Persistent Homelessness in Boston, Massachusetts

Katie R. Petrik
Julian D. Murphy

University of Notre Dame


Although hundreds of institutions exist in Boston with the mission of alleviating homelessness, over seven thousand homeless individuals remain, many of whom live in the streets year round. Our primary concern is with these individuals, labeled as the most vulnerable and at-risk homeless. We investigated through observation, survey, and interview, and with the support of Pine Street Inn’s Street Outreach Crew, the main reasons those still living on the streets are either unable or unwilling to seek help from a shelter. The primary reasons appear to be aversion to shelter rules and conditions, substance abuse, psychological disorders, and the ability to survive alone. A possible resolution to persistent homelessness may address individuals’ social needs by offering respect and dignity along with shelter.


Although hundreds of institutions exist in Boston with the mission of alleviating homelessness, there are still over seven thousand homeless individuals according to a 2008-2009 Census Report, many of whom live in the streets year round. Our primary concern was these individuals, labeled as the “most vulnerable and at-risk homeless” (Official, 2009). We investigated the main reasons those still living on the streets were either unable or unwilling to seek help from a shelter. The Census noted that these year-round homeless persons “often report difficulty in dealing with the process of accessing and staying at shelters.” By speaking directly with homeless persons, we obtained the opinion of those most informed about the situation. We also surveyed shelter staff and completed a series of oral histories to get more comprehensive insights into the issue.

The results of the surveys contribute to current research aimed at ministering to the homeless and eradicating the most vulnerable type of homelessness. By filling a gap in the current literature on the subject, we hope to contribute to a long-term solution to this pervasive problem. The oral histories gather and preserve historical evidence of otherwise untold and soon-to-be lost life stories from a marginalized sector of the population. They give a face to homelessness, and an in-depth look at their side of the story. The information and observations collected through the study give us intimate knowledge of the plight of the homeless in Boston.


The Homeless Assistance Act of 1987 includes in the definition of homeless those who are forced by lack of regular access to conventional dwelling to spend nights in shelters, locations not intended to be dwelling places, or locations where personal safety is compromised (U.S., 2010). The Census Report showed a homeless population in Boston of 7,861, an 11 percent increase since the previous year (Official, 2009). Four hundred thirty-seven of those individuals lived on the streets, as opposed to seeking aid in an emergency shelter (Boston, 2009).

Christopher Jencks wrote in The Homeless,

Late in the 1970s Americans began noticing more people sleeping in public places, wandering the streets with their possessions in shopping bags…[T]he faces of the homeless often suggest depths of despair that we would rather not imagine, much less confront in the flesh. Daily contact with the homeless also raises troubling…questions about our moral obligations to strangers. At a political level, the spread of homelessness suggests that something has gone fundamentally wrong with America’s economic or social institutions. (1994, v)

I spent the summer of 2009 in Boston, where I witnessed and occasionally interacted with a disturbing number of homeless individuals. Readings on social justice issues led me to consider broader causes and solutions rather than simply the obvious predicament of particular individuals. Further research revealed hundreds of institutions designed to assist them, including Pine Street Inn, Boston Family Shelter, Women’s Lunch Place, St. Ambrose Family Inn, Harvard Square Homeless Shelter, Greater Boston Food Bank, and Morgan Memorial Goodwill. My new question became why the most vulnerable of the homeless had not taken advantage of such institutions.

Jencks cited a place to live that offers “a modicum of privacy and stability” as the most important thing that can be done in improving the lives of the homeless (Jenks, 1994, 107). In addition, he claimed solutions regarding housing are generally easy to devise and evaluate. Yet those on the streets time and again shun shelters, the venues by which this service is, at least temporarily, provided. On an average night in 1987, only a third of homeless single adults slept in shelters in the US. Lack of beds is not the problem, as sometimes 30 percent of shelter beds are empty. Jim Baumohl wrote in Homelessness in America, “Sustained homelessness…[has] the potential for doing a great deal of damage to the human spirit, and, thus, to create divides where none existed before” (1996, viii). The longer this issue goes unresolved, the more damage is done.

The Phoenix government in the 1980’s responded to the homeless crisis by rezoning the downtown area to preclude shelters and then enacted a 1981 ordinance making it illegal to sleep on or in public property (Werner, 1984, 14). Unsurprisingly, forbidding homelessness and eliminating the relieving factors did little to resolve the problem. However, it is also true that merely providing beds is not the answer. New York City in 1982 responded to a court-approved consent decree requiring the provision of shelter to all homeless people by expanding shelters to sleep several hundred people (16). Older men and women then avoided the shelters, for fear of being harassed by the younger men. Therefore, the least able to cope were still living on the streets. 

Michael Elliott in Why the Homeless Don’t have Homes and What to Do About It described the government’s response as “throwing money at the problem” (1993, 41). In 1987 the federal government passed the Stewart B. McKinney Homeless Assistance Act, in 1988 the Family Support Act, and in 1990 the National Affordable Housing Act. In less than ten years, Congress appropriated over five billion to implement McKinney Act programs alone (Donovan). All the while, the number of homeless steadily increased. From 2007 to 2009, cities reported an average increase of 12 percent of homeless persons (Now, 2009).

