Homeless at Harvard: Finding Faith and Friendship on the Streets of Harvard Squareby John Christopher Frame
While taking his final course at Harvard, John Frame stepped outside the walls of academia and onto the streets, pursuing a different kind of education with his homeless friends. Combining the author’s story with the stories of those who’ve been on the streets, Homeless at Harvard tells an unforgettable story of life together on the streets of Harvard… See more details below
While taking his final course at Harvard, John Frame stepped outside the walls of academia and onto the streets, pursuing a different kind of education with his homeless friends. Combining the author’s story with the stories of those who’ve been on the streets, Homeless at Harvard tells an unforgettable story of life together on the streets of Harvard Square.
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Homeless at Harvard
finding faith and friendship on the streets of Harvard Square
By John Christopher Frame
ZONDERVANCopyright © 2013 John Christopher Frame
All rights reserved.
THE CAMP AND THE COOP
Like harmless citizens unalarmed by the officer's presence, we calmly walked in front of the police cruiser, on the opposite side of the road, hoping the officer would ignore us. We walked as though we were out for a late-night stroll, not as though we were on our way to sleep in a nearby patch of woods. When the officer couldn't see us anymore, we crossed the street and successfully entered the pitch-black forest where Chubby John had made his home.
One of our friends had given Chubby John his name that summer, but I always just called him John. People never would have suspected he was homeless, unless they saw him shaking a cup on the sidewalk outside the twenty-four-hour CVS Pharmacy. The first time Chubby John accompanied me to an afternoon tea event on Harvard's campus, he had a conversation with an elderly man there and evaded every question about where he lived. "I sure wasn't gonna tell him I was homeless," he told me. "All the valuable things in that place? They woulda checked my pockets before I left."
From the first time I met Chubby John, he always reminded me of Hal, a fiftysomething man from the town I grew up in. John was younger than Hal, but like him, he always wore blue jeans and a hat and easily made friends with strangers. They were both opinionated and used their hands expressively as they talked, engaging me with their stories, which I could listen to for hours. Hal ate Milk-Bones sometimes and told me once he could poop in his living room with people standing around watching him. Chubby John said he had a plan to end homelessness forever if he could just convince the right elected officials to implement his idea.
I met Chubby John around the time I began volunteering at the Harvard Square Homeless Shelter. A few months after I met him, he did me a huge favor by meeting me at the hospital after I had minor surgery on my little finger. I felt a little humiliated when Chubby John saw me in the hospital bed. My blankets and hospital gown covered me, but I was still embarrassed, knowing that underneath the gown I was stark naked, as white as the sheets on the bed. My hand was bandaged with a dressing that looked like a boxing glove, as if I had been wounded in a fight.
A one-hour surgery on my finger didn't seem to warrant having to be escorted out of the hospital. Most guys would have asked their girlfriend or parents to pick them up. I didn't have a girlfriend, and my parents lived more than eight hundred miles away. So I asked Chubby John.
Chubby John had been homeless for three or four years, and ever since I'd known him, he'd been living in the woods or the Harvard Square Homeless Shelter in the basement of Harvard Square's University Lutheran Church. Chubby John had always seen me as a volunteer, as a student, and as someone who sometimes hung out on the sidewalk to chat. Now he was seeing me in a vulnerable situation, and he was my ticket to getting released. We walked out of the hospital into the cold February wind, and because Chubby John didn't have a car, we boarded the subway back to Harvard Square.
As we walked to his camp a few months later, Chubby John wasn't just someone I hung out with in my free time; he was my mentor. John had invited me to stay in one of his extra tents at his secret campsite after I expressed interest in spending the summer with the homeless.
John oriented me to the area, like a manager instructing a new employee. We had taken the subway pretty far south of Harvard Square to the South Shore, a few miles south of Boston. I mentally took notes so I could find my way to the campsite.
Walk through the Stop & Shop parking lot, toward the medical clinic. Walk through the bank's parking lot; turn right at the corner. Walk ten minutes past the Catholic church, and turn right at the high school.
