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Harvard’s Homelessness Dilemma

And what Harvard can do about it

By Aaron J. Miller

Harvard Square has a homelessness problem.

On the benches of Widener Gate, along Mass. Ave.’s storefronts, and at the T’s main entrance. There are the same recognizable faces, like the goateed man always in front of Qdoba or the woman with the brutally honest “Need Money for Weed” sign. It’s easy to grow desensitized but near impossible to completely tune out, each walk through the Square raising the to-give-or-not-to-give question.

In 2015, Cambridge counted 464 homeless citywide, the largest concentration of which was centered in Harvard Square. The homeless population isn’t violent or drug-ridden. But for decades, homelessness in the Square has been an asterisk marking an otherwise upscale Cambridge and an otherwise picturesque Harvard campus.

The question: Why hasn’t Harvard done anything about it? Turns out it’s complicated.

In Cambridge, street homelessness isn’t criminalized. The city’s homeless can freely roam the streets at all hours, and police only get involved if there’s trouble.

On top of that, the city’s approach has largely focused on preserving the status quo. I spoke this week with Ellen Semonoff from the city’s department of human services, who emphasized that “the Square has been fairly welcoming to individuals.” The Harvard Square Business Association, she noted, offered free eye exams and glasses to homeless one day last year, and the local faith community has been working on getting a public toilet in the Square.

Harvard has followed the city’s lead. The University helps fund initiatives like the Harvard Square Homeless Shelter and donates many of its dining hall leftovers to nearby shelters and food pantries.

However, Harvard has never taken a determined approach to actually solving the issue.

Perhaps administrators see homelessness as the city’s problem to deal with. Perhaps Harvard fears the media portraying an all-too-powerful institution pushing innocent homeless out of the city. Perhaps the university simply sees the Square’s homelessness as too daunting of an issue to tackle.

The reality, however, is that Harvard could put its $36 billion endowment to work pretty effectively.

Harvard could allocate more funding to the Square’s three homeless shelters and help develop the necessary programs to get homeless individuals on their feet. The University now supplies just around five percent of the Harvard Square Homeless Shelter’s budget and does not provide financial support to other initiatives like the Y2Y Youth Shelter for homeless young adults.

Harvard could also help in terms of housing. Property is by no secret expensive in Cambridge, and Samuel G. Greenberg ’15, a co-founder of the Y2Y Shelter, thus explained, “the most common cause of homelessness [in the Square] is simply not having a home.”

The University, which is rumored to own one third of private property in Cambridge, could offer at least temporarily subsidized apartment rentals in conjunction with shelters programs to help homeless get on their feet.

It’s hard to argue that Harvard should take a drastically different approach to the issue. The status quo has a way of keeping its wheels turning. But the fact is that homelessness in Harvard Square is a serious concern—for the university and the city, and most importantly, the homeless themselves. Whether out of selfish or humanitarian motives, Harvard can do more.

Aaron J. Miller ’18, a Crimson editorial writer, lives in Currier House. His column runs on alternate Thursdays.

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