Melvin Jenkins, known by students and frequenters of Harvard Square as a warm and friendly man, died on June 16 in Massachusetts General Hospital. Friends say the 58-year-old died of a drug overdose, days after leaving a detox facility.
For those who walked through the Square each day, Jenkins was a fixture in his skull cap. Many students came to know Jenkins through Alistair Finlay, who can often be found sitting on the corner of Massachusetts Ave. and Plympton St., outside the Harvard Bookstore, talking with students.
“He is going to be missed all the rest of my life,” said Finlay, who shared the streets around the Square with Jenkins and came to call him one of his best friends.
Kevin Einkauf ’16, met Jenkins through Finlay while working on the street outreach team for the Harvard Square Homeless Shelter, a program that he co-directs. Each week, the team brought backpacks of food and water to those who live outside in the Square.
“Every time we came around to see him and offer him supplies, he would hesitate before accepting them, because he felt there were others in the Square who might need them more. Even after giving him a sandwich or a pair of gloves, he would often give them to a hungrier or colder friend,” Einkauf wrote in an email. “Mel was always thinking of others, when most people would only think of themselves.”
Lily H. Ostrer ’14 and Isabel R. Ostrer ’14 also worked on the outreach team and spent time with Jenkins.
“Melvin was a really great example of someone who was really excited to connect with other residents of the Square...to bridge the divide [between students and residents of Cambridge],” Lily Ostrer said.
Isabel Ostrer remembered Jenkins for his willingness to open up to students.
“The fact that he opened up to me—I really felt touched by that,” said Isabel Ostrer, who described Jenkins as “easy-going” and “incredibly friendly.”
Jenkins spent most of his professional life working as mechanic, but after a fall from a truck in 1986 left him in a coma with a severely damaged back, he was never able to return to work, according to Einkauf. After the accident, Jenkins took care of his mother while she battled cancer, but after she passed away he quickly found himself without a home and on the streets, according to Finlay.
“I want people to know that he worked all his life,” said Finlay.
According to Lily Ostrer, Jenkins’s work as a mechanic never really ended. She said that she recalled Jenkins building his own bicycle from parts he collected around Cambridge last year.
Finlay also remembered a time when someone had torn one of his bags, but Jenkins used rope to fix it. Finlay said the bag will always remind him of his friend.
For those who shared the streets with Jenkins, Finlay said, his unwavering generosity in harsh conditions made him a special figure among the Cambridge’s homeless.
“If he had it, he would give it to you,” Finlay said, who remembered Jenkins buying sandwiches or giving away cigarettes to those who asked. “There are some days I’ll look down the street for his skully cap, and I’ll think, ‘wow, he’s not here anymore,’” Finlay said.
—Staff writer Tyler S. Olkowski can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @OlkowskiTyler.