Looking for Boston’s Homeless People

A New Question

When I started giving bus tours of Boston this fall, I began to hear a question from my guests that I had never encountered before. At first, it startled me. But I heard it so consistently that I did some research for an informed answer. Here is the question:

“Where are your homeless people?”

Just FYI, the bus tour route goes from Boston’s Seaport District, where the cruise ships dock, around the waterfront and the North End, into the downtown area, around the Back Bay, and onto Beacon Hill. It covers several very different sections of Boston and lets me talk about history, the Revolutionary War, civil engineering, architecture, art, and a few Bostonians behaving badly. It’s very popular.

New England Center for Homeless Veterans, Court Street, BostonNow, you might argue that these locations don’t include homeless shelters. In fact, my tour route goes right past the New England Center and Home for Veterans on Court Street. No one notices it.

Boston has a long list of shelters. The list includes shelters run by the city, by religious organizations, by charities. etc. Some are open to everyone, some are restricted by gender, some are for families, and some are for victims of domestic violence.

Three Surprises

The question from my tour guests surprised me for a variety of reasons.

  • First, it had never occurred to me that there was something strange about an American city that did not have a visible group of homeless people in its downtown area.
  • Second, the question meant that the cruise ship passengers on the bus, people who came mostly from all over the United States, were accustomed to seeing large numbers of homeless people in their cities.
  • Third – and most disturbing – it seemed that they considered a big homeless population as normal.

What the Research Showed

Parkman Bandstand, Boston CommonMy research showed that, as expected, Boston certainly has homeless people. I see them at night after my ghost tours for Haunted Boston. Some take over doorways of buildings that have closed for the night. On rainy nights, homeless people often camp in the Parkman Bandstand on Boston Common to stay dry. I have also seen people under highway ramps in both Cambridge and Boston.

Many of the city’s shelters are located in the South End of Boston and I have heard that more homeless people can be seen on the streets there. The area around Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard appears to be a  problem. I don’t often go to the South End, however, so I can’t speak to that personally.

Examining the Homeless Numbers

Looking at the numbers, I learned that, of the top 10 US cities with the largest homeless populations, Boston ranks #9.

US Cities with the most homeless people

When you look at the numbers a different way, by percentage of urban population, the ranking changes.

USA Today puts Boston at #23 with a homeless population of 6,188 (163 unsheltered) in a population of 669,158. To put this in perspective, New York City comes in with a homeless number of 78,676 in a population of 8,560,072.

On the Mother Jones 2018 homeless chart, Boston doesn’t even appear:

US Big City Homeless Rate

My Response to the Question

So, what do I tell people? I explain the numbers and talk about what I see on any given night. I also tell them Boston has shelters for the homeless.

Homeless camp, Santa Cruz

Homeless camp in Santa Cruz CA

We all know, however, that many homeless people often avoid shelters because they are noisy, crowded, and lack privacy. A resident’s things may be stolen and some shelters can be dangerous. They prefer the freedom of the streets unless the weather is bad or the temperatures so extreme that they have to go indoors.

Also, however, Boston doesn’t have large encampments of homeless people and I think that’s what the visitors expect to see. Is that a good thing? Does the city provide more shelters, or more services than other cities? Also, as Jackie Quinlan pointed out last week, homelessness is a public health problem. Or is it a bad thing because Boston has no place or too much policing for such camps to collect?

Society Has a Homeless Problem

I don’t know the answer. Maybe someone else with more direct experience does.

What I do know is that our society has a problem if Americans from many different locations think that homelessness is normal, acceptable, and expected.