As we walked, spotting the police cruiser parked about a hundred yards from where we needed to enter the woods, Chubby John told me, "The cops around here hate homeless people. You sure don't want to run into cops down here."
On Harvard's campus, the police were always friendly, but I had never taken the subway quite this far south. Apparently I had a lot to learn.
"If the police ever stop you, just give 'em your ID. Don't offer 'em any information," Chubby John warned me a couple of days later. "Only answer the questions they ask you. If they ask you where you're going, say 'up the street.' If they ask you where you live, say 'wherever I lay my head.' "
Even after hearing horror stories from Chubby John about the police, though, I didn't feel worried. I imagined that for me, an encounter with the police would involve showing the officer my Harvard ID and probably receiving a strange look and a "good day." To Chubby John, even thinking about the police may have reminded him of hiding while the police wandered through the woods with their German shepherd.
Once we reached the woods, I followed Chubby John down a winding path through large shrubs, weeds, and trees. For him, walking through the woods at midnight with only the light from the moon was something he did each night. I had to use the tiny built-in flashlight on my prepaid cell phone so I wouldn't stumble or get poked in the eye by a tree limb.
"The other night," Chubby John said quietly, "I was walkin' through here and some crazy animal came out tryin' to attack me." Reenacting the event with his shoulder bag, he said, "I took my bag and went wham and scared it away. I think it was a crazy coon or somethin'." Chubby John was always animated when he spoke. He had a Boston accent, and he talked something like the guys in the movie Good Will Hunting. And when he spoke, he almost never said "um" or "uh." It was like a special gift he had.
It took us only about one minute to walk down the path to the campsite. "Jim's sleeping over there," Chubby John said, pointing his flashlight toward a two-man tent that housed his friend. "And that one is yours," he said, pointing to a larger tent tucked into the brush and trees that was covered with a tarp weighed down by pools of water.
We stood in the middle of the camp — the "living room" — next to a pile of empty beer cans and three green fabric lawn chairs that Chubby John had found abandoned in Harvard Square. We talked in the dark of the night as if we were still on the sidewalk in front of the CVS Pharmacy in the middle of the afternoon.
"I want to get one of those screen tents and a grill and set it right here so I can cook out and not get wet or eaten up by mosquitoes," he said, motioning with his hands how and where he dreamed about developing the site. Some clothes hung over low tree limbs, soaked from the rain, with little possibility of drying out in the cold, wet June weather.
The woods were bordered by a paved road, a large field, and a salt marsh that receded with the daily ocean tides. On the other side of the marsh was a subdivision; its inhabitants were oblivious to our existence, as were the people who played sports on the field and drove by on the road. John was proud of finding this patch of woods.
I didn't enjoy being away from running water and a clean bed, but I was extremely grateful to John for the tent he had ready for me. Although I was mentally prepared to begin my summer among the homeless, I was not ready for a cold night in the woods. Actually, I was dreading it. I had left my sleeping bag, blanket, and sweatshirt in the divinity school library, unaware that it would close before my class ended that evening. I had on a button-down dress shirt and jeans — not exactly what you'd want to wear into the forest on a cold, rainy night.
"I've got an extra sleeping bag in my tent," Chubby John said. "I've never used it. Somebody gave it to me, and I've kept it just in case somebody needed it." I couldn't pass up his offer. Anything would be better than spending the night in a cold, wet tent without a sleeping bag in clothes that I didn't want to get dirty.
Chubby John crawled into his tent, and I peeked for the first time into the place he considered home. Though I knew he slept in the woods, I had no idea what this part of his life was really like. He used a reclining lawn chair topped with a warm sleeping bag as his bed. "See, I've got my radio and everything in here," he said as he reached for the extra sleeping bag, which was neatly rolled up.
I took the sleeping bag and wiggled my way past a few shrub twigs to the tent. I used the flashlight on my cell phone to look inside before crawling in, and noticed a large puddle of water just inside the door.
