Most cosmetic changes to Harvard's campus go unnoticed. A fence gets painted, a sidewalk is repaired, some trees are planted--and life goes on as usual for most students.
However, for some of Cambridge's less fortunate residents, a minor architectural change has left them with no place to live. Up until several weeks ago, a number of homeless individuals used a heating grate next to the Harvard-owned Holyoke Center as a source of warmth at night. Some students were surprised to stroll down Holyoke Street recently and see a slanted, black metal cage covering the heating grates. The top of this cage forms a 35 degree angle with the ground, making it impossible for anyone to lie on the grates.
The construction of the cage was covered in The Crimson on September 13, but due to the hectic nature of Registration Week, the story was buried on the tenth page and went almost unnoticed. Still, students who have seen the cage are outraged by it. One person that I interviewed even suggested, half in jest, that he might be inspired to dismantle the cage in the dead of night with a blowtorch.
Many are quick to blame Harvard Real Estate for disenfranchising Cambridge's already-disenfranchised homeless community. However, even though the cage is ultimately unjust, Harvard Real Estate made a considerable effort to address the concerns of the homeless. Far from being malicious or hasty, the decision to build the cage was a response to serious problems arising from the use of the heating grates.
According to Macy DeLong, a spokesperson for Solutions for Work, a homelessness empowerment group, the difficulties started several years ago when "a very rowdy crowd [began to] use the grate inappropiately, driving away other homeless people and scaring passers-by." Hathaway H. Green, director of communications for Harvard Planning and Real Estate, elaborated on these disturbances, mentioning that "tenants and customers repeatedly expressed concern" over behavior such as "drinking and defacating."
Students and Holyoke Center employees also felt threatened by the rough crowd of men which had come to monopolize the grates. The homeless men would sometimes shout obscenities or threats at students walking down Holyoke, or at employees who were leaving work late in the evening. The troublemakers also scared away more peaceful homeless people who were merely looking for a quiet place to sleep.
According to DeLong, the grates were not always dangerous, and both Harvard and homelessness groups tried several tactics to restore the grates to their previous level of safety. Social workers tried to convince the men to stop harassing others, but to no avail. In addition, the police "tried to punish the troublemakers," said DeLong. "We had hoped to separate the people causing problems, and that that would solve the problem, but that was not the case. Each night [the police] would drag away the same people, but they would be back there the next night."
Finally, after the situation persisted through the summer, Harvard Real Estate, in conjuction with several homelessness empowerment groups (including Spare Change, Bread and Jams, and Solutions for Work) decided to erect the cage over the grates on Holyoke.
Yet, despite Harvard Real Estate's sensitivity towards Cambridge's homeless community, something about the grates is just not right, and all of the parties involved seem to know it. The decision to build the cage was strongly influenced, they say, by the fact that the Holyoke Center's heating system is due to be renovated. This extensive, costly project--which has not yet begun--will greatly increase the efficiency of the heaters, but will also entail the construction of new heat exhaust vents on the roof of the Holyoke Center. The old exhaust vents--those that are now covered by the cage--will no longer provide heat. Unfortunately, officials responsible for this project could not be reached for comment, and it is unclear how long these renovations will take to be completed: a few years, decades, or not at all. Either way, the renovations are in no way a justification for the cage. If the renovations were imminent, then they would actually provide a rationale against building the cage. Harvard and the city of Cambridge would only have to find a quick, short-term solution to the problems, not a long-term, comprehensive one that would be much more difficult and costly. They could have continued to struggle to keep the grates open, knowing that the problem would soon be out of their hands. Instead, by some perverse twist of logic, the renovations have become a rationale for abandoning the fight prematurely. Two or three years may not seem like a big deal to the folks who decided to erect the cage, but for the homeless, just one winter may seem like an eternity.
If the renovations are still years down the road, then they cease to justify the policy. A project this far off should not be the critical factor in dealing with such an immediate and acute problem. The cage's advocates are using the renovations to rationalize a solution that is seriously flawed for many reasons.
Without such fictitious excuses clouding the issue, it is clear that the decision is based on an unjust principle of collective punishment that is applied to the homeless. Law-abiding homeless citizens who want to use the grates in peace are being punished for the actions of others.
This instance of collective punishment flatly contradicts the "Fair Treatment Guidelines for Holyoke Center Public Spaces," an agreement worked out by the same groups who authorized the building of the cage. The gist of this document is summed up in these excerpts: "All retail patrons and the general public must be treated equally with courtesy, dignity, and in a non-discriminatory manner...past behavior cannot be the basis for refusing patronage other than to those who have repeatedly not respected these guidelines." In other words, actions of one homeless person should have absolutely no bearing on the subsequent treatment of another.
But even homelessness groups have accepted the unjust logic of collective punishment. DeLong, who was once homeless herself, says that she and other workers pleaded with the troublemakers to stop harassing people: "We told them, you're going to lose this for all of us."
The practical consequence of this attitude is that the homeless simply do not have the same rights as other citizens. If an individual were harassing me in my residence, I would expect the police to protect me and restrain the offender. But, were I residing on the grates outside of the Holyoke Center, I would expect the police to evict me from my home.
The situation with regard to the homeless seems to be more complicated because the homeless, by definition, have no homes. But this does not change the fact that every American has a right to security and protection. Even in the most crime-ridden pockets of our cities, where these problems seem at least as intractable as the problems on the Holyoke grates, the government has not responded by expelling the residents of these neighborhoods. Instead, the state fights to maintain security and peace of mind even in these stricken areas. Surely the homeless of Cambridge deserve the same treatment.
But the worst aspect of the cage on Holyoke is its symbolic value. While it may not have been the intention of either Harvard Real Estate or the homelessness empowerment groups to "sweep the problem under the rug," that was certainly the result. Too often, we all have a tendency to deal with the deep problems of poverty and homelessness by pushing them away, out of sight and out of mind. I say with some confidence that every single person reading this editorial, at one time or another, has responded to a beggar's plea with a feeling of resentment. "Why are they bothering me today? Why can't they just leave me alone?"
Why do we sometimes feel these instinctive, irrational desires to place the blame for poverty and deprivation on the poor and destitute themselves? Because, deep down, we look at the appalling injustice in our city and we know that it is not right. We know that in a land and an era of such prosperity, people should not be begging in the streets.
And yet they are. The homeless remind us of the inequity of the world in which we live. They are nothing less than a moral imperative, commanding us to repair the world by their very existence. But sometimes, we do not want to be bothered. So we hurry past, ignoring them, resenting them for reminding us of the injustice that we know we must correct.
The cage on Holyoke Street is in exactly this spirit. It does not solve the problem of homelessness in any way; it merely removes the problem from our sight. One cannot help but think that the decision to build the cage was somhow influenced by the subconscious hardening of hearts that we have all experienced.
It is not my intention to portray Harvard Real Estate as an immoral, heartless organization. On the contrary, Harvard has demonstrated a significant level of concern for the homeless. Still, this does not make the cage acceptable. It remains a fundamentally unjust solution that discriminates against the homeless. And it illustrates the all-too-common tendency to treat the homeless as pests, not the human beings that they are.