On the Streets, the Square’s Homeless Tell Their Stories

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“All of a sudden she just showed up to camp, and she stayed,” O’Brien recalls, laughing.

Both French and O’ Brien say that their stories have been shaped by 1960s counterculture. O’Brien recalls growing up in Cambridge in the 1960s and then turning to hitch-hiking at age 19, while French recounts growing up in a commune and seeing Richie Havens play at Woodstock.

O’Brien says he has become tamer over the years, and French says that younger homeless people in the Square respect and look up to them.

“We’re called ‘Ma’ and ‘Pa’ by the younger crowd,” says French. “They’ll see something and come to tell us...and we’ll just say, ‘We’ll handle it.’”


Since coming to Cambridge in February, Harley, 19, has spent most nights on the streets of Harvard Square. But her dad lives only an hour away,  in Worcester, Mass., and there is a fully furnished room for her in his house.

“He’s just waiting for me to finish this ‘phase of my life,’” Harley says, setting down her spare change cup so that she can air-quote her father’s phrase.

After a dispute with her mother, three years ago, Harley, 19, left home, adopting the “gypsy” lifestyle and traveling from one East Coast city to the next.

Harley started living on the streets at age 16, after her mother, with whom she was living at the time, kicked her out of their Philadelphia home. From Philadelphia, she traveled to New York City, where a group of older homeless youths introduced her to the traveler lifestyle of living on the streets and moving from city to city.

Harley’s motivation for coming up to Cambridge was the idea of seeing her father from time to time. She lived for a time in Fitchburg, Mass., but, feeling that the people there were intolerant of travelers like herself, soon decided to move to Cambridge.

Harley, who declined to give her last name, says that the people in Cambridge are more tolerant and that she expects to live here for “a while.”

Asked about her toughest moments in Harvard Square, Harley, seated outside of CVS Pharmacy on Mass. Ave., gestures toward the banks down the block. She recounts sitting outside the banks at night and being propositioned by men twice her age.

“I’ve sat right here,” she says, “and had people ask me to home with them, try to give me money.”

Despite these moments, Harley says that she likes it in Cambridge, adding that the homeless community in the Square is particularly close-knit.

Still Harley is not certain that she will stick with the traveling, homeless lifestyle. Asked if she could see herself settling down, Harley replies, “As I get older, I might.”

—Staff writer Sonali Y. Salgado can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @SonaliSalgado16.

—Staff writer Caroline T. Zhang can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @CarolineTZhang.