In a recent appearance on Boston Herald Radio’s morning show, Boston City Councilor Annissa Essaibi-George acknowledged the influx of homeless people occupying city shelters, noting that despite good times on other fronts, when it comes to the less fortunate end of the housing spectrum, the Hub has something of a public health and resource crisis on its hands. This as Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, whose administration made the controversial decision to tear down the Long Island Bridge leading to beds in Boston Harbor, wrestles with politicos in Quincy over a new plan to restore some services at sea.
Meanwhile, the homeless epidemic isn’t just in Boston. People have been hit extremely hard outside of Suffolk County as well, with officials from cities including Brockton and Quincy hoping the problems in their backyards are prioritized, at the very least, in a collaborative effort between Boston and surrounding areas.
Numbers-wise, a study conducted by the Boston Foundation last year found the number of homeless individuals in Boston has surged by about 1,600 people since 2007. That brings the number to a difficult-to-account-for 6,300. While this makes Suffolk the county with the largest homeless population in Mass, other locales aren’t far behind, with Hampden County due west of Worcester having comparably concerning numbers.
Put in historical perspective, which is never simple considering the many changing factors, in 1911 the Boston Sunday Post put the number of homeless people at 5,900. Considering that the Hub’s recorded population in 1910 was roughly about what it was last year, the comparison is less than promising. Statistically speaking, homelessness has gotten worse around here over the past century.
At the same time, efforts to correct the problem have become more humane. The Walsh administration has been criticized by some homeless advocates for his approach; still, his Office of Housing Stability and recently announced plans to address teenage housing insecurity are leaps more progressive than what politicians tried 100 years ago. In 1911, Boston pols proposed a “Vagrant and Tramp Farm,” located outside of the city, that would provide lodging in exchange for manual labor. A state-owned tract in Bridgewater was pitched as a location of interest, but the plans never materialized.
Boston’s most infamous homeless shelter was established only a few years later, in 1915, under Mayor James Michael Curley, who was as well known for his corruption as he was for being a friend, however superficially, to the downtrodden. The Wayfarer’s Lodge was located on Hawkins Street in the West End, and while it temporarily provided much of Boston’s homeless population with a roof to sleep under, in time overcrowding plagued the building until its eventual destruction along with the rest of the historic neighborhood.
Just like in contemporary Boston, people wound up on the street for any number of reasons back in the day. In one well-documented case, the infamous Great Chelsea Fire of 1908, which remains one of the state’s most devastating blazes, left 15,000 people homeless. Farther north, Salem experienced a similar fire in 1914 that destroyed half of the city’s land. Covering the latter, the Boston Post reported that as many as 20,000 homes were destroyed (including the birthplace of famed writer Nathaniel Hawthorne, since newspapers were celebrity-hungry even back then), leaving families to relocate inside makeshift compounds built in cemeteries.
If any of that sounds like a problem of the past, check out these words by Joe D’Amore, advocate and founder of Merrimack Valley Hope Mission, from earlier this year:
There aren’t enough beds, shelters, programs, and affordable housing units in our state. But when you have a concentration of these in a few cities throughout the Commonwealth, plus a tolerant public policy structure such as you have in Lawrence, those cities bear the brunt of a massive social ill. In the meantime, the vast majority of communities will quietly maintain public policies that will keep the problem conveniently out of their proverbial backyards.