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News :: Social Welfare
The Homeless Census 2007: Mayor and Crew Determined to Rile Boston’s Homeless
12 Jan 2008
December 18th marked Boston’s 19th annual Homeless Census, a one-night count of people living on the streets or in shelter programs. To conduct the street count, over 300 volunteers gathered at City Hall at 9pm, then split into groups to cover Boston’s neighborhoods searching for the homeless. City officials – Mayor Menino, Jim Greene, Director of the Emergency Shelter Commission, representatives from the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Department of Health Human Services, Catholic Charities, the United Way, Greater Boston Food Bank, and other Mayor’s office and police staff – and the press were the first group to lead off, covering Downtown Crossing.

[EDITOR's NOte: We reposted this article from Spare Change News, a great local community newspaper that struggles to get the true story of our city's homeless beyond mainstream media.]
sparechange.jpg
Spare Change Newspaper [Photo: Adam, Boston Behind the Scenes]
The first homeless person we saw sat on a milk crate outside the State Street T, smoking a cigarette. He had a few blankets and a friend by his side. Upon being swarmed by a large group, including photographers flashing bulbs on him, he stood up. The Mayor asked if he wanted a place to stay and offered to call the van that shuttles people to shelters. The gentleman said okay but as he did so shuffled away from the group, saying he would wait alone for the van. As we continued to see throughout the night, an offer for help can be well intentioned and appreciated, but it is startling to be approached by a large group of officials with the press taking notes.

The second stop, Menino woke a man sleeping with his face against the brick wall of the Green Mountain coffee stand, his body insufficiently covered by a long cardboard box. The Mayor woke him up: "I'm Mayor Menino."
Greene: "Do you know the Mayor?"
Mayor: "Want a warm place to sleep?"
Man, groggily: "Where?"
He was offered Pine Street and didn't say much, probably still trying to figure out if he was dreaming. The Mayor asked him where he was from, and made small talk about Revere. As the man started to wake up, he asked for water and was brought some. The friend of the smoker at State Street came over to let us know that he is a friend of both men and had an eye on them. No one talked to him or identified him as homeless, but I pulled him aside. He said the census wouldn’t find most homeless people because they aren't on the main streets, and that we'd need to go down alleys and really search, which was not happening. He didn’t have much opinion to voice when asked about homeless services in the city, then told me he often sleeps on roofs of buildings so that people will leave him alone. Three cops came over to talk to the man we'd just woken up and the group moved on.

Outside McDonald’s stood Harry. Greene seemed to know him, said his office would follow up on Harry’s stated intention of getting back on the wagon. Harry said he met the Mayor six years ago at a census. The Mayor told Harry to stay in touch: "You know where to find me." Laughing at the banter, the group left, and Harry, referencing the transport van, called out: "Excuse me, Mr. Menino, where's the limo?” It was a light exchange, outwardly lacking the gravity of encountering a familiar face six years later in the same situation.

Laurie was panhandling outside the 7/11. She saw the Mayor and exploded in mixed reaction: "Kiss my ass, my Irish ass, stop your bullshit man... You've got a good heart... Tell those motherfuckers [the press] to get out of my face so I can talk to you." Laurie – whom the Mayor and Greene also seemed to know – has been on street for 15 years. When she refused a sandwich and a ride in the van, the Mayor persisted: "I'm not gonna shake your hand unless you do what I tell you to do." The two talked about her being clean recently for 11 months, but then she had problems with some of the city’s homeless service organizations. (When Greene offered to take her to Woods Mullin, she retorted: "YOU go to Woods Mullin." When offered the Night Center: "You been? Go ahead. I'd rather die.") Laurie talked about being pregnant, and her previous night sleeping in a cubbyhole with tears frozen to her face. Greene encouraged her one last time towards the van: "I don't want to see your tears freezing." When the group started to disperse, she shook her cup and noted, "I swear to God I ain't gonna get a dollar from you guys."

As the Mayor’s group completed its run, volunteers around the city were experiencing a less press-centric version of the census. Spare Change News writer KL Pereira tells her story:

Though I’ve lived in the Boston metro area for four years and been an activist for the homeless and underemployed, before I volunteered for the census I had neither heard of it nor how it was used to aid those in most critical need of housing services. As I navigated the barrage of reporters and cameras that evening, Mayor Menino kicked off the evening by stressing that the annual census was performed to make sure that “every individual in our city who’s homeless has a place to stay.” And this, indeed is what such a census should strive to do.

Yet as I listened to the Mayor’s instructions to “imagine yourself as a homeless person” and “think about blending in,” I felt a twinge of skepticism; most folks around me were talking over the Mayor, and I wasn’t able to learn from either the Mayor or my group leaders (long-time volunteers) how the census would be used, how extensive it was (in terms of the city of Boston proper versus counting in neighborhoods like Dorchester or Jamaica Plain), or how important the census was to procuring resources and programs to help rectify one of the city’s most pervasive problems.

While Menino continued his speech, my group of nine set off to complete our mission. While I continued to wonder just how counting would help make practical change “on-the-ground,” we were split up into three groups in order to cover our sector as quickly as possible. Luckily, two folks that work for the city were in my group, and were able to somewhat explain how the information from the census was used. For example, the Department of Neighborhood Development uses the data from the census to apply for grants from HUD, as well as determining (though I'm unclear how) who may be using and in need of various resources among the homeless populations. Though this information gave me an inkling into how the census may be used, I was still wondering how the grants procured from the census numbers actually translate into practical change.

As we further split our group of four into two groups, our team leader told us not to go peeking into alleyways, under places, or in dumpsters and to err extremely on the side of caution. While this advice was well intentioned, I felt that it was rooted in a gross misconception about the homeless population (namely, that they are dangerous) and greatly inhibited us from actually finding many of people. The snow covering the ground, benches, and the more open "nooks and crannies" where folks might usually seek shelter didn't leave us much to work with.

My partner and I located one homeless person. He shared his story with us, but was angry when we told him about the census for the city, saying that he doesn't use any of the city's resources (a common occurrence among my group: out of the 12-13 individuals counted, at least five of them refused to talk to us). This gentleman made it clear that the city doesn't help him so he wouldn't help the city. I couldn’t blame him; at that point I hadn't seen how the census helped the homeless population besides offering them emergency medical care or a ride to a shelter if they chose (which are not among the most desirable places for the homeless population). As I thanked him for his time, I felt extremely disheartened; how could I help him by giving him a number on my tally sheet? How could I connect him with resources that would empower him to change his situation?

In the next issue of Spare Change News, we will report further on the census data and how it will be used, and include perspectives from homeless service providers as well as homeless individuals and Spare Change News vendors.
See also:
http://www.homelessempowerment.org/

This work licensed under a
Creative Commons license.
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