Counting The Unaccounted For

Published December 7, 2010

WBUR’s Benjamin Swasey was one of 350 volunteers who participated in a “homeless census” last night in Boston. He shares his reflections here. –AP


We walked from City Hall down Washington Street — past the big hole in Downtown Crossing — to look for folks in “nooks and crannies.”

That’s how Bill Cotter, our team leader for the 31st annual Boston Homeless Census, put it last night as we went out to count the unaccounted for in Chinatown and the South Cove neighborhood.

It was my first census. And it was a damn cold night. But as the more than 350 of us broke into dozens of teams to sweep the city, someone told me that if it’s frigid, there aren’t as many homeless people out — on the really chilly nights, a great many manage to find, or are brought to, shelter.

[pullquote]It’s hard to approach a stranger and ask, “Do you have a place to stay tonight?”[/pullquote]

It’s an unusual and somewhat disturbing feeling to look for a person on the street. You understand you can offer a place to stay and an accurate count helps officials design and allocate appropriate services, but there’s an aura of a scavenger hunt to it. It’s weird to search for something you hope you won’t find.

And for a while we found nothing. We broke into smaller groups and zigzagged streets. My trio looked in veiled doorways and dingy alleyways. For us the nooks and crannies were uninhabited.

But then, as if hiding in plain sight, we nearly walked by a person nestled in the hedges, right off the sidewalk of a wide-open street. We were told to mark observations, such as approximate age and services needed, and to make inquiries, such as their names, veteran status and last permanent housing. But we also didn’t want to disturb those sleeping, and this person was completely covered with a dirty white comforter, his or her belongings leaning against a wall. We let the person lie and marked “One.”

Making a tally of the homeless population seemed to me to be an inexact endeavor. My trio saw an Asian man, smoking a cigarette with a carabiner hanging off a belt loop, looking through dumpsters near Marginal Road. He didn’t “seem” homeless, and it’s hard to approach a stranger and ask, “Do you have a place to stay tonight?”

Another asked a woman in my group, “What are you, my mother?” when she probed his living situation as he searched through bags. Another was just walking the street, shorts over his pants. He said he had enough layers on for the cold night.

That was our count for our zone (three), which I thought was pretty good. Of course it was only a handful of streets, and the census also includes shelters, mental health, substance abuse and domestic violence programs and temporary housing. Last year’s census found 3,800 homeless families total.

But Boston has reason to be proud. As the Globe reported, the city has one of the lowest rates of unsheltered homeless among major cities. The city said 3.4 percent of its homeless population was on the street during last year’s census. The 2009 national average was nearly 42 percent.

For some reason, though, I felt there were more we missed. Maybe they slipped indoors just before we poked our hat-covered heads around dark corners and slipped back outside when we boarded our subway trains home.