Justin Newton and Lauren Canon
Justin Newton sits on a plastic crate next to a crosswalk on Massachusetts Ave., holding a sign that says, “Pregnant with Elvis Presley’s Alien Love-Child. Please Help.” A passerby stops and talks with him, asking if he actually knew Elvis, and Newton explains that the sign is supposed to be a joke.
He and his girlfriend, Lauren Canon, try to keep a lighthearted tone in the signs they use while panhandling in the Square. They say that they try to catch people’s attention and make them laugh rather than inspire pity.
Newton and Canon recall some of their favorite signs. “I hold a sign that says ‘too ugly to prostitute’ and she holds one that says ‘too proud to pimp,’” Newton said.
These dual signs are still fairly new for the couple; Canon, 21, moved to Cambridge from Vermont less than two months ago. A Michigan native, she first became homeless in Detroit when she was 18, after she left her abusive husband. Three months later, Canon decided to leave the state in order to avoid her ex-husband, and chose to move to Vermont because it had more job opportunities and homeless resources.
“What I did was I compared all 50 states,” she says. “I took unemployment rates against crime rate, narrowed it down to lowest unemployment rate and lowest crime rates.”
She met Newton, who was also homeless at the time, in Burlington, Vt., while he was travelling through the state. The two eventually started dating, and Canon decided to join him here.
Canon says she hopes to find a job in the area soon, although getting and holding down employment while not having a permanent place to live can be difficult.
“Everyone wants ‘the bums’ to get jobs, but no one will hire someone who’s homeless,” she says. “And if you don’t have an actual physical address when you fill out a job application, they’re going to glance and move on.”
Despite these difficulties, Canon says she prefers living in Cambridge, finding the police and residents more friendly than those of Detroit. “I found home. This place is great. I love it here, and I love being with this pain in the butt,” she says, nudging Justin.
Jade Hosie, 22, used to be a landscaper in Buffalo, N.Y. After her mother fell ill almost two years ago, they lost their apartment, and came to Cambridge for better homeless services offered by the city.
“I’ve hit so rock bottom it’s not even funny,” she says, sitting outside of CVS on Massachusetts Ave.
Hosie says the past year has been difficult for her, especially since she spent much of it sleeping on the street, often out of choice. She says she avoids staying in shelters due to concerns about getting assaulted or robbed, as well basic hygiene issues.
“Around Christmas, I had lice,” Hosie says, claiming that she got it from a shelter. “A lot of the girls from the shelter, they’re all scratching.”
She has also had issues with being barred from various shelters for infringements like not vacating the shelter on time. Hosie describes a night when she was barred from Pine Street Inn in Boston and ended up sleeping under a bridge next to the shelter.
“There’s rats under there, there’ s a lot of violent men under there, anything could have happened,” she says. “It was cold. I shook all night.”
For now, she and her fiance often sleep under the overhang at St. Paul’s Church in Boston Common, which provides shelter from the rain. During the day, she uses resources from programs like Youth on Fire and CASPAR.
Despite the resources that Cambridge offers, Hosie says that she would eventually like to leave Massachusetts. “I really don’t like it here,” she says. “There’s too much homelessness. It depresses me.”
Ken and Earlene “Frenchie” French
Earlene French, 57, who goes by “Frenchie,” says that she has found herself quite literally the face of homelessness in Cambridge.
To French’s surprise, a friend informed her one day that her picture was on a set of postcards for sale at one of the Cambridge drug stores. French went to the store and found that the postcard not only featured her photograph but also a caption reading “Homeless in Cambridge.”
The postcard is just one media incident among many that French, and her partner, Ken O’Brien, a sixty-year-old Cambridge native, have experienced over the years. Articles on French and O’Brien have appeared in a variety of periodicals, ranging from local newspapers like the Cambridge Chronicle to larger media outlets like Boston.com.
“We seem to attract newspaper people...and school project people,” O’Brien says, alluding to a time when a student from Cambridge Rindge and Latin produced a video project on Cambridge’s homeless population that centered on the couple’s experiences.
French met O’Brien eight and a half years ago, when she was a security guard at Mount Auburn Medical Center. French says she often found herself walking home along Massachusetts Ave. and stopping to chat with and give spare change to O’Brien, who found himself out on the streets from time and time without permanent housing.
“It was the dog that attracted me to him,” she says, gesturing to a puppy named Penny, who is sitting on a blue blanket outside of Leavitt & Pierce Tobacco on Mass. Ave.
“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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @SonaliSalgado16.
—Staff writer Caroline T. Zhang can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @CarolineTZhang.