I untied the sleeping bag, which released an odor that apparently had been marinating for quite some time. As I laid the sleeping bag diagonally across the middle of the wet floor, I felt as though my hands were becoming dirty. I laid down on top of it, but there was no way I could bring myself to unzip it and crawl inside. I could feel a tree stump poking into my back and the ground sloping both sideways and down.
The temperature outside was dipping into the fifties, and it felt like my body temperature was not far behind. Taking my arms out of the sleeves of my T-shirt, I tucked them near my chest and used my long-sleeve shirt as a blanket and cover for my head. I looked like a guy strapped in a straitjacket who had just died. I took deep breaths, blowing into my shirt like a cold dragon, trying to keep warm. Each exhalation gave me about three seconds of reprieve, but no matter what I did, I was cold.
I'm going to have to get inside the sleeping bag, I thought in desperation. I hoped the inside of it wouldn't smell as bad as I'd imagined it might.
I unzipped the bag and sniffed inside. It was like sticking my nose into a pile of dirty laundry. I zipped the bag back up. I'll just be cold, I resolved.
I had thought a lot about being in the woods with Chubby John. I had envisioned a dry tent, but rainwater had made the entire floor wet. I had envisioned warm weather, but now I was fighting goose bumps. I had envisioned being happy as I nestled into my tent, but now I was discontent, like a vacationer who'd envisioned a trip to Maui but wound up in northern Siberia. And although we were tucked away in the woods, I knew that anybody or anything could come through the camp at any time.
I woke up the next morning to the voices of Chubby John and Jim, who were sitting in lawn chairs in their "living room," smoking cigarettes and drinking beer. I unzipped the tent, inconspicuously relieved myself in the woods, and emerged from the cavelike bushes.
"John, this is Jim," Chubby John said.
We shook hands and exchanged pleasantries. Jim was a burly man about fifty years old who had been homeless for twenty-five years; his most distinctive feature was a bushy gray moustache. He had been drinking and seemed in good spirits, even though he had woken in the middle of the night to walk to an agency to try to sign up at 4:30 a.m. for a day-labor job. Lately, though, the prospects of work were so grim that he and the other men looking for day-labor jobs were often turned away.
"How'd ya sleep?" Chubby John asked me.
"Not so well."
"Oh, it takes a couple nights to get used to the sounds of the woods," he assured me. I didn't want to tell John that I had been cold or that I couldn't bear the smell of the inside of the sleeping bag. Neither were his fault.
Jim handed me two strawberry granola bars. "The tent's a lot better than the cement, especially in the winter," he said. After my restless night's sleep, I couldn't imagine sleeping on cement, especially in the freezing cold.
I itched to get back to Harvard Square — the Square, as most of us called it. As we left, John commented, "It's good to have different people peeing in the woods, ya know. It keeps the coyotes away. They think there's a pack around here, and it scares them."
Maybe he was right. I wasn't going to argue. I was just glad that John was happy to have me there.
* * *
When you live on the streets, you eat as cheaply as you can. You take food from strangers who offer it. You go to the free weekly dinners at local churches. You wait in front of the Upper Crust Pizzeria after 11:00 p.m. hoping for leftovers when they close. You take promotional items, like free Vitaminwater, being passed out on sunny days by companies marketing their products in busy Harvard Square, a hub for smart, bourgeois young people. I even filled out surveys and did a little test for psychology students that netted me a piece of candy for my participation. And each week there were street ministries providing food to people on the streets. There was a saying among the homeless community that if you're homeless in Harvard Square and you starve to death, it's your own fault.
Most of the people I knew on the streets, some of whom received benefits from the government, would have gone hungry before eating out of the dumpster. Andy, however, often scavenged in trash bins in hopes of finding scraps of leftovers tossed by patrons of the many yuppie restaurants that filled the Square. We all felt sorry for him. Andy would mumble to himself as he walked around and sometimes waved his hands erratically, as if he were fighting off a ghost only he could see. Most of the time, his facial expression was caught between sadness and pain, as though someone had been scolding him all of his life.
