Life Out Here

It has been four weeks since Justin became homeless. He had hoped to be off the streets before the weather turned cold, but the days have begun to blend together—something “they don’t tend to prepare you for”—and now he’s preparing for the long haul.

Justin Newton, 31, can talk politics, economics, and popular culture, but he prefers to talk about gaming. Before he was homeless, he played Xbox 360 Fable II, but it is too risky to have a laptop on the street and near impossible to maintain the battery life on his Android. “That’s one of those things you don’t think about until you’re out here,” he says. So now he relies on tabletop role-playing games, in which players describe their characters’ actions out loud to satisfy their interests: “Imagine World of Warcraft without a computer.”

It has been four weeks since Justin became homeless. He had hoped to be off the streets before the weather turned cold, but the days have begun to blend together—something “they don’t tend to prepare you for”—and now he’s preparing for the long haul. He’s keeping his warmest articles of clothing in reserve so that they’ll seem warmer in January or February, when he really needs them, but he still hopes to find housing before then. If all else fails, he will think about moving into a shelter, although he prefers the limited freedom he has on the street to a life in a rule-ridden institution. For now, he has started to ask around for a car battery to power a portable heater, just in case.

A few weeks ago, on one warm Saturday afternoon, Justin sat with his friend Ralph Beck, 21, in their “living room and dining room and bedroom all in one,” on the corner of the Cambridge Trust Company next to the Holyoke Center. It is conveniently located near Au Bon Pain’s semi-public bathroom and it is a “good spot to pee at night, around the corner where nobody can really see you.” They’re setting up their sign and change-box for the day; Saturday afternoons tend to be very lucrative times to spange (“the portmanteau of spare change,” Justin explains).

But a visiting spanger from Boston sits on a milk crate less than five yards away—“Homeless people never sit on milk crates,” Ralph says—and the street musician Ramblin’ Dan moves into Justin and Ralph’s usual space.

It is bad form to spange within a half-block of someone else. Ralph considers confronting them, but he decides against it and reluctantly starts to pack his things. If spangers coordinate their locations and spread out, they all benefit from more donations. Unfortunately, the ethic of cooperation does not always pan out, so Justin and Ralph relocate to a less profitable corner near Cambridge Common for the afternoon. The sun is shining, and they don’t seem to mind.

*         *          *

When I first meet Justin, he is debating the perennial issue of Columbus Day with his friend Ralph: should the United States continue to observe the imperialist holiday? (It was the same conversation I overheard in the Quincy dining hall half an hour earlier.) Justin, wearing an Oscar the Grouch shirt and combat boots, strokes his long beard as he listens to Ralph speak. “I don’t celebrate the American holidays. I celebrate Pagan holidays,” Ralph says. He’s wearing ripped jeans and a tattered black and white camouflage jacket. Later he explains the evolution of his fashion identity: “When I was 10, I was gothic. When I was 12, I was emo. When I was 16, I was gangster. Now I don’t have any style: I’m homeless.”

Justin ended up on the street after being kicked out of his ex-girlfriend-turned-roommate’s apartment. He says he considered moving in with family members until he dropped some of his “stupid habits.” Next he thought about camping near Fresh Pond—which is not permitted but can apparently be done by hiding a tent in the forest—while he put his life back in order. But when a friend put him in touch with Ralph, a fellow gamer who offered to teach him how to live on the street, Justin chose to move to Cambridge.

Ralph has lived in Harvard Square for the last year and on the street for the past six. He decided to move onto the street after growing tired of moving in and out of foster homes. He says Harvard is a good place to be, since there are so many other homeless people in the area: “Life out here is easier together.” So Justin and Ralph have stuck together, sleeping near one another, keeping each other company, and watching out for each other’s belongings, for most of the last month. Justin waits up for Ralph to return from hanging out with friends before he goes to sleep, and Ralph gives Justin tips that he wishes someone had told him when he first became homeless.

If their belongings are hidden from view—underneath tarps and inside their bags, for example—they can sleep until 7:40 a.m. Otherwise police officers wake them earlier, a not-so-subtle hint to straighten up before aesthetically conscious tourists and businessmen arrive in large numbers. During the day they can spread out, but mostly they confine themselves to the area in front of three large windows.

