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Ending Unsheltered Homelessness in Harvard Square


As the temperature hovered in single digits two weeks ago, Harvard students and most Cantabrigians huddled in heated rooms under layers of wool. Any excitement over the kick-off of a new semester remained smothered within the safety of warm dormitories. Unfortunately, the freezing streets weren't completely devoid of life, as some Cambridge residents remained outside braving the cold.

Homelessness has long been a severe and persistent problem in Harvard Square. In recent years, there have been significant, commendable strides taken to confront this issue. The city of Cambridge has undertaken measures to help the homeless population obtain subsidized housing and the public restroom installed in 2016 offers great relief for the homeless population.

Volunteers, including many Harvard students, however, are really leading the charge in confronting homelessness in Harvard Square. Harvard Square Homeless Shelter and Y2Y Harvard Square, the only two shelters in the Square, are both affiliates of Phillips Brooks House Association and staffed mainly by Harvard students. These shelters and the volunteers that run them provide essential services to the most vulnerable members of our community.

Both of these shelters operate at full capacity and must use a lottery system, turning away many seeking a night of warmth. HSHS offers 24 two-week beds and five additional emergency one-night beds. They receive as many as 12 callers per two-week bed lottery and rarely have more than one or two beds to give away. These shelters do not have space, funds, or staff to deal with the endless flow of homeless patrons.


According to a recent study, unsheltered homeless people living in the Boston streets had a death rate nearly three times higher than those living in shelters. Thus, the ten or more callers that don’t receive beds in the lotteries face serious, and potentially fatal, consequences.

On Jan. 31, temperatures dropped to three degrees overnight with a windchill of 15 below. A U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development count conducted the same night, found there were 561 homeless residents in Cambridge: 142 individuals in transitional housing, 340 in emergency shelters, and 79 unsheltered in the streets. It is a moral imperative on all of us, Cambridge residents, to provide a roof over these 79 heads on below freezing nights.

As the city of Cambridge and Harvard students struggle to help the homeless, one party is conspicuously absent — the University. Though the University has taken certain measures to alleviate homeless suffering in the Square such as donating leftovers from Harvard University Dining Services dining rooms to pantries and shelters, they can and should allocate more resources to confront the homelessness crisis plaguing its community.

One might argue that the University does not have an obligation to homeless residents in the Square. After all, aren’t these citizens the responsibility of the city?

Yet, there are several reasons that the University has a duty to the vulnerable individuals that live in the streets around its campus. First, Harvard is partly responsible for the rising rent prices plaguing Cambridge. Since the leading cause of homelessness is the lack of affordable housing, the University is partially at fault for the scale of homelessness in Cambridge and, as a result, should help mitigate its effects.

Second, there is another much more fundamental reason that the University should do more for its homeless neighbors. Harvard’s demonstrated ambivalence toward homeless Cantabrigians constitutes a failure on behalf of the University to “practice what they preach.” The University offers public policy courses where students learn how to build a better society as people in our very own community are cold, hungry, and neglected. In Philosophy 12: “Ethics of a Human Life,” students ponder the dignity and value of human life in the warmth of Emerson Hall as the homeless freeze to death locked outside. The Harvard Kennedy School Government Performance Lab has even started many projects around the country to combat homelessness without any measures to specifically help the homeless closer to home. Yet, the persistent homelessness in Harvard Square reveals that the ideas and values that are the lifeblood of the University are confined to these classrooms.

The University should work to expand emergency shelter and transitional housing projects to prevent future unnecessary deaths. The University is both one of the largest landowners in all of the Boston area and has the largest endowment of any university with $39.2 billion; it has adequate resources to open up more shelters and hire staff if there are not enough volunteers. At the very least, it can contribute financial support to existing shelters. Currently, both shelters rely on grants and donations, and they receive no funding from the University itself.

Shelters are by no means a viable long-term solution to homelessness. There is no one-size-fits-all solution to a problem as complex as homelessness; however, Harvard can allocate funds and space to improve the current situation in numerous ways. The University should increase mental health and substance abuse counseling to lower the hurdles preventing the 227 homeless Cantabrigians suffering from substance use disorders and the 99 homeless Cantabrigians suffering from serious mental illnesses as of Jan. 31 from holding down a job and securing housing.

The University can also offer subsidized housing in numerous Harvard-owned apartment buildings in the Square and around the city. For the most part, housing-first approaches that grant homeless people restriction-free transitional housing have proven to be cheaper and more effective in the long-run than the conventional work-first approach that requires homeless people to break addictions and secure jobs before housing is allotted. As a result, providing additional transitional housing may be the most effective approach to the ongoing crisis.

Harvard can and must implement policies that will assist our neglected neighbors. With the resources at its disposal, the administration is in a unique position to become a model for ending homelessness throughout the nation.

Jonathan L. Katzman ’22, a Crimson Editorial editor, lives in Hurlbut Hall.


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