“Never again should a people starve in a world of plenty.” This is the inscription on the little-noticed memorial to the Irish Potato Famine in Cambridge Common. Although the tragedy was over 150 years ago, its legacy is with us to this day. Though we do not know great famine in this country, we know homelessness, abject poverty, and the misery and suffering which accompany them. In this country and in this city, people still feel the aches of hunger, want, and fear. To change this course of poverty and homelessness we must first, as a society, change how we view these people and acknowledge the moral duty that compels each of us to serve within the Cambridge community.
It is not hard to find homeless men and women in Cambridge, as most Harvard students can attest. They sleep in front of the Coop and in Cambridge Common. They dot the stretch of Mass. Ave. in front of the yard and crowd Harvard Square. To some extent, the presence of homelessness and poverty in Cambridge is a far more jarring realization than elsewhere. Quite literally in the shadows of the world’s richest and most reputable university, human beings go hungry and live on the streets.
This stark contrast should serve as a call-to-action for all Harvard students. These men and women are a constant reminder of where we as a society have failed, and so we choose to look away. We all do. When an elderly man asks us for change outside CVS or Uno’s, we pretend not to hear, or stare blankly into space while quickly moving on our way. However, becoming habituated to homelessness is not strong; it is callous. This is not to say that we are obligated to give money to the homeless on a daily basis, but we must not pretend as if they do not even exist or are somehow less than human. The social stigma against being anything less than blasé about Harvard Square homelessness must be addressed.
Many answer this call by participating in one or more of Harvard’s myriad community service programs. Others volunteer and serve in less formal but equally meaningful ways. Community outreach and service, though, is something that all, and not just most, students should play a part in. The next time you get an email from your House e-mail list promoting a community outreach and service event, give it some actual thought before routinely purging it from your inbox. Choose to volunteer on a shift with the Harvard Square Homeless Shelter, go on a building day with Habitat for Humanity, or help distribute meals to impoverished Cambridge families. These are just some of many ways to give back and better the situations of the homeless and poorer residents with whom Harvard shares the city of Cambridge.
Most importantly, when looking at homeless men and women around the Square and throughout Cambridge, see them as people too. As students it may seem that we can have no impact on the crushing epidemic of homelessness and poverty, but volunteering matters, changing our attitudes toward those who are less fortunate matters, and acknowledging our duty to give back to the Cambridge community matters. Many, hopefully all, of us want to alleviate suffering in the world during the course of our lifetimes—and in this vein it would be hypocritical not to try and alleviate suffering in our college community during the course of our four years here. Even in the midst of great economic trials, we must all strive to move society closer to a day when the inscription on the Common memorial can be taken in truth, and people will never again starve, suffer, or want in a world of plenty.
Jacob J. Cedarbaum ’12, a Crimson editorial writer, is a History and History of Art and Architecture concentrator in Currier House. He is a supervisor at the Harvard Square Homeless Shelter.
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