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Homeless in Harvard Square

The Harvard Square homeless deserve a closer look

By Heather L. Pickerell

They are everywhere. They brush past you as you cross the road into the Yard on the way to class in the morning. They accost you as you duck into Starbucks for a quick coffee. Not a day goes by at Harvard without coming in contact in some way with one of the many transient residents of Harvard Square—our beloved homeless. But should the occupiers of Harvard Square be dismissed so easily, or should we be more sympathetic towards them? It is safe to say that there is a general consensus that the homeless are an integral, albeit exasperating, feature of the Square. But coming in contact with the homeless so often has desensitized students, who often ignore the significant problems associated with homelessness in the Boston area.

In December 2010, Antonio Depina, a homeless man, was arrested for exposing himself in public and urinating in front of several strangers, including one young child, in Harvard Square. For many of us, hearing stories like this is the rule, not the exception. We have all laughed at the man holding the “$ for beer plz” sign. Surely many of us have considered posing for a photo with the cutlass-wielding pirate positioned by the MBTA station. Some of us have even paid the homeless to duck into liquor stores during freshman year.

But the homeless should not be characterized as a mere comical feature of the Square’s landscape. Rather, they should be understood as a manifestation of the problem of homelessness in the United States, including in the Boston area. In December 2011, there were 346 homeless individuals in Cambridge alone. Given the country’s current economic predicament, this problem will mostly likely continue to worsen.

Many students arrive at Harvard having had no contact with the homeless before setting foot in Cambridge. Merely walking through the Square has introduced hundreds of relatively sheltered students to a serious social problem that remains surprisingly prevalent in the developed world.

In fact, many of the “homeless” are not homeless at all. Some of them are street performers who come to Harvard Square to find recognition for their work within Cambridge’s vibrant college atmosphere. Dancers, musicians, and artists alike inject a fresh dose of culture into the Square’s Pit, which would otherwise be a mundane, empty space.

But students sometimes forget to differentiate between the homeless and the performers and simply lump all the people in the Square into one category—annoying, smelly hobos. Thus, performers do not often receive the attention they deserve for their artistic work. Several performers I spoke to expressed indignation over their treatment at the hands of students, who often act condescendingly towards them. They also suspected that students considered them homeless. A friend of mine recently gave a seemingly homeless man a loaf of bread, only to find out that the man on the receiving end was not homeless after all—he simply had a poor taste in clothing.

It is easy to scoff at the excuses that some homeless use to wring some money out of you. However, there may be more to their claims than most of us give them credit for. According to the City of Boston Homeless Census, 85 percent of both temporarily and chronically homeless people in the city suffer from a mental illness, a disabling condition, substance abuse, or a physical disability, all of which require support and attention from society, not isolation and dismissal. Next time you pass by a man carrying a “Gulf War veteran” sign, think twice about laughing at his attire or odor, as 36 percent of homeless veterans are chronically homeless. It is also worth remembering how dangerous are conditions for the homeless as we enter the colder months of the year.

I personally have not given so much as a penny or a glance to any of the homeless in the Square, a habit I picked up back home, where beggars were often stooges for triads, the local mafia in Hong Kong. Although I occasionally feel guilty shrugging off the outstretched hands with the excuse that I have no change in hand, I know that I am not alone in my parsimony or dismissal. Perhaps it is time for that to change.

Heather L. Pickerell ’15, a Crimson editorial writer, lives in Mather House. Her column appears on alternate Thursdays.

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