Home(less) at Harvard

How Harvard is both a home and not to the people in its community

Bleeding Crimson

About a year ago, I filled some boxes and lugged them up five flights of stairs. It wasn’t a big deal or anything—I was just leaving my friends, family, and anything I ever considered home back in New Jersey and welcoming four white walls and a sloped ceiling as a shoddy substitute for the word, the feeling. The ceiling paint was chipping, the skylight dark. Four new roommates filled in the slots of the four people I left three states away. Sooner than I thought, those walls were decorated, the skylight waxed and waned bright, and those four people became much more than just strangers.

And for a long time, I tried to avoid calling that place home. It was the room, the dorm, my bed. It was like when you tell someone not to think of an elephant and they begin describing a gray hide, a snaking nose, ivory tusks under flapping ears—but deny the image its rightful name. A portrait without a frame, if you will. My home had always been my little green room of five paces by two, nothing more, nothing less. Yet, my will eventually caved. We took a group picture. I bought a frame. Weeks sprouted roots, months began to grow under the skylight, and soon enough I had to change my idea of what was home, or how many homes one could have without the word losing its weight.

But the gates around my new home were wrought iron, and the benches outside it rusting and remorseless. Although I had been lucky enough to find a home within the Yard, many are not so fortunate. Dotting the periphery of the University are a plethora of people who didn’t share my luxury of four white walls or a pointed roof above their heads. They have the clothes on their backs, miscellaneous personal items strewn about them, some with blankets during the winter, some without. While I was focusing so much on my process of accepting another home, some struggled to do the same.

At first, I regarded the rampant homelessness around Harvard as a fact. The walls were brick, the chairs rainbow, and the benches were home to people without a home. I walked to classes and jostled my focus whenever I passed, fearful too much attention would be considered staring and rude. Ignoring it altogether would be to merely accept the problem and do nothing about it. Neither solution felt like a solution. I was reminded of the period of homelessness in my own family history, and shuddered at the juxtaposition.

One night in late October, a friend bought a sandwich from CVS and gave it to the man sitting across from the store, leaning against the street sign on the sidewalk. No questions were asked, few words were exchanged between the two. His outstretched hand was an opportunity and the man’s eyes were acceptance. I had never felt a wave of humanness like that before.

I learned how to balance my focus. It was with the alarm blaring under my pillow at six in the morning, the cold laying its bare hands on my cheeks, that I raced across the Yard every Friday to the Y2Y shelter for a three hour shift making pancakes and eggs that the guests were tired of. We tried french toast for a change. The change worked. One of the guests, a regular, started singing Fetty Wap as he ate the new food. I left the shelter at nine, walking through the gates and passing the same inhabited benches, wondering if change is like a forest fire—if it could start and spread and turn everything anew.

At Harvard, we’re learning to look at the situation of homelessness in a more constructive way. The necessity of the Harvard Square Homeless Shelter gave way to the creation of Y2Y in 2012. Both organizations are supported by dining hall leftovers from HUDS and receive a large number of undergraduate and graduate student volunteers alike. Calls for public restrooms were heard and answered with the installation of a public toilet in Harvard Square during the winter of 2015. A series of articles have been published on the homeless population here, providing a necessary vessel for their stories to be told.

Much has been done, but more must follow. This place is home to many of us, and despite the various ways in which this word may manifest itself, we must make a concentrated effort to participate consciously in it.

Jessenia N. Class ’20 is a Crimson editorial editor in Quincy House. Her column appears on alternate Tuesdays.

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