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Harvard and Homelessness

Harvard and Homelessness
August 27, 2010

Every year, some Harvard University students -- between classes and other activities -- begin to notice the constant presence of homeless people in Harvard Square. And some wonder how they, privileged students at the world's wealthiest university, can help. Many of them come across the Harvard Square Homeless Shelter, and there they stay, sucked in, enthusiastic, and eager.

Shelter: Where Harvard Meets the Homeless, to be released in September by Continuum Books, examines the history and the workings of the shelter, and the lives of the homeless who stay there and the students who run it. According to Scott Seider, the author of the book and a professor of education at Boston University, it’s the only completely student-run homeless shelter in the country.

Seider graduated from Harvard 11 years ago, where he volunteered at the shelter and ascended the ranks to become a supervisor and director. “Passing these men and women on my way to this beautiful dining hall with as much food as I could eat was really jarring for me as a young adult,” Seider said of his motivation to start volunteering.

The shelter -- which is an independent nonprofit organization -- is ruled by committee with 14 student directors at the top each year, 14 student supervisors, and a corps of about 100 student volunteers. Every night of the week from November to April, two directors oversee the shelter’s operations. Students work in three shifts from 7 p.m. to 8:30 a.m. serving hot dinner and breakfast (leftovers from the Harvard dining halls and donations from local restaurants) and providing two-week bed space for 24 men and women – referred to as “guests” -- based on a lottery system. The directors also take on additional roles such as fund-raising, scheduling, stocking supplies, or helping the homeless find work or permanent housing. Though the shelter opened 25 years ago under the auspices of a Lutheran church (and is still based in its basement), it quickly became entirely student-operated.

Seider interviewed about 73 people for the book throughout the past year, including student volunteers and directors, alumni, and homeless men and women who either currently were staying or had stayed at the shelter in the past. He said he wrote the book because he was particularly interested in the impact that community service has on the development of young adults, and particularly those who not only volunteer, but run the whole show.

“Both types of students gain enormously from the experience,” Seider said. “For [the volunteers] I think the experience put a face on homelessness… but the students who are really managing the shelter, they get to see the way the lack of affordable housing makes it very, very difficult to allow someone to climb out of homelessness – they get to see the structural barriers.”

Shelter is littered with references to developmental psychologist Erik Erikson and the particular attributes of “emerging adulthood” that make students particularly well-equipped to excel at these kinds of responsibilities. Seider lists qualities such as young adults’ optimism, focus, willingness to listen to people’s stories, and motivation to do something good for the world. One of the defining characteristics of this particular shelter is the powerful relationship the students build with some of the homeless who stay there; students are eager to listen to the stories of people older and more experienced than they are, and they lack the jadedness that may come from professionals who have spent years working at such shelters.

“The students are young, they’re idealistic, they believe that there are changes that can be made – whether it’s changes in people’s personal lives or changes in the system as a whole,” Macy DeLong, a formerly homeless woman who was interviewed for Shelter, said in an interview. Though DeLong refused to stay at the Harvard Square Homeless Shelter because of a bad experience at a different shelter, she lived outside of it and took food from the student volunteers. “Most shelters are there to take care of the people who are staying inside the shelter… but they were doing everything that they could to help people wherever they were at,” she said. DeLong is the founder of Solutions at Work, a nonprofit near Harvard that helps people transition out of homelessness.

The book is split into three thematic sections, one each on how the shelter is good for the homeless, for society, and for students. Not only is it a literal shelter for those who need it, but it also becomes a type of shelter for the volunteers, granting them a respite from academic and social pressures and a familiar place outside of the “Harvard bubble,” Seider writes. It also enables them to break out of their perhaps-sheltered lives: many of Seider’s interviewees said they had never witnessed homelessness in their own cities, or never considered homeless people as individuals before beginning to work with them.

Junior Katie Dahlinghaus, who will be a shelter director this year and appeared in the book under a pseudonym (as did all the people Seider interviewed), grew up in a small Ohio town where, she says, there is no homelessness. “Going into it I never understood the idea that it doesn’t always work out for you no matter how hard you work,” she said in an interview.

But the shelter lets the students who work there form new opinions about the world as well as new passions. Nearly all the students Seider talked to in the book expressed an incredible enthusiasm for working there, often at the cost of sleep, schoolwork, and other extracurricular activities, and many of them take their experiences with them when they graduate.

Senior Jonathan Warsh, who was also interviewed for the book, said he started volunteering for overnight shifts his first semester of freshman year, eventually letting debate – his passion carried over from high school -- fall by the wayside. He is about to start his second year as the shelter’s administrative director, and foresees homelessness figuring into his future career.

“I’ll probably go into law or medicine,” Warsh said in an interview. “In either of those careers, some pro bono part of my law practice or some volunteer time of my medical career will be dedicated to homelessness.”

But working at the shelter is also a bit of a double-edged sword for both the students and the guests. Sometimes the homeless are wary of being catered to by wealthy young adults, and sometimes the students must deal with challenges beyond what they would normally encounter. Seider describes episodes where students have had to break up fights, deny people beds because they are drunk or on drugs (the Harvard Square shelter is a dry shelter), or comfort people confiding in them about difficult issues, such as having HIV/AIDS.

“In some cases you have an 18-year-old girl who’s 5’2” and weighs 105 pounds handing out a little warning slip to a man who is 50 or 60 years older, and that creates a very challenging dynamic,” Warsh said.

Dahlinghaus said one of the biggest challenges for her is remembering that although the shelter is a nice place to be, when the guests leave every morning they face a harsh reality.

The Harvard Square Homeless Shelter has evolved over the past 25 years, and is always hoping to expand its services. Most recently the students developed a “Street Team,” which goes out into the Square and hands out food and blankets to the homeless who are not staying at the shelter, and occasionally encourages people to put their name in for a bed. Warsh says an upcoming priority will be to try providing more nutritious meals.

One of the ultimate goals, however, is to encourage students at other universities to establish similar programs. The Harvard shelter has received some attention from students at the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Florida. Though the degree to which students must be willing to commit is high – potentially sacrificing grades, staying up all night, or working through the winter holidays – Seider says he hopes the book will prove to be an inspiration.

“It’s not a manual for how to run a shelter by any means, but I do hope that it sort of lays out a template,” he said. “In a perfect world, I kind of have this idea of a university community sitting down together and saying, ‘Hey, this is something we could do in our own city.’”

Seider will donate all royalties from Shelter to the Harvard Square Homeless Shelter.

 

 

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