The House Is A (Safe?) Home


To the Editors of The Crimson:

Recently there has been much furor over the installation of grates over the hot air vents behind the Leverett House dining hall. Students and community members are outraged at the callousness that Harvard has shown the unfortunates who must resort to using our excess heat to survive. However, I believe that more people are upset about the cruelly symbolic aspect and unseemliness of the grates themselves, rather than the underlying problems of the security of students and the plight of the homeless.

On January 2, my roommate and I were "verbally abused" by a street person as we tried to enter Leverett House, our home. He did not shout from the vent across the street where he had sought shelter for the night; he was standing next to us, close enough to reach out and strike us. At that moment, I believed he was going to physically assault us. We were incredibly frightened and half-ran to our entryway. The next day we reported the incident to the Masters of Leverett and the Senior Tutor.

When the grates were first installed, my roommate and I felt guilty, as if it were our "fault" that these men were being sacrificed to the elements. However, it became clear to us that ours was not the only incident that led to the installation of the grates. In the past few years, other students have been verbally abused, threatened with knives, and subjected to the sight of the street people defecating and urinating on the premises. According to Senior Tutor Tom Dingman, these incidents have been occurring for the past eight years, and various schemes to remove the street people--for their own good and the good of the students--have failed.

Leverett House is my home. In my mind, there is no difference between Leverett House and my parents' house. Just as you would not want a street person living on the doorstep to your parents' house, I do not want street people outside of Leverett House. No one would question your motives if you tried to remove a street person from outside your home or apartment building. Leverett is not just another Harvard building--it is not a classroom or a gym or an administrative facility--it is home to 450 students. I am one of those 450 and I demand that my home, for which Harvard is responsible, be made as safe for me as possible.

Harvard's first responsibility is to the safety of its students, for my safety. I believed that night that I was going to be physically assaulted. Had I been, students would not be complaining about the plight of the displaced men, but about the lack of security that had allowed two women to be attacked. There would have been an outcry that this security problem had existed for over eight years and no one had tried to ensure the safety of the students. However, the outcry is instead that Harvard has been needlessly "cruel" to the homeless while to trying to keep students safe. It seems to me that Harvard is in a no-win situation--something must be sacrificed, either the vents for the homeless or the students' security.

I have been told that it is Harvard's fault that these men are homeless, since Harvard's expansion in the area has pushed many out of their homes. I do not know the facts of this, but I believe that even in spite of this rationalization, there should be proper facilities to take care of the homeless--facilities that do not endanger the safety of anyone. It is up to Harvard whether or not to support these facilities as a community service (which I personally would like to see them do). However, Leverett House alone should not be expected to care for these homeless men while ignoring the safety and well-being of Leverett residents.

There is usually one particular street person on the vent outside the dining hall--he is "our" bum. He is harmless and rather pleasant, since usually he seems drunk. However, sometimes there are up to five homeless men on the vents. These men are there when we pass by them as we go to lunch in the afternoon, and they are there--sometimes rowdy and fighting among themselves--when we come home late at night from the library or from a party.

Many in Leverett House want to restrict the use of our vents to "our" bum. This is to me a disgusting thought. Leverett students should not be interested in finding an unfortunate human being to patronize as their pet. This man is not our pet; he should be treated to proper care in a proper shelter. "Concerned" students who want him to stay on a hot air vent are misplacing their concern. The Leverett House vents are not--nor were they ever meant to be--proper shelters, and students should not encourage other human beings to live there.

Yes, the grates are visually obnoxious. Yes, they accentuate the tragic situation of the homeless. Yes, they do make Harvard look like cruel landlords. Yes, I know that using the grates to get rid of the street people doesn't solve the problem, doesn't make it all just "go away." However, I urge Leverett students, other Harvard students, and members of the community to look beyond the grates and focus their attention not on the ironic and repulsive symbolism of the bars, but on the underlying problem of providing adequate shelter for the homeless while ensuring the safest possible environment for students like themselves. Carolyn M. Martin '86