Boston’s homeless population increases as federal housing assistance cuts loom

Boston saw a small increase last year in the number of people living on city streets, in emergency shelters, and in substance abuse and mental health facilities, according to data released Monday from the city’s annual homeless census.

The census, conducted the night of Dec. 12, 2012, found a total of 6,992 homeless men, women, and children, up from 6,647 one year earlier, for a 5.2 percent increase. There were upticks in most categories, with the largest change in runaway and homeless youth, which increased from 27 to 36.

Homeless advocates said the increase was caused in part by rising real estate prices that make market-rate housing out of reach for those earning the least.

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“People at the low end of the economic ladder, the recovery still hasn’t hit them yet,” said Jim Greene, director of the Boston Emergency Shelter Commission.

Greene and Lyndia Downie, executive director at the Pine Street Inn shelter in the South End, said Boston serves as a regional center for those in need, drawing people from cities and towns across Eastern Massachusetts that offer fewer services.

At Pine Street, Downie said, there is a decline in homeless single men but there are more women and families. With 110 beds for women, she said, last winter there were usually 10 or 15 women who had to sleep on the floor each night This winter the number is often 30 or 40.

A spokeswoman for Mayor Thomas M. Menino said he is troubled by the increases and by looming cuts in aid for housing assistance that may be triggered by the federal sequester that took effect Saturday.

“The mayor is always concerned whenever there’s an increase, and that’s why it’s so important that we track [the homeless population], so we can understand why and come up with solutions that will reverse these types of trends,” said Dot Joyce, the spokeswoman. “It’s also concerning that at this time we see a threat of federal funding for these kinds of programs in jeopardy.”

Joyce said if the cuts go through and Boston loses federal funding for emergency shelters and rental assistance, it is unlikely it could be found elsewhere in the city budget. The state has already cut about $360 million in funding to Boston over the past decade, she said.

Greene and Downie said coordinated efforts between state and city agencies working with non-profit groups have brought many individuals and families out of homelessness, but the need is greater than can be fully addressed. Rather than cutting funding, they said, the federal government should expand it.

“It’s working, it’s effective, and we just need more of it,” Green said.

Downie said the overall homeless population has declined by as much as 28 percent since the mid-2000s, and programs placing chronically homeless people into housing with supportive services have a retention rate near 90 percent.

With continued funding, she believes those trends could continue.

“I’m hoping this is a blip … and we can redouble our efforts and make a difference next year,” Downie said.

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