Issac Bailey | Homeless at Harvard

July 5, 2014 

My kids were more fascinated with the homeless in Harvard Square than just about anything else we experienced this past year.

They were able to quiz one of the world’s top astrophysicists – a man who is leading the hunt to find other planets that could support life – but my kids talked more about a man we simply called “Spare Change.”

Almost every day, the man stood in front of a small market just down from our apartment building.

“Spaaare change. Can you help me out?” he would sing while shaking a small can as people walked by.

Almost every time we walked by him, my kids, especially my 12-year-old son Kyle, would urge me to give him money.

“Why don’t you help him?” he asked.

I never had a good answer, even though I would occasionally help a few of the homeless people we encountered (sometimes in front of the kids, sometimes not), though I passed each of them by many more times than I stopped.

I can’t tell you why I occasionally stopped to engage them, only that I try to listen to that small, still voice inside. When it speaks, I try to act.

Neither can I tell you why I hear it some days but not on most. Maybe it’s God speaking to me, as I always imagine. Or maybe it’s just guilt or a perverse vanity. Or maybe on those days the homeless have successfully manipulated my emotions.

It could be any or all of that, but I’m still most comfortable with the first explanation, that it is the God of my understanding, particularly knowing that some of the most important passages in the Bible command us to provide for the least of these.

That’s the odd thing, the hard-to-miss presence of the least of these in a place known for producing people who develop solutions to Earth’s most vexing problems. That’s not an indictment of Harvard, just a realization that even in what seem like the best of circumstances – a high-profile university in one of the country’s wealthiest cities – they too are stumped by issues that have challenged Grand Strand officials since before I became a reporter.

Harvard University has the largest school endowment in the world and either employs or attracts many of the globe’s foremost experts. There isn’t a country that hasn’t been touched by innovations to uplift the downtrodden either created or honed at Harvard.

And yet, there is the constant presence of Spare Change in the shadow of the school. And a white man with sun-burned skin and a golf ball-sized tumor protruding from his right cheek who slept on the sidewalk in front of the post office – sometimes during a winter that was harsh and long even by New England standards.

There are young men. There older men holding up signs saying they are homeless war veterans.

There’s the one-legged man in a wheelchair and another with deformed legs. There is the young girl pregnant girl, sitting near the entrance to Tasty Burger.

There’s the black woman, about my mother’s age, who quietly watches as you walk into the store but becomes more demanding for assistance when you walk out.

There’s the young white dude who holds up a cardboard sign asking for “human kindness” and another saying he’s willing to work.

There are others, some jovial, some desperate, some who hawk the Spare Change News.

There’s the young lady on the bench in front of the CVS. I spoke to her a few times but have forgotten her name. But I didn’t forget her telling me a friend who had been living on the streets with her overdosed on drugs, which is why she constructed a make-shift memorial right there, in front of CVS.

There’s Justin Newton, who told me he has been homeless for three years. Not too long ago, he began making trinkets out of wire and rock that may not be as valuable as the quarter I saw a man give Newton. Making the trinkets gives him a sense of pride and he feels better about begging for money, he said.

He blends in with all manner of street performers and artists who make the area more enjoyable, make it come to life with music and magic tricks. Some seem just as lost as Newton, some simply want to perform, some do it to earn extra spending money, like a pair of teenagers who play the violin and attract the dollars of countless passersby.

All year, as my kids pestered me with questions about the homeless we’d encountered, I tried to make sense of it all, as did they. When they got spending money, they sometimes rushed to give some of it to Spare Change. I’d ask them why they were giving, and their answers were about as good (or bad) as the ones I’d been giving them.

“Because you’re supposed to help,” they said.

Then one day they saw one of the men who had been panhandling near the market drive off on a motorcycle.

They were disappointed. I wasn’t. It was another lesson.

Our job is to simply do what’s right. The rest, as T.S. Eliot said long ago, is not up to us.

Contact columnist Issac Bailey at and follow him @TSN_IssacBailey.

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