Boston’s PIT Count and an Appreciation of Mayor Thomas M. Menino

I was honored to participate in Boston’s 34th annual Point-in-Time count on December 16th. This year’s count also marked the last homeless census for Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino.  Elected in 1993, Menino is the city’s longest-serving mayor and will complete his fifth and final term in office on January 6, 2014. 

I have known Mayor Menino for a good number of those years and have appreciated his leadership on the work to create affordable homes and prevent and end homelessness. Mayor Menino always participated in the city’s point-in-time count walking shoulder to shoulder with the volunteers who covered Boston’s Downtown Crossing.   In 2012, Barbara Poppe attended the count at the mayor’s invitation and noted, “Mayor Menino really leads the country in compassion on this issue.”

Under Mayor Menino’s leadership, the number of individuals experiencing chronic homelessness in Boston decreased by 45 percent since 2007 as reported in the HUD’s most recent AHAR. Moreover, the city reported that more than 76 percent of individuals who were in shelter and considered long-term homeless are now out of shelter and in housing. These significant reductions have made it possible for the city’s largest shelter for individuals, the Pine Street Inn, to reduce its bed capacity and redirect these resources into permanent housing for the chronically homeless.  Based on the city’s successes, Boston was one of seven communities featured in a June 2013 USICH Newsletter that focused on communities that achieved notable reductions in reducing chronic homelessness between 2010 and 2012.  

Mayor Menino’s leadership in working with the Boston Housing Authority (BHA) was essential to the city’s progress as the BHA administers a preference for all family households that are homeless. The City also included a targeted  time-limited preference for individuals who met the HUD definition of chronic homelessness.  As the numbers of families in shelter was increasing, Mayor Menino worked in coordination with BHA and the State’s Department of Housing and Community Development to launch an initiative that provided 500 housing subsidies and 200 units of public housing to Boston families living in shelters.  The partnership with BHA is one model of how a mayor can engage a local housing agency in the effort to end homelessness. 

The mayor’s blueprint for housing action was embodied in the city’s Leading the Way initiative, which from 2000 to 2010 resulted in Boston having its greatest increase in housing starts in 50 years -- the completion of 20,000 units of which 30 percent were affordable. Among major cities, Boston has one of the nation’s highest percentages of housing that is affordable. The Mayor also made it a priority to serve the most vulnerable: people experiencing chronic homelessness who were on the street, in shelters, and frequently using hospital emergency services.  His “Street to Home” and other initiatives targeted to this population have resulted in Boston having the second lowest rate of people who are unsheltered among cities of comparable size.  

Mayor Menino has always believed that the purpose of government is to help improve people's lives and he has used his office to make a difference for the most needy.    As he remarked at this year’s Point-in-Time Count, special efforts were underway to reach out to Veterans and youth.  So, this year’s count had a special youth team from Bridge Over Troubled Water, an agency dedicated to transforming the lives of runaway, homeless, and high-risk youth.  As part of the youth team during the count, I saw firsthand how the Bridge staff respectfully engaged youth who were outside or underground in subway stops.  Many were already familiar with the organization, having been involved in their shelter, warming center, roving medical van, or transitional living programs. Elizabeth Jackson, Bridge’s Executive Director, leaned in to get close to the young people she encountered while offering assistance.  I admired her respectful and warm approach and the youths responded positively.  Bridge provided a pocket-sized Street Survival Guide that offered nearly 100 resource contacts.   

In a USICH blog it was noted that, “Mayors are on the front line of homelessness in America. We at USICH put an enormous premium on understanding the work being done at the community level and the perspective of mayors.”

In a 1993 Boston Globe interview, Mayor Menino said, “All I’m really interested in is doing things that help people. I really care about the lives of people in the city.”  Over the last decade mayors across the country have stepped up to make a difference in ending chronic homelessness.  Boston’s Mayor Thomas M. Menino represented the best of mayoral leadership as his aim to end homelessness was integral to his vision  for the city.

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