Home Sweet Shelter

It’s tucked on the corner of Dunster and Winthrop Streets, bright and inviting. Plush couches surround a TV, and a re-run of Family Guy provides background noise for bantering guests. Round tables encourage dinnertime conversation, and computer carrels serve as pockets of privacy. The building is clean, spacious, and (most importantly) it welcomes them with open arms.

“We try to make the shelter feel like home, and that involves getting to know the guests. Some guests are more receptive to that than others. Some people just want a place to stay and food to eat, and some guests want a personal connection,” Kelly A. Sullivan ’14, co-director of the Harvard Square Homeless shelter, says, describing her experience working at the shelter. Yet, the word “guest” echoes in her carefully articulate responses, never settling comfortably into place. Guest, visitor, boarder: No descriptor adequately encompasses the ambiguous status of those who frequent the shelter.

Their program functions on three levels: the shelter itself, the resource advocates, and the street team. The staff runs a lottery to determine which potential guests will spend the night at the shelter, and the two dozen chosen are provided with meals cooked by Harvard students, toiletries, laundry, and the invaluable aid of the resource advocates.

Three advocates chat with guests over dinner, offering both advice and company. Sarah A. Rosenkrantz ’14, director of the Resource Advocates Program, explains, “We try to meet the guests wherever they are coming from. If they are coming to us saying they want help applying for jobs, getting food stamps, or finding housing, we will work with them to achieve what they want.... If a guest doesn’t really want help, we will just talk to them.”

Sometimes, conversation itself is the most valuable resource that can be offered. Rosenkrantz remembers one guest in particular. “He was at a very low place, and he was struggling,” she recalls. “I gave him a blanket and I did some research on his behalf. It wasn’t much, and it wasn’t anything out of the ordinary that a director or supervisor would not usually do. He was so grateful, and he made it very clear that an individual just taking time out of the day to even think about him was something that didn’t happen on a regular basis.”

Sullivan’s voice grows quiet when she describes the harrowing solitude that plagues the homeless. “When I was working at St. James Shelter [the Harvard Square Homeless Shelter’s summer incarnation] over the summer, we had a guest who panhandled in Harvard Square. When he first started staying with us he was very motivated and optimistic about his outlook,” she recalls.

“Over the course of the summer you could see him get more despondent over his situation. Someone stole his guitar that he would bring into the shelter, and then someone stole his laptop so he didn’t know how to get a job. One night he didn’t come to the shelter, so I went out looking for him. He was just panhandling in front of The Coop. He was in a really low place. I was sitting with him as he was panhandling, and it put me in his position,” Sullivan says.

“What is most devastating about this condition isn’t that people don’t give you whatever change is in their pocket, but that people just treat you as an object–they don’t make eye contact, they ignore you when you reach out to them,” Sullivan explains. “I can’t generalize for everyone who panhandles, but a lot of it is just wanting any form of acknowledgement.”

Rosenkrantz explains that many students view homelessness as an inevitable part of the campus landscape, contending, “We can walk past the homeless and not even look down or anything. That is very much human nature to try to shut other people’s suffering out. We would never fault anyone for doing that, but I think that the people I work with are very passionate about fighting that mentality.”

The shelter’s “Street Team” embodies this passion, traversing the Square on a nightly basis. Charles A. Hobbs ’13, co-director of the shelter, explains, “Every night, we have a group of three volunteers go out around the Square with food, blankets, hand warmers, and give them out to people who aren’t in the shelter that night but who might want a sandwich or someone to talk to.”

These conversations grow into valuable relationships that exist both inside and outside of the shelter. “The fact that they come up to chat and want to engage with me make, even in the Square, me feel like I’m doing something right,” admits Charles. The barriers between volunteer and guests are broken down and replaced by an overpowering feeling of mutual respect and genuine care. Sullivan describes her first experience closing this fissure, remembering a guest that “would have intense philosophical discussions with the other guests. I could very well see him just as easily as a student. Going into Harvard, you think if you work hard, you get places... the shelter can be a very stressful place as you deal with poverty head on. You have to accept the fact that the world is not a meritocracy.”

Acceptance becomes key in this line of work; volunteers must grapple with the unsettling truth that many of their guests will continue to struggle for years despite the students’ efforts. “Homelessness can be not only a temporary transition, but a long-term trap,” admits Hobbs. Sullivan acknowledges the unavoidable limits of their work, admitting, “We are an emergency shelter. We recognize that we aren’t providing a stable environment for the guests. It is something we have come to accept within the bounds.”

However, the good memories can provide fuel when tougher scenarios emerge. “We try to hold onto successes,” confides Rosenkrantz. “They don’t come very frequently, because it is a cycle where we see the same people over and over again.”

These energizing victories are found in successful transitions as well as small gestures between guests. Speaking with playful candor, Rosenkrantz’s stories of her relationships at the shelter mimic those of any normal friendship. She confides, “There is a guest at the shelter now who knows that I really like Fruit Roll-Ups, and so whenever he has some he’ll give one to me. Those little moments mean a lot.” Fumbling with her pen, she starts to laugh as she loses herself in another memory, recounting, “There was another guest who was an artist, and he would always be drawing in the shelter. I helped him get into a transitional program, and he gave me a piece of his art that is now hanging on my wall.”

The success and longevity of the shelter is rooted in these stories. As the students flurry around the kitchen, the scene feels more like family dinner than charity or service. Before our interview comes to a close, Sullivan makes a point to add one more thing. “I want to emphasize the feel of the community,” she smiles. “It is definitely, besides my blocking group, the closest community I have at Harvard.”

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