A Harvard student unsuccessfully applies for a Rhodes scholarship. He is a student volunteer at the Harvard Square Homeless Shelter, the only student-run homeless shelter in the country. During his shift, the student is noticeably upset about his rejection. As he interacts with one of Shelter’s many guests, his experience becomes a symbol of the unique symbiosis that exists between student volunteers and Shelter guests.
“What’s going on?” inquires one of the men at the shelter when he notices the young man’s troubled expression. After the student shares his thoughts, the man explains that lives are big ongoing projects and encourages him to move forward. Reflecting on this conversation later, the student acknowledged, “Here I am complaining about this scholarship, and I’m being consoled by a man who has so many significant struggles.”
Scott Seider is an assistant professor of education at Boston University, a former Harvard student, and past Shelter volunteer. He is the author of Shelter: Where Harvard Meets the Homeless (New York, NY: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2010), a book that examines the compelling relationships between Harvard students and the people experiencing homelessness who are guests at the shelter.
Based on 73 interviews, he describes how Harvard students are in a position to share the humanity of homelessness with the world. He relates much of this to the relationship between socio-economic status and politics. He poses this question: “How can we educate people in the top and middle economic brackets about the challenges of poverty and homelessness?” At Shelter, there are more than 100 Harvard volunteers. Many of these students transition to positions of authority. Currently, the Acting Solicitor General is a former Shelter volunteer, as are other Cabinet-level members. One former student volunteer states, “Homelessness is not a noun. There is no such thing as a homeless person. It means that you are a person without a home right now.”
In Scott’s view, the students bring enthusiasm, “Students are not patient…they are thirsting for conversations. This adds to the uniqueness of the interactions. I am not saying that enthusiasm can address post-traumatic stress disorder; it is not a cure, and professionals are needed, but it is a different kind of conversation.”
Within the Shelter community, people whose paths would normally never cross build relationships. There is an exchange of conversation, learning, and compassion—from late at night to early in the morning—over games of chess, meals, or life-changing conversations. One man spoke about how his defining moment in a lengthy climb out of homelessness was teaching a young Harvard student to play chess. He taught her how to play and later—with his permission—she wrote a paper about the experience. He explained that reading her paper about their chess games was a pivotal moment for him.
Another example is a woman in Harvard Square who had refused shelter from Cambridge service providers for more than 30 years. Over time, the Shelter youth built a relationship with her. On New Years Eve of 2008, it was bitterly cold. Service providers warned students not to get their hopes up. But, when the street youth team went out for the twentieth time, she finally agreed to come in from the cold.
How do students and guests make Shelter work on a practical level? Shelter is located in the basement of a church from November to April. It is open seven nights a week for the duration of winter. There are 100 student volunteers who divide fundraising, volunteer, and administrative tasks. The group meets weekly to address new challenges. The shelter can accommodate 30 people per night. Guests can stay for 14 nights in a row, but then must leave for seven before returning. Much of Shelter’s food comes directly from the Harvard dining halls, and students deliver it with shopping carts.
Scott concludes, “As Housing First gains momentum there will be a diminishment of the current shelter model, but there will always be a need for short term housing and that is what the Harvard students do best. They provide short-term care for people who are in transition. They fit into the current scene and have a critical role in connecting on a human level. Everyone likes to talk to a college student as they are easy to talk to and invigorating.”
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