrementally. They were here to protect and serve, even the most vulnerable on this night of January.
We made five stops between 10pm and 1:30am; interviewed 12 people and observed one, and we met three couples. All were willing to speak with us and be interviewed though only one person wanted a ride to shelter. Most accepted food, gloves, hats and hygiene kits. The people we interviewed reported histories of homelessness from four months to “too many years I cannot count,” mental health issues, use of opioids, prescription drugs and alcohol.
One tunnel in particular was under construction. The state highway department was jack hammering and a large cloud of gray-brown dust was at the end of the tunnel, lit by large spotlights. It was very loud. It was in this tunnel that a couple emerged from a ledge, after some coaxing, covered in dust. The state police advised them to leave, as the dust may contain asbestos or other particles. But they wanted to stay.
Our lead outreach workers instructed us to approach people, by saying “Hello, is anyone home? I am from the city of Boston and we want to count everyone who is homeless tonight. May I speak with you for a short interview?” We were struck by the demeanor, instincts and dedication to their work.
The same was true of the officers. They were in engaged, sharing ideas, they approached the professional service providers among our team as partners. They listened and shared ideas, and they knew the people we ran into that night. They also shared their frustration that they couldn’t do more. They seemed to have a systemic view of the situation and how some people we met were struggling with substance issues, or circumstances for limited options, or desperation and lack of hope. They cared.
An abandoned encampment under a highway off-ramp. Credit: Deb Putnam
Near the end of the evening, we spent some time looking for a woman known to the state police and outreach workers, who has lived in a tunnel for 20 years. 20 years! She has significant mental health issues and several warrants for her arrest. She had not been seen in about a week; the team saw her encampment that night but it was not clear whether she was there or not. Her spot was above a utility cage drivers whiz past on the highway. We wondered about where she was and if she was okay.
As the night approached 1 a.m., and organizers back at City Hall were urging us to return, the officers had one more spot we had not visited. We were running late but we all agreed to check that one last spot. Sure enough we found a young man shivering in a thin coat and blanket sleeping on the open grass. He mistakenly thought the closest shelter was closed. He had been in town with relatives for his little girl’s birthday party the night before but now had nowhere to go. The officers drove him to the Pine Street Inn and, at least for that night, he had a warm bed.
Results of the Homeless Census will help the city, and organizations like Pine Street Inn, evaluate and design programs that help people find housing, treatment, health care, and jobs.
John McGah is Senior TA Consultant at American Institutes for Research and Deb Putnam is Senior Director of Strategic Initiatives at Pine Street Inn.