Andy was unlike anyone else in the homeless community; in fact, he wasn't really a part of it. He lived in his own world and didn't talk to anyone. When I said hi to Andy, sometimes he returned the greeting, but often he just ignored me.
Andy slept outside of a storefront where, every night at around nine thirty, he created a lean-to shelter out of a twenty-by-twenty-foot tarp. Then every morning before the store opened at nine, he took his tarp down and locked it in a secret location he had arranged with the shop. This was his daily ritual. It seemed to me that his days consisted of waiting for the store to close at night so he could stretch out the tarp and recreate his living area, a quiet spot just for him that was safe and comfortable.
One morning, Neal, one of my constant companions, and known in the Square for his jovial personality, gave me a carryout box with a pita and hummus concoction that he had received from a stranger the night before. I ate a good part of it — pretty unappetizing fare for breakfast — and carefully set the remainder in a trash bin thinking that Andy would walk over to our block in Harvard Square and find it. Sure enough, Andy wandered over and ate my leftovers for breakfast.
Jared, a thirty-seven-year-old homeless vegan who bought high-end vegetables at Whole Foods with food stamps, closely watched Andy as he picked up the container I had set inside the trash bin. Jared was quick-witted and carried on a nonstop comedy routine. He was like a Harvard Square version of radio personality Howard Stern. Like a school bully always ready to pounce on the class nerd, he spouted, "I hate it when homeless people eat food out of our dumpster. His isn't dirty enough. There's no puke or dirt in his dumpster, so he has to come over to ours. Cause he likes to eat out of the dirtiest trash cans, with puke and mold and crap." Andy acted as though he hadn't heard Jared. Maybe in Andy's world, he hadn't.
Eating out of the trash didn't bother me, per se, for I had enjoyed the benefits of dumpster-diving long before my summer on the streets. You never know what prizes you might find, including unopened boxes of doughnuts, cakes, and other sweet treasures. Success lies in finding the right dumpster, although some of these locations where the dumpsters can be found — dark parking lots and foreboding warehouses — often look like crime scenes straight out of Law & Order.
I was particularly fond of Hostess snack cakes, and I found the perfect location to grab some for me and my friends on the streets. One night, I collected around twenty unopened boxes of snack cakes that would soon be on their way to a landfill. Dumpster-diving wasn't just a late-night free-food frenzy; it was saving food from its unfortunate destiny.
I stashed the doughnuts, Ho Hos, Ding Dongs, chocolate-chip minimuffins, and low-calorie cinnamon-streusel coffee cakes in a garbage bag in the shrubs around the parking lot of the subway station near Chubby John's campsite. The next day, because redemption is always worth celebrating and sharing, and as a way to extend a token of friendship to those on the streets, I distributed some of the goodies among the homeless community, handing out the boxes of treats from the garbage bag as if they were gifts at Christmas.
* * *
After a week in the woods at Chubby John's camp, I decided to begin sleeping in Harvard Square. At fifteen dollars a week, my subway pass to get to the tent in the woods was a cost I didn't wish to bear. And I wanted to begin sleeping in Harvard Square, since that's where I had chosen to be for the summer.
I decided to begin sleeping under the outdoor alcove of the Harvard Coop bookstore, the same place I had stood less than two years before, gazing at the people asleep there. The Coop (pronounced "coop" and not "co-op") was Neal's regular sleeping spot and seemed to me the best place to better acquaint myself with the homeless community. I learned later that only the brave — or the really desperate — slept there.
"No, you ain't gonna sleep in the Coop," George said to me, like a principal instructing a deviant child. "You'll stay with me on the porch of the Red Doors Church, or we can sleep right here," he said, pointing to the Cambridge Common, a large park in town, where we were standing and where other homeless people slept.
Excerpted from Homeless at Harvard by John Christopher Frame. Copyright © 2013 John Christopher Frame. Excerpted by permission of ZONDERVAN.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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