Our advisor Dr. Giamo’s friend Jeffrey Grunberg’s study revealed the following motivations behind individuals’ decisions not to seek shelter: they were wanted by the police, they had a pet, their homelessness was short term, they had “been there, done that,” they had a companion who did not want to seek shelter, they did not want to be “processed by the system,” or they were looking for a job and did not need treatment (Giamo, 2010). We hoped to determine the most prevalent reasons in Boston, thereby allowing shelters to more adequately address them.


Notre Dame Alumni Jim Greene helped us establish contact with Pine Street Inn, a prominent shelter in Boston. We shadowed Pine Street Inn’s Street Outreach Team, directed by Leo Adorno, which combed the city day and night offering advocacy, basic necessities, and medical services to those who rejected shelter life (Ending, 2010). After establishing trust with the homeless individuals with whom we came in contact, we surveyed willing volunteers. During transit time, we interviewed the shelter staff to gather their insights and experience. We then collected two oral histories, similar to those completed by Urban Anthropology (Homeless). We became acquainted with the participants, explained the process, then arranged to meet in a public venue to audio record the interview. In addition, we interviewed several individuals from the Night Center, Women’s Lunch Place, a Central Square Food Not Bombs gathering, and a student who volunteered last year at Pine Street. The survey’s findings are presented in the aggregate, preventing any single participant from being identified. Recordings of the oral histories are labeled according to first name only.

The survey method was suitable because it was brief and direct, and thus not too demanding for the participants. By directly seeking the opinion of homeless individuals, we gained apposite information. The collaboration with Pine Street Inn provided us with safety and the expertise of experienced staff. The oral history methodology provided us with a more in-depth understanding of the life experiences of homeless individuals.

Results and Analysis

We were able to formally interview eight staff members, survey 21 homeless individuals, and complete two oral histories. Of the homeless individuals surveyed, eight were African American and 14 were Caucasian. Only two were female. Reported age ranged from 21 to 65, and duration of homelessness ranged from three months to thirteen years. The main reasons for their presence on the streets appear to be substance abuse, psychological disorders, aversion to shelter rules and conditions, and the ability to survive on their own (Personal). Two homeless individuals explained that their presence on the streets was due to substance abuse; eighteen claimed shelter conditions were unfavorable; and six gave other reasons including the ability to get by on their own, possession of an animal, and lack of knowledge about shelters. Below is a spreadsheet with the data. Over the course of the staff interviews, substance abuse and psychological issues were listed as primary reasons for homeless individuals’ presence on the street three times, strict shelter rules were mentioned four times, poor shelter conditions, twice, and people’s preference for being alone, once. Transcriptions and audio recordings of the oral histories can be found at <https://sites.google.com/a/nd.edu/bostonhomeless/home>.

Table 1 – Homelessness Survey Data




Duration of Homelessness

Reason Given for Not Seeking Shelter

M 61 Black   They kicked me out for drinking.
M 43 White 8 mo I got laid off, my girlfriend died, and her father moved in and didn't like me.
M ~64 White   The shelter was abusive. I am now living in a convent.
M ~30 White 3-4 mo I have a dog that's very important to me. I have the means to get by on my own; I've always been streetwise
M 34 White 5 yrs It's just easier. The shelters aren't safe, I could get my possessions stolen.
M 55 Black 13 yrs The shelter rules are too strict and enforced arbitrarily and tyrannically. The staff have non-American attitudes (don't allow freedom of speech).
M 21 White 2.5 yrs I don't want to associate with the other guests (sex offenders, etc.) and I don't want to have to follow shelters' rules
M 21 Black   I don't want to associate with other guests (thieves, etc.).
M   Black   I didn't know about the shelters in the area; Pine Street rescued me. 
M 61 White 11 yrs I can get by fine on my own.
M   Black   I don't like the other guests.
M 48 Nigerian 9 mo I'm not used to it.
F 52 White 13 yrs There's thievery and no freedom. I got kicked in the head at the shelter.
M ~44 White   People in shelters shoot dope and drink till they pass out, staff members don't care and curse at shelter residents. It was the worst week of my life.
M ~53 White   I'm too busy collecting cans; I don't have time to go to a shelter.
M 36 Black 1 yr I don't like it there. I was laying next to a man.
M ~45 White   I don't care for it there, I'm a loner, and always have been.
M   White   I don't like the programs; you have to either stay for those or go out on the streets.
F 22 White 2 yrs I was abusing drugs.
M 65 Black 3 yrs They treat you like you're fourteen.
M ~45 White   I wasn't aware of the shelters.

Incidental findings included several issues related to the support structure for the homeless. The guest-staff relations are often perceived as poor (Personal, 2010). Assistance, although perhaps of substandard quality, is readily available for those who want it. Housing programs that provide sufficient support are claimed to have been largely effective, in particular the “Reach” program implemented by Pine Street (Toucet, 2010). Finally, only about 10 percent of the homeless population fall into the “chronic” category, which takes up approximately half of the funding allocated by the city to relieve homelessness (McCarthy, 2010).

