Questions Raised by Boston Homeless Census

I just returned from helping out for a third year with the annual Homeless Census for the City of Boston. This year, I was part of a team of six assigned to some of the subway stations. (Last year, I was assigned to the South End, and a few years before I was assigned to the Fens.)
Most of the recently improved MBTA stations don’t have good places for shelter from winter weather, with few nooks and more metal and stone in windswept areas. Yet at the last station we visited, we observed an “emergency exit only” door propped open, and transit officer Steve (who accompanied us for safety and T access) confirmed that someone was indeed sleeping in the warm space above. Another volunteer and I introduced ourselves, and the slightly inebriated man welcomed an opportunity to sleep in a shelter and perhaps obtain some medical attention for a shoulder injury sustained when he had slipped on the ice earlier in the day.
While we waiting for the City’s emergency van to arrive and give him a sandwich and ride to a shelter, I spent a half hour chatting with Jerry, who thought that he had been homeless for at least 10 of his 48 years. As a volunteer, I felt pretty good about myself, having found a homeless person, made a personal connection, and gotten him into some shelter for the night.

Yet after the van departed, the transit officer revealed that Jerry is a regular occupant of a simple piece of cardboard in the nook of that particular MBTA station.

Should transit workers continue to allow Jerry to sleep in the emergency exit area of this station every night, thus enabling him to continue to drink and be homeless? Or, should they follow the rules and force him out into the elements (since most shelters require guests to be sober) when they close?

Is it more humane to respect Jerry’s life choices versus letting him risk severe exposure while he is drinking and homeless?

For people like Jerry who are chronically homeless and substance-dependent, I am uncertain.

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