August 17, 2018

Boston reduced chronic homelessness by 20 percent while rates rise nationwide

Here are three stories on how local innovation can make a difference in everyday lives

Boston launched its action plan to end veteran and chronic homelessness in 2015. Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Each week, The Renewal Project shares three stories from around the country that highlight the innovative solutions people are creating in their communities. Today, how Boston plans to end chronic homelessness, why community gardens are so beneficial, and what cities have to gain when its institutions support public art. Email us at

Boston’s bold steps to reduce chronic homelessness: Boston’s 20 percent reduction in chronic homelessness has emerged as a spotlight of model of social innovation for other cities. For the first time since the Great Recession, homeless rates rose across the U.S. According to a report by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the number of people experiencing homelessness increased by a little less than 1 percent between 2016 and 2017, and the rate of chronic homelessness—people who have been continuously homeless for one year or more—rose 12 percent. In urban areas like Los Angeles and Seattle, where there is a severe housing shortage, local governments have sounded the alert and declared states of emergency to help manage their city’s homelessness crisis.

Boston is the outlier. The city’s bold “action plan” to end veteran and chronic homelessness, launched in the summer of 2015, helped to pave the way for this significant change. The plan was based on the principle of “housing first”—that is getting chronically homeless individuals into safe housing as soon as possible, regardless of any limiting qualifications like being clean and sober. Once in a home, service providers can then begin to work with the individuals through a full range of homelessness services.

Boston’s action plan created a coalition of among the city’s many homeless service providers. The city implemented a centralized online database that matches chronically homeless individuals with available housing. It also launched a process of “front door triage,” modeled on an emergency room triage system that provides immediate assistance based on need.

Laila Bernstein, who is leading the city’s initiatives to end homelessness, says these programs are helping service providers more efficiently assist those in need. “The number of people coming in has been overwhelming—into chronic homelessness,” Bernstein told WBUR. “But I also think that we have better data now than when we started. So we didn’t have a way to have a very precise understanding of how many people were coming in every month, whereas now we have a database that allows us to see that.”

Growing community one plot at a time: Community gardens give neighbors a chance to build new bonds while also creating a sense of security and tranquility in the neighborhood. And of course, they can provide nourishment. In an essay featured on the blog from the nonprofit Strong Towns, author Scott Jenkins lays out four valuable functions of community gardens, from the practical—they can increase property values and bring in revenue—to the aspirational notion that they can help grow community.

“Community gardens provide a hub for residents of all ages to come together and create something that’s useful and beneficial to everyone,” Jenkins writes. “They offer a boost for mental health, too. Besides the therapeutic act of getting your hands dirty in the soil, there’s the knowledge that you’re contributing to the success of your community by growing food that will feed its residents and put more money in their pockets.”

On The Renewal Project, we often write about ways that residents benefit from building community gardens. In this essay, Lincoln, Nebraska, gardener Tim Rinne explains how he and his neighbors tore up their lawns and created an “edible landscape” on their suburban block. Instead of mowing their lawns, Rinne and his neighbors now harvest lettuce, potatoes, peppers, and berries that they can all enjoy. “It’s a waste of the few natural resources we have in the urban environment to be watering and mowing when we could be growing food for our tables.”

Art for the people: A 156-year-old museum in Buffalo, New York, has emerged as a successful model for promoting public art in cities across the country. Under the leadership of director Janne Sirén, the Albright-Knox Art Gallery became one of the first museums in the country to designate a public art curator.

Now in his fifth year, Albright-Knox’s public art curator Aaron Ott has been commissioning public art pieces across the city—on its buildings, and in its neighborhoods and parks. The works, in the form of murals and contemporary sculptures, are spread throughout Buffalo and are meant to engage residents and tourists alike.

“From the beginning, we wanted to establish the initiative as something that wasn’t for any one particular audience,” Ott told CityLab. “This region has a diversity of audiences, and that we’re going to answer with a diversity of artwork.”

Margaret Myers

Margaret Myers is the editor of The Renewal Project.