It’s hard to keep organized: at one point I notice Ralph’s crumpled birth certificate lying between an empty strawberry container and a lighter. It usually takes a few minutes to find what they need. Justin doesn’t have quite as much to keep straight, since he still keeps some clothes and valuables at his ex-girlfriend’s apartment in Somerville.

Over the course of the next month, I make an effort to spend time on the sidewalk with Justin and Ralph at least every other day. Initially they ask me for cash, food, and materials, but after a few weeks we develop an easier relationship. I watch their things while Justin buys a morning coffee at Dunkin’ Donuts and he offers me a taste of a $3-dollar-a-bottle Russian craft beer when they celebrate the arrival of a check from Ralph’s father.

*         *          *

Justin and Ralph have to stay alert during the day, but it’s not dangerous until it’s dark. Theft sometimes takes a toll on their emotional states. When Justin’s beloved Android phone mysteriously goes missing, he’s a wreck. Another time, incensed, he says that someone stole his expensive cane and 20-year-old box-cutter the night before. “And if I find out who it was, I’m going to fucking stomp their head in,” he says. “I think all the fucking junkies should get their heads stomped in, ’cause I’m tired of getting my shit jacked.”

Ralph recently went to sleep with his fake diamond earring on and woke up without it. A woman who Justin and Ralph call “the psycho bitch” has a habit of stealing their food and throwing it at them every few days. Justin vents his anger with harsh language, but assures me that he’s a pacifist at heart. “I’m fucking Switzerland,” Justin tells me. “As long as you don’t fuck over me and mine, you’re cool with me. I ain’t lookin’ for trouble. I’m just trying to survive.”

Justin and Ralph are expert multitaskers, and are almost always willing to engage in conversation while spanging. Ralph has a habit of stopping mid-sentence to politely ask passersby, “How are you? Can you help out the homeless today?” in a notably higher pitched voice than his normal tone. This time the target only drops a few pennies and a nickel. He says thank you anyway, as he always does when someone makes a donation.

On self-described “emo” days when they “fly signs” that say things like “Spare some change so I can make a more interesting sign,” they do not expect to make more than $50 collectively. But if they want to make more money, they try to start conversations with approaching pedestrians while they are still a few strides away, giving them more time to establish eye contact.

Humor works better than pity. One time a regular put a dollar in the cup and asks Justin for a joke. “A clean one or a dirty one?” he replies, eager to please, before rattling off a six-minute-long joke about a prince’s three sons and a hooker. The timing and speed are everything for the punch-line, he explains after the stranger has walked off laughing.

Ralph used an old umbrella pole to pull their change box closer to him mid-joke in order to retrieve the dollar bill, since people tend to give more money when they see only change in the box. On a good day they collect more than $100. Some types of people give more than others; tour groups and male students wearing clothes from Urban Outfitters and American Apparel are especially stingy, Justin says. “That’s not true. A hipster dropped a dime once,” Ralph says, correcting him sarcastically.

Justin puts some of the money he makes into a savings account, which he only withdraws from sparingly. “A lot of the money that we make goes to food and other things to keep us sane,” he explains. He says he’s saving for his wedding and an apartment for him and his wife-to-be. “Usually we don’t have to worry too much about food,” he says as a grinning Ralph uncovers sandwiches, donuts, and other donated food that they keep hidden under blankets.

A bag of unopened, donated Pabst Blue Ribbon beers have been weighing down a sign asking for money for the last three days. Neither of them drinks alcohol often, but they do enjoy getting high on marijuana, which they frequently do in public view without concern for being caught.

One night, sitting, Justin says, “I want to get laid! ... I just want to get laid,” he repeats more softly. A few days later: “I just need some fucking pussy.” Both Ralph and Justin say that they are holding out for their long distance lovers: Justin’s works as a live-in caretaker for her ailing grandmother in Connecticut, and Ralph’s works in Virginia.

But Justin says that his mother might have gotten it right with her second marriage. “He’s boring, but stable as hell. You know that if he says he’s working late, he’s working late. You don’t have to worry about him going on a drug binge and ruining your car,” Justin says. He has been twirling objects in his hands for the last hour: a yellow star-shaped stress ball in his left hand and a marijuana-packed pipe in his right.

*         *          *

Justin thinks every incoming Harvard student should spend eight months on the streets, without access to bank accounts or other support from family, before enrolling in college. It’s important that the privileged know what it’s like to have nothing. He seems largely indifferent to the work of the student-run Harvard Square Homeless Shelter’s Street Team program. “I get fed and they don’t proselytize,” he says, shrugging.

