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A typical Harvard course may host renowned authors, environmentalists, and politicians from around the world, but the speakers featured in Thursday’s Sociology 149: “Inequality, Poverty, and Wealth in Comparative Perspective” spend most of their time on the streets right outside the campus gates.
These speakers, three members of Cambridge’s homeless population, were invited by Sociology Lecturer Patrick Hamm to share their experiences of poverty with the students in his class—a study of the sources and consequences of inequality in America.
“It was very unexpected,” said Siu “Andy” O. Lau, a visiting student from Hong Kong who attended Hamm’s class.
Hamm was inspired to give this lecture in part by his personal interactions with the homeless near his home in Back Bay. He befriended Thursday’s speakers—Rennell, Destry, and a man who asked to be identified by his middle name “Davy”—long before he planned to teach the course.
They are only three of an estimated 2.3 to 3.5 million people who are homeless during a given year, according to recent data by the National Coalition for the Homeless.
Davy, a bearded man with elaborate tattoos along his neck, usually sits outside the Harvard Book Store.
“The worst thing about being homeless is the loneliness, and having nowhere to go,” he said. “There’s no handbook to being homeless; you’re simply out there like an animal.”
Davy, who became homeless at age 16 in Scotland, said he thinks that people in America are more aware of the homeless than in other nations, but Rennell, a spunky middle-aged woman, said she often feels dismissed.
She described moments when passersby told her that she doesn’t look hungry, or that her new tennis shoes indicate that she doesn’t need help.
“But what is a homeless person supposed to look like?” she asked in exasperation.
The speakers’ stories illuminated how homelessness occurs unexpectedly, and is a vicious cycle that’s difficult to break.
“I never thought I would be holding the cup,” Rennell said.
However, all three remain hopeful for the years ahead.
Destry, who said he became homeless in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, told the class he’s preparing himself for a future free from homelessness. He offered words of advice to the class.
“You all just stay positive and try to be the future,” he said.
Rennell looks forward to owning her own house. She thinks that the American government should provide better systems for the homeless to repair foreclosed homes for themselves or work for better residences.
Beyond food and shelter, the speakers said they yearn most for kind human interaction that can be hard to find on the street.
“Sometimes conversation is better than money, to know you’re part of the world,” Rennell said.
Their message resonated with the students in the class, who all rushed at the end of lecture to introduce themselves to the speakers.
“[Their stories] are definitely something more people need to hear,” said Andrew D. Kim ’16. “Homelessness is something we see everyday, but it’s become part of the background.”
“It was definitely the best class of the year so far,” said Sietse K. Goffard ’15. “I will never forget it.”
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