Life Out Here

It has been four weeks since Justin became homeless. He had hoped to be off the streets before the weather turned cold, but the days have begun to blend together—something “they don’t tend to prepare you for”—and now he’s preparing for the long haul.

Justin Newton, 31, can talk politics, economics, and popular culture, but he prefers to talk about gaming. Before he was homeless, he played Xbox 360 Fable II, but it is too risky to have a laptop on the street and near impossible to maintain the battery life on his Android. “That’s one of those things you don’t think about until you’re out here,” he says. So now he relies on tabletop role-playing games, in which players describe their characters’ actions out loud to satisfy their interests: “Imagine World of Warcraft without a computer.”

It has been four weeks since Justin became homeless. He had hoped to be off the streets before the weather turned cold, but the days have begun to blend together—something “they don’t tend to prepare you for”—and now he’s preparing for the long haul. He’s keeping his warmest articles of clothing in reserve so that they’ll seem warmer in January or February, when he really needs them, but he still hopes to find housing before then. If all else fails, he will think about moving into a shelter, although he prefers the limited freedom he has on the street to a life in a rule-ridden institution. For now, he has started to ask around for a car battery to power a portable heater, just in case.

A few weeks ago, on one warm Saturday afternoon, Justin sat with his friend Ralph Beck, 21, in their “living room and dining room and bedroom all in one,” on the corner of the Cambridge Trust Company next to the Holyoke Center. It is conveniently located near Au Bon Pain’s semi-public bathroom and it is a “good spot to pee at night, around the corner where nobody can really see you.” They’re setting up their sign and change-box for the day; Saturday afternoons tend to be very lucrative times to spange (“the portmanteau of spare change,” Justin explains).

But a visiting spanger from Boston sits on a milk crate less than five yards away—“Homeless people never sit on milk crates,” Ralph says—and the street musician Ramblin’ Dan moves into Justin and Ralph’s usual space.

It is bad form to spange within a half-block of someone else. Ralph considers confronting them, but he decides against it and reluctantly starts to pack his things. If spangers coordinate their locations and spread out, they all benefit from more donations. Unfortunately, the ethic of cooperation does not always pan out, so Justin and Ralph relocate to a less profitable corner near Cambridge Common for the afternoon. The sun is shining, and they don’t seem to mind.

*         *          *

When I first meet Justin, he is debating the perennial issue of Columbus Day with his friend Ralph: should the United States continue to observe the imperialist holiday? (It was the same conversation I overheard in the Quincy dining hall half an hour earlier.) Justin, wearing an Oscar the Grouch shirt and combat boots, strokes his long beard as he listens to Ralph speak. “I don’t celebrate the American holidays. I celebrate Pagan holidays,” Ralph says. He’s wearing ripped jeans and a tattered black and white camouflage jacket. Later he explains the evolution of his fashion identity: “When I was 10, I was gothic. When I was 12, I was emo. When I was 16, I was gangster. Now I don’t have any style: I’m homeless.”

Justin ended up on the street after being kicked out of his ex-girlfriend-turned-roommate’s apartment. He says he considered moving in with family members until he dropped some of his “stupid habits.” Next he thought about camping near Fresh Pond—which is not permitted but can apparently be done by hiding a tent in the forest—while he put his life back in order. But when a friend put him in touch with Ralph, a fellow gamer who offered to teach him how to live on the street, Justin chose to move to Cambridge.

Ralph has lived in Harvard Square for the last year and on the street for the past six. He decided to move onto the street after growing tired of moving in and out of foster homes. He says Harvard is a good place to be, since there are so many other homeless people in the area: “Life out here is easier together.” So Justin and Ralph have stuck together, sleeping near one another, keeping each other company, and watching out for each other’s belongings, for most of the last month. Justin waits up for Ralph to return from hanging out with friends before he goes to sleep, and Ralph gives Justin tips that he wishes someone had told him when he first became homeless.

If their belongings are hidden from view—underneath tarps and inside their bags, for example—they can sleep until 7:40 a.m. Otherwise police officers wake them earlier, a not-so-subtle hint to straighten up before aesthetically conscious tourists and businessmen arrive in large numbers. During the day they can spread out, but mostly they confine themselves to the area in front of three large windows.

It’s hard to keep organized: at one point I notice Ralph’s crumpled birth certificate lying between an empty strawberry container and a lighter. It usually takes a few minutes to find what they need. Justin doesn’t have quite as much to keep straight, since he still keeps some clothes and valuables at his ex-girlfriend’s apartment in Somerville.

Over the course of the next month, I make an effort to spend time on the sidewalk with Justin and Ralph at least every other day. Initially they ask me for cash, food, and materials, but after a few weeks we develop an easier relationship. I watch their things while Justin buys a morning coffee at Dunkin’ Donuts and he offers me a taste of a $3-dollar-a-bottle Russian craft beer when they celebrate the arrival of a check from Ralph’s father.

*         *          *

Justin and Ralph have to stay alert during the day, but it’s not dangerous until it’s dark. Theft sometimes takes a toll on their emotional states. When Justin’s beloved Android phone mysteriously goes missing, he’s a wreck. Another time, incensed, he says that someone stole his expensive cane and 20-year-old box-cutter the night before. “And if I find out who it was, I’m going to fucking stomp their head in,” he says. “I think all the fucking junkies should get their heads stomped in, ’cause I’m tired of getting my shit jacked.”

Ralph recently went to sleep with his fake diamond earring on and woke up without it. A woman who Justin and Ralph call “the psycho bitch” has a habit of stealing their food and throwing it at them every few days. Justin vents his anger with harsh language, but assures me that he’s a pacifist at heart. “I’m fucking Switzerland,” Justin tells me. “As long as you don’t fuck over me and mine, you’re cool with me. I ain’t lookin’ for trouble. I’m just trying to survive.”