Street Team volunteers bring food, blankets, clothing and other supplies to Justin, Ralph, and other homeless people in the area every night. “They form relationships with the homeless living on the street as well as providing services to them. They are encouraged to talk and make friends,” according to Administrative Director of the HSHS, Charles A. Hobbs ’13.

The dry shelter lotteries 24 beds that are mostly given to guests for two-week periods at a time. Even when the shelter is full, the volunteer staff helps people find emergency beds on the night they come in whenever possible. “I think that that’s an important connection to the community,” University President Drew G. Faust said of the shelter’s work.

While Justin admires people whose religion leads them to help the poor, being preached at makes him furious. “We live in a secular country!” he announces firmly, and the conversation returns to one of his favorite subjects: American history and contemporary politics. Justin thinks that the deist founding fathers would be outraged by Speaker of the House John Boehner’s “antics” and what he considers the dangerous mixture of religious doctrine and political power.

He used to read the liberal news outlet Media Matters “religiously,” but it’s harder for him to stay informed without regular access to a computer. He uses his smart-phone to periodically check the news. “I try to study the issues behind politics so I can make an informed vote,” he says. It’s appalling to him that so many people vote without understanding the difference between the marginal tax rate and the average tax rate. I learn about the distinction for the first time in Economics 10 a week later. “People consider us disease-ridden creatures,” Ralph says, breaking his silence. “We know a lot more than we look like we know.”

*         *          *

On my way to class one afternoon I stop to ask how Ralph has been doing for the last few days. He’s been spending time at a friend’s house playing video games, and I haven’t seen him for a while. He looks up from his book, “The Lion, the Witch and The Wardrobe” by C.S. Lewis: “Could be better. Could be worse. That’s the way it is out here.”

With his legs extended and his back against the wall, Justin reads instruction books on different systems for hours at a time. In recent weeks he has been developing a Generic Universal Role Playing System (GURPS) campaign of “high fantasy with steam punk and sonic elements, as well as traditional magic and swords and sorcery.”

Once he finishes designing it, he’ll direct adventures and battles as Game Master of his fantasy world. The campaign could last for months. Drawing inspiration from sci-fi novels, he reads whatever he can get his hands on, except “Conquered” Earth and books that focus too much on political intrigue—despite his interest in real-world politics. His favorite stories are about adventures at the edge of space.

Living on the street, he does not have as much freedom as he used to, he says. But in GURPS he calls all the shot and makes all the rules; it’s a drug-free escape from a life where he can’t even choose his own bedtime to a world where he’s in charge of everything.

Until he finds a more permanent solution (he meets with a housing counselor regularly), Justin brainstorms new ways to make his “setup” more comfortable. His latest plan involves using a tarp and rope to construct a shelter that would protect him from the elements while still complying with the tent ban, which prevents him from setting up his tent on the sidewalk. It’s a policy strictly enforced in Harvard Square but ignored at Occupy Boston, where some of Justin and Ralph’s old neighbors have been staying and where they went to visit recently.

Justin says that an activist friend of his who recently passed away would have been on cloud nine in Dewey Square. “Something just changed inside of me. It’s the strangest thing,” he said, tearing up. “It’s so goofy, because I’m not even sad.”

Ralph, the less political of the two, saw power in the number of people there, and also in the growing number of homeless people. “There’s enough of us now. We could take over the fucking White House.” You wouldn’t have to go far to find an even grander symbol of income inequality, Justin thinks out loud. “If there’s an Occupy Cambridge, it will start right here,” he says, pointing to Harvard Yard. Most of the protesters still have homes, Justin says, but they are victims of the same broken system that put him on the street.

At the protest, there are a few useful giveaways for people living on the street, and Justin came back with some freebies from the occupation’s first-aid tent, including an emergency water-proof sleeping bag and thick rope to build his planned shelter for when winter comes, sooner than Justin wants. He’s starting to feel it, he says.

The search for a car battery to power a heater has been fruitless, so increasingly they have been relying on a blend of rum and soda for warmth. “For 20 bucks I can get drunk once or I can get stoned a bunch of times,” Justin explains. “Economically it makes a fuck-ton more sense to get stoned. And pot doesn’t do anything negative to me, other than sucking my motivation. But out here, what kind of motivation do you really need?”