At Home with the Homeless

A student at Harvard gives up the warmth of a bed to live among the homeless.

It’s not always the most obvious of telltale signs—like those made of cardboard—that identify the homeless. Anyone walking past you could be without a home. It becomes clear when night falls and those who live on the streets find shelter wherever they can: in empty doorways, under interstate bridges, or in hidden groves of trees.

While taking his final course at Harvard, divinity student John Christopher Frame made a bold decision: for one summer, he lived among the homeless in Harvard Square, the business district around the university. Frame didn’t just spend daylight hours with these men and women; he slept in the same places they slept and experienced the same struggles they faced. Before, he had spent months interacting with the community, even writing papers for school on homelessness. But Frame decided that wasn’t the same as firsthand experience, and so he joined those whom he had befriended.

Three years after that summer, Frame returned to Harvard Square to interview four men with whom he had become close friends. From these interviews Frame wrote Homeless at Harvard, a recounting of his time with the homeless. Frame spoke with In Touch magazine’s Joseph Miller about these relationships and what he learned from them.

You detail your companionship with four men—Neal, Chubby John, Dane, and George. Can you tell us a little about each one?

George was the first homeless person I met in Harvard Square the day after I moved to the area. He offered to teach me anything I ever wanted to know about homelessness. My learning about homelessness in Harvard Square all started from meeting George.

George has arthritis, and his hands reminded me of my mom’s. He had grown up in Harvard Square and had been living there off and on for a few decades—he’d get a job and have a place to stay for a while, then at some point he’d be back sleeping outside. Sometimes he’d stay with a friend, but the streets, I think, were like his home, even if he didn’t sleep outside every night.

Neal has been living on the streets of America most of his adult life. He has spent many summers hanging around Harvard Square, though he likes to escape the cold winters by moving elsewhere. Neal has a deep understanding of his faith. He also has a very real struggle with alcohol.

Chubby John was homeless for a few years, and we shared some times together before that summer I spent on the streets. When he sensed I was interested in spending the summer with the homeless, he offered me a tent at his secret campsite.

I met Dane, as well, before that summer. He is a philosopher in many ways and his wisdom has been honed by years of reading and thinking. Dane also has a meaningful way of acknowledging his transgressions and reflecting upon them. I think what he has to say in the book stands out because of that.

A portion of the book is allowing these men to speak in their own words. What were these interviews like?

It was good to sit down and reconnect with these guys. They said a lot of great things, opening up about their lives and what life is like on the streets. My hope is that readers will enjoy “listening” to their words. I think they have a lot to say to us.

In a conversation with one homeless woman, you say, “What has bothered me the most is seeing people destroy themselves.” What did you learn about the power of addiction while living on the streets?

I think you have it right—it’s a power. And it compels people to do what they really—down deep—don’t want to do. But what we often do, I think, is point fingers at people who we believe have “real” addictions. We sometimes fail to look at our own. One thing I thought of as a result of seeing the “real” addictions on the streets was that we all have addictions. They may not all destroy us, but they can impact our lives.

At one point, Neal encourages you that God can bring the right woman to marry into your life, which you find a little difficult to believe at the time. A year later you meet her while shopping for a rug in Turkey. What was it like to receive encouragement and advice from your homeless friends?

The people on the streets helped me through times when I needed support; some really seemed to care about me. We sometimes talked for hours. They had advice and ideas that stemmed from their own unique experiences. I wasn’t expecting to be the recipient of so much support. For that, I was really grateful.

You mention the “theology of relational care.” Can you tell me more?

The theology of relational care is a way of understanding how people can relate to those who are marginalized, poor, or outcast from society. I’ve thought about the concept in relation to, particularly, Christians engaging the homeless through intentional interactions. Conversations can be supportive to those on the streets and relationship-building can help bridge social chasms between people. It is rooted in an understanding that God has a concern for the poor and marginalized.

There’s an aspect about practicing relational care that we shouldn’t miss—our interactions with people should be based on authentic interest in those we’re connecting with. Sometimes there are ulterior motives behind what we do or a tendency to think of our interactions as simply “ministry” or “outreach.” Granted, when we do these activities we do them as a way to help people, or to bring spiritual assistance to them, or to simply be a presence to someone who may feel alone. That can be good, for sure. But I think it is even better if there’s a way for us not to think of our interactions with people as a temporary “must do,” but something we want to do and something we find mutually enriching. Having the right attitude about interacting with people we see on the streets can be difficult anytime, especially when we’re in a hurry, overwhelmed by our own stresses, or maybe not looking for authentic relationships with people we haven’t yet met. May God help us to have a desire to love as we have been loved.

What advice would you give to Christians wanting to help the homeless but who don’t know where to start?

First, we each need to evaluate what “help” means. Help doesn’t always mean a handout. Maybe it should rarely mean a handout, because maybe that’s a false sense of help. If you give somebody $1, $20, or even $100, to what extent is that money going to help that person according to your definition of help?

To actually help someone will probably require a great effort. Not many things in life are simple. If we’re going to make an attempt to help, we should do it in a way that the help doesn’t hurt. That’s not always easy. Actually, it might be hard.

For those who wish to help the homeless but don’t know where to start, there may be an organization nearby them looking for volunteers to help homeless people with their resumes. There may be children of homeless parents who are in need of tutoring. There may be a homeless person you pass each day who would be encouraged by a friendly greeting—it might just be that that “hello” could launch into something that could assist that individual with getting on with the next step in his or her life.

One thing that comes to mind is the issue of safety. I think people should ensure their safety—but not be afraid—when interacting with strangers, whoever they are.

It’s helpful to attempt to understand the complexities and circumstances many people go through. Being more aware of the social problems around us can help us begin to see the bigger pictures of people’s lives, whatever they may be going through.

Homelessness isn’t the only social problem, and it may not be a big problem in some communities. Being open to sharing in the lives of people around us better positions us to make a difference. It may free us to better communicate with those we wouldn’t normally communicate with. It’s in that place that the “want” you mention in “wanting to help” comes alive.

I know how difficult this can be. I find myself cloistered, complacent about others, too busy to help anyone but myself, even uncaring sometimes. I also recognize the tension between helping and hurting. I wish there were an easy way to decipher good and bad helping.

In order to make a difference, we can start by being the kind of person who wants to make a difference—however or with whomever. We can work to align our actions with the kind of people we want to be. When we’re the right kind of people, we’ll be more open to valuing others and seeking to make a difference in the lives of others.

Related Topics:  Mercy

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