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Out on street, Hub tallies its homeless

Increase expected in annual census

Jim Greene, director of the Emergency Shelter Commission, Elizabeth Curtis (left), and Beth L’Heureux walked around Government Center in search of homeless people for Boston’s 30th annual census for the homeless. Jim Greene, director of the Emergency Shelter Commission, Elizabeth Curtis (left), and Beth L’Heureux walked around Government Center in search of homeless people for Boston’s 30th annual census for the homeless. (Yoon S. Byun/ Globe Staff)
By Jeannie Nuss
Globe Correspondent / December 15, 2009

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From Downtown Crossing to the Emerald Necklace in Jamaica Plain, some 350 volunteers peered in dark alleys, subway entrances, fast-food restaurants, and ATM lobbies last night to count the homeless population out on the streets for the city’s 30th annual census.

Officials were still tallying the results of the street count and expect to have figures later this week.

The city will compile last night’s statistics, along with numbers from emergency shelters, transitional housing, hospitals, hotels, and motels, for a full homelessness census due out in early January.

Last year, the homeless street count was 219 men and women, up 19 percent from 184 in 2007, according to census figures.

The full-city homeless census for 2008, which includes people on the streets and in shelters, hospitals, and hotels and motels, counted 7,681 - up 11 percent from 6,930 in 2007. Those numbers rose from the 5,820 tallied in 1999.

Tough economic times, including foreclosures and a state unemployment rate of 8.9 percent, have driven up the number of homeless people living in Boston.

“The problems like the foreclosure [rate] and the downward pressure on the jobs economy has put upward pressure on rents in the Boston area,’’ said Jim Greene, director of the Emergency Shelter Commission.

Though final counts were not available last night, Greene said he expects to see another increase this year in the number of homeless people in Boston.

But he said, “We’re crossing our fingers that we’ll see some signs of hope and progress.’’

Shawn English leaned against a chain-link fence in Downtown Crossing as a group of volunteers approached.

“I didn’t have no place to stay and I ran into these guys,’’ said English, a 29-year-old from Ohio who said he has been homeless in Boston for two years.

English climbed into a white van headed to a local shelter, as volunteers offered him water and sandwiches.

A block away, Matthew Morrissey (“like the boulevard’’) stood outside an entrance to the Downtown Crossing MBTA station.

“He doesn’t want to go to a shelter, but he wants a sandwich,’’ said Beth L’Heureux, co-director of Homeless Services for the Boston Public Health Commission.

Morrissey fiddled with a small piece of paper, passing it between his hands.

“You need a hat or gloves or anything?’’ a volunteer asked as he climbed out of a van. “Need any socks or anything, buddy?’’ another called.

Morrissey took a small bottle of water and a plastic-wrapped turkey sandwich. The 47-year-old said he used to live in Medford and has been homeless for six years since a falling-out with his wife.

He used to sleep at the Pine Street Inn, but now spends most nights near the subway station.

“Is this Mayor Menino’s thing? I heard about that,’’ Morrissey said.

For the first time in his long tenure as mayor, Thomas M. Menino was not among the volunteers for the annual street count. He is recovering from knee surgery at his Hyde Park home.

“It’s going to be weird. People know him by name, by face,’’ Greene said, speaking to the mayor’s ability to coax some homeless people who were unresponsive to other volunteers.

“He’s the mayor for homeless people, too.’’