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Give and Take

By Meaghan E. Townsend, Crimson Opinion Writer

“Hey! Are you interested in joining Harvard College Faith and Action?”

The voice is so eager and enthusiastic that I'm almost guilted into taking the proffered flyer before I remember—no, I’m not actually interested in joining. Right. Cheeks flushed, I avert my eyes and mutter an apology as I skirt by my well-intentioned assailant into the warm asylum of Annenberg. A frown tugs at my face as I wonder if I hurt her feelings, and then I'm caught up in the chaotic rush of card swipes and she disappears into a dusty corner of my memory.

Until the next day or two, when I find myself in a very similar situation. If not Harvard College Faith and Action, it's an a capella concert, vegetarian society, improv show, or even “glow party” (whatever that means). The plethora of these offerings is indicative of just how much is happening on campus.

When my day carries me out of the Yard and into the Square, however, I find myself being approached for a much more serious reason. I see people surrounded by their possessions, clustered on benches, seated outside the T—so ubiquitous that they seem almost as much a part of Harvard as the red brick. And they see me, too. With words, cardboard signs, and tired, knowing eyes, they ask me for cash, food, and change.

I feel the same twinge in my heart at every one of these requests, but I rarely honor any of them. After walking by a homeless person, I'm lost in thought, compelled to help but not knowing how to do so effectively. But again, inevitably, I'm distracted by the next leg of my day and the moment fades from my mind.

On a certain level, these two situations could not be more disparate. One is publicizing a fun event or student group; the other is seeking the means to meet basic necessities. One asks you to take; the other asks you to give. But both offer an important reminder of how privileged we are as Harvard students. And I've struggled to know what to do in either case.

Sometimes, when I know I don't want to involve myself, I feel the urge to simply withdraw. But there are few things worse than being ignored, and I don't want to inflict that feeling on anyone. I worry that too much eye contact will send the wrong message and not enough will be considered cold.

Where does that leave me? Lately, I've been working to simply acknowledge the value of the other person’s presence. If it’s someone handing out a flyer, I can take a moment to say “No, thanks” instead of just pretending they're invisible. If it's someone asking for change, I can give them a word of support rather than a dollar.

But as meaningful as words are, they don't solve the larger problems at hand. If I don't pay attention to a publicizer outside Annenberg, the worst I do is momentarily offend a peer. If I don't pay attention to a homeless person on the street, I'm guilty of reinforcing a culture that turns a blind eye to those in need. The more grave of these two offenses is undoubtedly the latter.

For that reason, I'm looking into volunteering opportunities at the youth homeless shelter Y2Y and the Harvard Square Homeless Shelter. But there's only so much that I can do as a single student. Helping Cambridge’s hundreds of homeless individuals get back on their feet will require time and money far beyond what I can provide.

A previous Crimson staff editorial suggested that this is where institutions with massive reserves of resources and manpower, such as Harvard, should come in. I believe it is immoral for Harvard not to redirect some of its considerable wealth towards the homeless if doing so would not detract from the school’s immediate well-being. In fact, by both supplementing student efforts at Y2Y and HSHS and addressing one of the root causes of homelessness, Harvard could augment its own integrity and productivity with thoughtful donations to those in need.

After all, if Harvard has the money to put on event after event, surely it can spare some of those funds to help the homeless. There is certainly value in the extensive programming available to Harvard students, but I would be happy to give up a few concerts and parties if I knew that more people were being helped. If we seek to realize real change, we must fight our inclinations to forget and disengage. Some solutions will be more easily implemented than others, but none at all will present themselves unless we stop ignoring the problem. If we all gave a little more and took a little less, there just might be more to go around.

Meaghan E. Townsend '21, a Crimson editorial editor, lives in Canaday Hall.

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