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Free Life on the Streets

Nothing Left to Lose; by Jeffrey D. Blum and Judith E. Smith: published by the Sanctuary: 142 pages

By David R. Ignatius

STREET PEOPLE have too often been straw people: embodiments of the various fantasies of the value-judgers of the adult world. If conservatives have made street people into symbols of degeneracy, the Left has done much the same, although Leftish slogans take a different tack.

Right ON! to crime in the streets, the hammer of discontent. Right ON! to all that is dark and primitive in the modern teen-age soul, our deliverance from boredom. Right ON! to the violence of the street wanderers of Harvard Square. Up the revolution!! Street people were lionized by the Left as the Young Vandals who would accomplish the sacking of Amerikkka.

But when the Line changes--as when the Panthers decided that perhaps the lumpen-proletariat of the streets was a little too estranged from society to be good for much of anything--what then? What happens to street kids when they go out fashion?

Nothing Left to Lose--a new book by tow recent Harvard graduates, Jeffrey D. Blum and Judith E. Smith--attempts to describe some of what the Sanctuary counselling staff has learned about Cambridge street people through first-hand encounters. It is the sort of book that one hopefully imagines might be possible: Informal in style: occasionally polemical yet consistently self-critical about its own biases: sympathetic to the real lives of the people it describes; and very sensible about what can be done to make things better. Perhaps one reason that Nothing Left to Lose is so good is that it is not a commercial book. It is a collective effort, written by friends about some common concerns in their work and published by Sanctuary for a larger audience of friends.

The book opens with a crucial distinction between different strata of the street society that filled the Sanctuary storefront on Mt. Auburn Street two summers ago. On top were the "summer travellers"--older, more affluent, and more sophisticated college graduates and dropouts bumming their wary around the country--the middle class alienated youth we usually associate with hip lifestyle.

But submerged beneath the glamor of these were the street dwellers proper--working class kids, often runaways who literally had nowhere to go and nothing to lose. Cambridge often became a trap for these younger and poorer blacks and whites. Lured to Cambridge by the aura of freedom of the middle class dropouts, they would leave from home, reform school, or mental hospitals stealing cars or a little money trying to get here. Once here they would realize that they were trapped--that the city, rough and dirty, offered little more than anonymity from the police.

BLUM AND SMITH recount the story of a 19 year-old who "came to Cambridge to be a hippie" with his leather-working tools and a smile for everyone. By the end of the summer--his tools stolen, wasted from hunger and too much bad dope, arrested several times by the police--he was in a mental hospital. As the authors describe over and over, the hippie myth carried by the summer travellers "Is continually at odds with the survival requirements of life on the Cambridge Common." This dialectic yields so bizarre a synthesis as James, an ace Volkswagen rip--off artist who decides when to steal cars by throwing the I Ching.

"Life on the Common," say the authors, "Is an experience of tedium, movement in aimless revolutions around the memorial pedestal, from which Lincoln surveys the new emancipation." There are a few rewards--easy sex, dope, and companionship. But people stay mostly because no matter how bad life is in Cambridge, It's better than what they have just left. Which is, usually, a broken home with no money about, or an alcoholic father who forced you to dress like a baby and fed you strong tranquilizers so you'd up. Or no home whatsoever.

The streets of Cambridge are the panacea,--"No parents--just Kids"--and Sanctuary is a stopping place for the disillusioned on the rebound while they recuperate from the terrible struggle to survive. The Sanctuary staff is close enough in age and temperament to the kids it counsels that it can admit their uncertainty and alienation. What can these kids do with themselves with no money, in a country such as this? What will work? Where do you draw the line? Blum and Smith recall the dilemma of establishing some kind of Legitimate moral authority in the storefront:

When a street kid comes in with stolen camera, what is the proper response? To tell her to get it out of the storefront where it could get us in trouble? to join the other kids in asking for the story of where it came from, thereby lending some kind of tacit approval? To show off our hip anticapitalism by distinguishing between stealing from a friend and stealing form a rich Harvard Square camera store? To come down hard on stealing in principle, neglecting the truth (as we see it) that excessive profit is stolen from workers and consumers anyway?...Although it is very difficult to do in a nonpatronizing or alienating way, the staff must talk about the values that they believe in, that are apart of them and the lives they are trying to lead.

The sanctuary counsellors admit all their difficulties: barriers of class, race, sex, and the inherent inequality of a counselor-client relationship. Refusing to see their work as social service, or themselves as professionals, they persist in trying to make ideals work in the most trying and disheartening practical situations. And quite often, they fail.

The book closes with a recommendation for a network of therapeutic communes where kids might go to work through their problems with full time Psychiatric help. The recommendation is an admission that, with its limited resources and its three-night limit on residency, there isn't a whole lot hat Sanctuary can do. At best, it can, through personal relationships, help street people to take their lives seriously. In whatever direction they choose.

THE "ANCIEN REGIME", as Blum and Smith call the world the street people have fled, is maintained through and ideology of self denial. Working class kids end up at Sanctuary because at some point they got fed up, and decided they had a right to something better than a warped home life, or a nine-to-five job, or a reform school. They decided that they had a right to be happy. Nothing Left to Lose and the counselling program it describes, are structure around a similar declaration of right. It is a fine book, and a very honest one--full of insight, generosity, and a belief in the possibility of reconciliation.

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