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UPDATED: February 1, 2022 at 5:15 a.m.
As people poured into Harvard Square to celebrate Biden clinching the presidency (or more honestly, Trump’s defeat), I saw a man pop a bottle of champagne and pour it into plastic little cups for smiling onlookers. One looked 10. As his little hands clenched the cup, cars honked as they passed the tangle of bodies lining JFK St. One waved a Biden-Harris flag out the window. The crowd cheered; whoever brought a cowbell rang it. So many people came carrying something — a hand-written sign, a flag. All I had in my hands was a jacket.
It was surprisingly warm for November. And as I walked along the Charles later that day with some friends I’d bumped into – the first from college I’d seen since the pandemic struck – one managed to articulate what exactly hung in the air. 2020 had been a strange, fearful, and above all, quiet year. The day was the first time in a long time we’d seen a group of people happy.
Still, something I’d seen during the celebration was so disquieting it put a lump of shame in my throat. In the center of the crowd, about 10 feet from a Black Lives Matter flag tied to a stop light, was a homeless man laid out on top of a small heap of trash bags. I recognized him from walks to class. As people wooed and cheered, they crowded him. I watched, wary he’d be trampled. I didn’t expect people to stop celebrating or to lend him any sort of hand; who knew if he even wanted to be disturbed. But to see so many people act not just as if he was dead, but as if this man did not even exist, unnerved me.
I don’t mean to moralize. I didn’t do anything but feel bad – told myself that even if I approached the man, he’d never hear me over the honking and, really, what did I have to say? But, for the rest of the day, I mostly thought of the limits of what everyone had come to the Square to celebrate.
I drove up to college having never visited, figuring Cambridge was El Dorado. Henry N. Lear ’24, administrative director of the Harvard Square Homeless Shelter, says that’s typical.
“A lot of students kind of look around and are really surprised at the fact that there's an incredible amount of homelessness all around us,” he says.
We’re talking in the middle of an especially hectic day for him. The weekend’s blizzard, which brought a record-breaking two feet of snow, is a day away, and HSHS is supersaturating its capacity to bring in more guests. On nights when weather can kill, “it’s kind of built into our policy” Henry says, “to set out five additional cots in our main space where our guests eat.”
Harvard’s student-run homeless shelters, HSHS and Y2Y, have reduced capacity by about 20 percent since reopening amid the pandemic.
“We’re hoping to bump up to 19” for the storm, Henry tells me.
Shelters have had to take as many people as they can while keeping beds reasonably distanced. James R. “Jim” Stewart, director of First Church Shelter in Cambridge, reminds me: “Folks who are living on the street are not necessarily hale and healthy to start with.” An outbreak could rip through their guests.
But even after the pandemic ends, Cambridge's shelter capacity will remain too small. Every day, HSHS and Y2Y hold a lottery to determine who will occupy the available of their 15 and 22 beds, respectively, and every day, students tell Cambridge residents they can’t offer them shelter. Xi Wu, a senior at Wellesley College that goes by Franny, is HSHS’s Technology Director. She breaks the system down for me; I feel naive for being horrified.
“The winners of the beds are determined through three daily lotteries,” Franny explains.
Monday, Thursday, and Sunday mornings, November to April, HSHS lotteries its available long-term beds to Cambridge’s homeless.
“And a lot of people are interested because it's like the jackpot. You get it and you can stay for three weeks,” Franny says.
At 9 p.m. and again at 11 p.m., if there are no shows, one-day beds are distributed daily.
When I ask Franny if she’s ever had to personally tell someone she couldn’t offer them a place to stay, she seems surprised by the question.
“Yeah, yeah. I mean, you have to do that.”
The number denied always varies, but there’s bad news every day. To try and make the process less personal, HSHS assigns every unhoused person a number, and then, like the local news, reads the winning lotto numbers out; sometimes by phone, sometimes in person.
“There’s this feeling of elation and you’re satisfied when you’re calling somebody and saying, ‘Yes, Mike, you won a bed,’ especially if it’s a guest you’re familiar with,” Franny tells me. “You know how much it means to them.” But, too often, the news is bad. “Sometimes guests get confused,” she says, and offer their names and assigned numbers again as she explains what the mismatch between their number and those she read out means. “More experienced guests just ask for the number and, you know, hang up if they didn’t win it. And you’re left with a little bit of emptiness.”
No shelter is meant to serve as a permanent solution. The Harvard Square Homeless Shelter in particular was designed to serve as an emergency respite for those who suddenly find themselves homeless – maybe because they were evicted, or fled an abusive partner. The shelter will protect you, feed you, and house you to its absolute capacity, but ultimately, each aims to get its guests to a place where they’re no longer needed.
