The 2019 Boston Homeless Census: Sleeping Outside on the Coldest Night of the Year

At 10:00 last night, 300+ volunteers gathered inside City Hall to hear from the Mayor before forming 45 teams to fan across neighborhoods for the annual Boston Homeless Census, an attempt to quantify the number of people living unsheltered on Boston’s streets.

Would we find anyone in this bitter cold?

United Way led teams covering Faneuil Hall and the Seaport. Even before we hit the ground, our radio chattered with reports of people requesting transport indoors. It continued to call out from our pockets:

Someone electing for a van transport to shelter.

Then another — a group living in a tent on the side of the road. They plan to stay. Please bring blankets and food.

Then another — someone injured and in need of medical transport to a hospital.

Then another.

And another.

Each one is someone.  A person with a story, making a life in single-digit New England weather.

Volunteers combed the streets, looking for places we might hunker down if we were stuck outside. We stopped to pick up drinks on one end of Seaport Blvd. Before we made it to the other end, a bottle of Vitaminwater had transformed into Vitaminslushy. As the wind cut through our layers and stung our faces, we found someone, asleep on the bitterly cold ground in an alcove of a storefront, under just a blanket.

By morning, hundreds would walk by this person en route to work without giving them a second thought. Many would feel a tug of human compassion and wonder how he made it through the night. But without a tangible way to help, they would walk by. Why count him?

Why we count

The reason people volunteer for the Census is clear. It resounded in their comments as they set out for the night: “I hope we don’t find anyone out there.” We count because every person matters, because every person should have a safe, permanent, affordable place to call home. United Way fights for that goal every day. The Census is a stark reminder of why we keep our focus on that goal. One volunteer who has participated in the Census for the last five years reflected:

“What I find to be most powerful about the experience is that it teaches you to look at your city through different eyes. Streets that I have walked down dozens of times looking for lunch, I’m forced to look at through the eyes of someone seeking the most basic form of shelter. It’s a very powerful shift in perception.”

Why cities count

For cities and towns, an annual point-in-time census is a requirement of their federal Housing and Urban Development funding. Boston and many other large cities have made it an opportunity to understand where people are sheltering, connect them with a network of shelters, and ask them questions that will inform program development. For cities, the Census is a stark reminder that the real work of government is the well-being of its residents.

Work yet to be done

The Census is a critical, annual highlight of the work that Boston’s Way Home does all year to end homelessness in collaboration with the city’s nonprofits and philanthropic partners. In the last decades, as a community, we have reduced the number of people spending a cold night like last night on the street.

But tonight is another single-digit night. Some will spend it unsheltered. Others have shelter but face an unaffordable housing market. While children rarely sleep outdoors, we know that tonight thousands of young children will sleep in a shelter or couch surf with friends. Just last week United Way heard from a formerly homeless mom who reflected on the real-life challenge of waking herself and her young daughter at 4:30 each morning in shelter to begin their long journey by bus to her daughter’s school, then to her work, then back again. There is much work to be done until everyone has a safe, permanent, affordable place to call home.

Explore some of United Way’s efforts to make everyone count.