The long-term homeless evidently need more than shelter. Because material assistance is readily available, the problem must lie at a deeper level. One issue that frequently arose in our conversations was that of respect. What these individuals seemed to crave most, what they lacked most, and what may have contributed most to their avoidance of shelters, was the loving esteem another human can provide. Several interviews revealed social relationships gone awry at a turning point that led to their current status. One gentleman’s girlfriend died and his career and personal life spiraled out of control. Another young lady fell into drugs following a disastrous period of family turmoil. Whether the turning point was an incident of abuse, death, or some other tragedy, all seemed to lead to a loss of social esteem and a sort of floundering for meaning or security. Lack of social support and esteem may then play a pivotal role in both the genesis and persistence of homelessness. A line from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development website supports this hypothesis: “As a result of abject poverty and emotional, physical, and family difficulties, the homeless generally have low self-esteem, feel little sense of accountability, and suffer from hopelessness. Homelessness means that individuals are separated from the community and their family, social, and institutional networks” (Donovan, 1995). The demographics of the homeless population lend further credence to the theory of social relevance:  Unattached adults make up three quarters of the population. Minorities are disproportionately represented. Seventy-five percent have been institutionalized for crime, chemical dependency, or mental health reasons. Families with children have the shortest duration of homelessness. The portions of the population who are most alone or distanced from mainstream society, therefore, are most represented in the homeless population.

Consciousness of the homeless’ dignity as human beings may therefore play a pivotal role in rehabilitation. A faith-oriented, volunteer-run shelter might provide for these needs in ways a government-funded shelter cannot. Without going into great detail, a solution to the issue of homelessness may be one that considers the homeless person holistically, freely providing for the needs observed. Michael Elliott provided an example of such a successful shelter run on principles of loving human interaction. He described the benefits that abound from relationships between the "haves" and "have not’s” (Elliott, 1993, XXI). When those serving the population know the homeless personally, they better understand and empathize with their struggles. Elliot made the bold claim that “the single factor that keeps people homeless is the lack of significant social relationships” (XXI-XXII). Charitable organizations perhaps ought to assume a leadership position in the founding and maintaining of shelters based on principles of human dignity. Elliot concurred, writing, “The religious community must lead the attack on the personal causes of homelessness. It is the institution most capable of teaching individuals the moral framework necessary to make good decisions and providing the social support system homeless people need to persevere” (10).

The investigation left us with the following questions: Is getting more people in shelters a worthy goal? How can shelters be improved? Will improving shelters have a positive effect, or will it enable homelessness? How can assistance be offered in a way consistent with and encouraging of freedom?  Does providing aid enable self-destructive behavior? What is the moral response if people do not want to be helped? How can better care be provided those with substance and psychological problems? Considering the absence of a permanent residence, what is it that homeless people become attached to? Is homelessness a psychological condition related to locus of control? To what extent do individuals choose to remain homeless? How do our reactions to homelessness contribute to the situation? Future work could include advocating for more education and support programs for homeless individuals, interviewing various shelter directors to determine the most effective model, completing a more comprehensive study of the factors leading to homelessness, and designing a small experimental shelter founded on principles of Catholic social teaching.



Baumohl, Jim. Homelessness in America. The Oryx Press: Phoenix, 1996.

“Boston Rescue Mission.” Boston Rescue Mission, 2009. <http://www.brm.org/homeless/default.aspx>

Donovan, Shaun. “Stuart B. McKinney Homeless Programs.” 12 Dec. 1995. U.S. Department  of Housing and Urban Development. March 2010. <http://www.huduser.org/portal/publications/homeless/mckin/intro.html>

Elliott, Micheal. Why the Homeless Don’t have Homes and What to Do About It. Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press, 1993.

“Ending Homelessness.” Pine Street Inn, 2010. <http://www.pinestreetinn.org/>

Giamo, Benedict. Personal Interview: 5 February 2010.

“Homeless Study.” Urban Anthropology. <http://www.urbananthropology.org/homeless_study.html>

Jencks, Christopher. The Homeless. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, 1994.

McCarthy, Jean. Personal Interview: 10 March 2010.

“Now on PBS.” PBS, 2009. < http://www.pbs.org/now/shows/526/homeless-facts.html>

“Official Website of the City of Boston.” City of Boston. 2009. <http://www.cityofboston.gov/ shelter/census/pdfs/2008%20-%202009.pdf>

Personal Interviews with Anonymous Homeless Individuals. 3/7/2010-3/12/2010. Boston, Massachusetts.

Toucet, Jose. Personal Interview: 9 March 2010.

“U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.” U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, 2010. <http://portal.hud.gov/portal/page/portal/HUD/topics/homelessness/definition>

Werner, Frances E. On the Streets: Homelessness Causes and Solutions. Clearinghouse: New York, 1985.



Note: This research was supported in part by a grant awarded to Katie R. Petrik by the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program, Institute for Scholarship in the Liberal Arts, College of Arts and Letters, University of Notre Dame.


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