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Homeless at Harvard An Insightful Experiment

<i>Homeless at Harvard</i> An Insightful Experiment

Author: John Christopher Frame
Title: Homeless at Harvard
Publisher: Zondervan

It’s curious to think that just beyond the perfectly manicured lawns and the well-kept historic brick buildings of one of the country’s most prestigious Ivy League schools, Harvard University, lies a thriving down-on-your-luck homeless community who calls Harvard Square home.

Studying for a master’s at Harvard Divinity School, student John Frame got his first taste of this oft-forgotten community when he volunteered at the Harvard Square Homeless Shelter. He decided to turn his volunteer efforts into a long-term experiment in immersion journalism. For 10 weeks, Frame lived on the streets of Harvard Square, getting a first-hand look at what it’s like to not have a roof overhead or a bed to sleep in at night.

On the streets, Frame meets a colorful cast of characters who serve as the protagonists in Homeless at Harvard. Through the eyes of homeless men like Neal, Dane, George and Chubby John, whose first-person accounts are sprinkled throughout the novel, readers will surprisingly see bits of their own stories mirrored in their narratives. Frame’s new friends teach him the fundamentals of how to survive in Harvard Square: how to panhandle, or “stem” as the professionals call it; where to stash collected belongings; and the best places to sleep. More than that, they share their stories, often wrought with equal parts pain and hope, on benches in front of the CVS Pharmacy, a popular gathering place. Throughout his stint on the streets of Boston, Frame’s perceptions of the homeless are completely shattered. He discovers the people outside Harvard’s gates aren’t that much different from the people insideHarvard’s gates.

Rather than judging these misfits for their circumstances, Frame takes time to get to know them personally. He makes the point that if we reallylisten, we will always end up seeing people in a different, more compassionate light.

Ironically, Frame muses that by the end of his 10 weeks, he feels he, personally, has done little to help his newfound friends. However, it’s obvious Frame gives more than he realizes simply by being a faithful listener. Instead, he professes to be the fortunate one, for all of the life lessons his homeless friends teach. Indeed, the short book is filled with nuggets of poignant wisdom gleamed from the lives and observations of the homeless.

Frame admits even after spending 10 weeks sleeping outside in the unforgiving elements, he didn’t trulyexperience homelessness simply because he wasn’t homeless. He still kept a locker at Harvard where he stashed his few belongings. His income wasn’t dependent on stemming, and he could still spend some time indoors attending his weekly classes as an enrolled student. All things considered, Frame is too hard on himself. He did what most of us would never do—bravely enter a world completely outside our comfort zones and give people a chance.

Frame’s friendships outlast his experiment. Several of his homeless friends attend his graduation, and he keeps up with the whereabouts of others who end up finding permanent or semi-permanent homes after he leaves the Square.

Although his writing is a myriad of mismatched stories that don’t always flow in chronological order, the pieces fit together like a patchwork quilt by the end. More than anything, Homeless at Harvard is a look at the human condition. It will tug at heartstrings and cause readers to reevaluate how they view the outcasts of society.Like Frame, readers will have a new respect for the homeless community by the last page of the relatively quick read, at a short 208 pages. Frame helps readers understand that the homeless of Harvard are, like us, broken and in need of redemption.

*This Review First Published 8/14/2013