To do this, HSHS and most other shelters connect guests with case workers who can help them find a job, better-paying work (many HSHS guests work jobs too low-paying to afford Cambridge housing), and access government aid they qualify for. For many, this means applying for disability and, crucially, a housing voucher.
But this model, in which shelters like HSHS serve as a band-aid until people can access more permanent resources, is utterly broken.
“Sometimes on Christmas you have HSHS alumni from 20 years ago come and volunteer with us, and those people look at the roster and will say, ‘I recognize these guests from 20 years ago,’” Franny tells me. “And a lot of them have stayed with us for years and years.”
I asked Cambridge City Councilor Quinton Y. Zondervan, in typical long-winded fashion, why. Why are Cambridge’s shelters chronically overwhelmed? How do people end up lotterying for a bed for years, and sleeping on the street?
His answer is short: “Because we don’t have enough housing.”
A housing voucher, something often given to city’s disabled, elderly, and poorest families, helps cover “the gap between what you can pay yourself and what the actual cost of leasing is,” he explains.
Unfortunately, the average wait between securing a voucher and having a roof over your head can be up to six years.
“Right now, if you tried to get on the waiting list for that type of housing, you’re looking at a waiting list of 20,000 people ahead of you,” Zondervan tells me.
Cambridge’s shocking price of housing is to blame — which is to say that Harvard, at least partly, is too. The average rent in Cambridge is $3,145, per a 2o16 report. That makes Cambridge housing 280 percent higher than the national average, placing it among America’s most expensive.
It’ll only get higher. Harvard, just named the city’s top employer for the 22nd straight year, continues to draw new residents in. As of 2020, pre-pandemic, a seismic 60,292 Harvard affiliates — students, staff, and faculty — were based in the city. While most undergraduates occupy on-campus housing, graduate students and other employees in Harvard’s ecosystem buy and rent in Cambridge. And mounting housing demand — in a city with no rent control, and zoning laws strangling efforts to increase supply — has made prices rocket.
Federal housing vouchers only cover up to a set amount of rent. To afford market rent with a voucher, essentially "you've gotta find someone in the Cambridge, Somerville, Boston area who wants to take a fixed amount of money when they could probably get more money by making the apartment available to a couple of college students, right, or a software engineer," Stewart, who assists guests with vouchers, says.
This is the hot market Cambridge’s poor, disabled, and low-wage workers lose out in.
Zondervan talks me through a typical scenario: “Market rent is $3,000, but the voucher only covers up to $2,000.”
Most of Cambridge’s unhoused, unable to cover the difference, can then only use their vouchers at housing units managed by the Cambridge Housing Authority, which have fixed, affordable housing. This housing is incredibly scarce. “So a lot of times these voucher holders end up being excluded from the market,” Zondervan says.
As they spend years on a public housing wait list, they’re effectively excluded from housing entirely.
Harvard has acknowledged its role in Cambridge’s housing crisis. It’s 20/20/2000 initiative committed $20 million from 2000 to 2020 to establish low-interest loans for affordable housing units (which, “for reference’s sake,” Zondervan says, “would buy you, maybe, 40 units of housing today.”) Since that program elapsed, HSHS and Y2Y, two student-run programs, have been Harvard’s most consistent effort to offset the housing crisis.
Harvard gave $250,000 in 2020 to help turn a high school into an emergency shelter after Covid forced Cambridge shelters to close and shrink capacity. The city certainly needs not only more, but better shelters — non-congregate, safe, and with low barriers to entry. But a renewed investment in creating affordable housing is required if Harvard truly wants to invest in Cambridge, the city it’s been molding since 1637. With help from the world’s richest university, the day could come when Cambridge shelters don’t have to lottery off beds. I can’t think of a better cause to put the University’s surprise $283 million budget surplus towards.
H. Orlando Patterson, a sociology professor, coined the term social death to refer to “the condition of people not accepted as fully human by wider society” – those whose suffering we pretend not to see. But as good as we’ve gotten at diverting our eyes, we all see this crisis; in the reflective blankets that cover those who sleep under the awning that dresses the Coop, in the woman who spends her nights by the Canaday heating vent.
The Cambridge police headquarters opened its lobby as an emergency shelter for the unhoused during the blizzard according to Zondervan; an inherent acknowledgement of the city's insufficient shelter, and of our responsibility to help the most vulnerable. “When there’s a storm or a pandemic, everybody agrees that that’s true,” Zondervan says.
But when the storm passes, we forget.
Hana M. Kiros ’22, a former Crimson Editorial Chair, is an Integrative Biology Concentrator in Pforzheimer House. Her column, “Harvard Everywhere,” runs on alternating Mondays.
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