Boston Mayor Marty Walsh says the city has put an end to chronic homelessness for veterans. But he says they still have a long way to go to address the bigger issue.
“We’re going to continue to work, every single day in our city until we end homelessness,” the mayor told hundreds of volunteers Wednesday night, before they fanned out around Boston Wednesday night to get a count of just how many homeless people there are in Boston.
“Where are you sleeping tonight?" volunteer Brian Norton asked Patrick, a 28 year old man who was keeping warm inside an entrance to the State Street station of the T.
"I sleep a couple blocks down the street," Patrick said. "One of the hallways.”
Norton was part of a larger group, many of whom were city and state employees. They approached people on the street in pairs. With him was Joyce Linehan, the city’s Chief of Policy.
“Would you want to go to a shelter if we could find room for you?" Linehan asked Patrick.
"If I wanted to, I could go to Pine Street, yeah," he said. "But I just, it’s always crazy over there. Last time I went there they brought us over to St. Frances. Then I was sleeping on the ground in there, so it’s just – if I want to sleep on the ground with my blanket over there.”
The group moved on to South Station, where Norton spotted a man asleep on a bench.
“If he’s sleeping, I don’t know if we necessarily should or not," Norton wondered. "It’s a judgment call here.”
Volunteer Rebecca Emmanuel decided to give it a shot and kneeled down next to him.
“Hey sir, how are you doing?” she asked.
He didn't stir, and Emmanuel went to consult with the others. They said to try again. She walked up, kneeled down next to him and called out to him again. This time, he woke up a little, and she managed to ask a few questions and offer him a blanket.
“Asking him if we can convince him to come in to a shelter and give him a warm bed for tonight, but he said he’d prefer just blankets and falling asleep here,” she explained.
The group moved on to South Station’s bus terminal, where Alice Bonner, the state secretary of elder affairs met a man with a white beard sitting by himself reading a book with a magnifying glass. He told Bonner he’s been homeless since he was 58 years old. He said he had to quit his job to care for his ailing mother back then, and they lived off her social security. But when she wound up in a nursing home, he couldn’t find a job again.
“There’s all young people out there trained to the same things and better,” he said.
And he found himself homeless.
“Is there anything that you think the government could do to help folks like you who are older and find themselves homeless?" Bonner asked him.
"Well, the government is already doing that," he replied. "I mean, I get SSI now, social security – not social security – supplemental security income. It’s not much. You know, there’s a reason it’s called supplemental.”
He seemed grateful for the assistance, but it’s not enough to pay for housing, so he’s been trying to keep off the streets by staying with friends.
“All I can say is, if nothing happens in your life to make you homeless, good luck, because that’s all it really is, he said. "It has nothing to do with all your plans and schemes. Life turns on a dime for anybody. I know people out here who are divorce court judges, lawyers, doctors. It can happen to anyone.”
The people on the streets Wednesday night are just some of the city’s homeless. The census also counts many more who spent the night in shelters. Last year’s census counted more than 15 hundred homeless families in the city, many of whom are living in motels.
The census results won’t come out for several months. City officials say the annual survey is crucial. You can’t truly fix a problem if you don’t know the scope of it.