Sometimes a book just grabs you. You might say it presents well: good title, great cover. Then, when you venture into the text, you’re drawn further in. Here is such a book. HOMELESS AT HARVARD is a narrative, not an “issue” book, and yet it introduces and addresses a societal issue more than it weaves a scintillating plot. It’s the setting and the lives of its characters that transport you to a place way beyond your four walls and familiar neighborhood. You’re unsettled at times, but it has captured your attention.
Young John Frame, son of a preacher man, went to Cambridge, Massachusetts, to get a graduate theological degree. And there he found it hard to ignore the group of men and women who lived on the streets of Cambridge, including in Harvard Square. With an eye toward writing about and documenting the street experience, he spent the summer --- 10 weeks --- of 2009 sleeping outside among and spending a good chunk of his days with the homeless community. He didn’t hide his identity or purpose; the critical players knew he was a student. Easing himself in, he gained acceptance by and the confidence of the seasoned cadre. He observed their pecking order, noted their resources and safety nets, grieved their addictions, dysfunctions and diseases, and was inspired at times by their fortitude, faith and friendship.
"Sometimes a book just grabs you. You might say it presents well: good title, great cover. Then, when you venture into the text, you’re drawn further in. Here is such a book."
In the course of the book, we see glimpses of Frame’s parsonage upbringing and, of course, his encounters with his street comrades. He does an excellent job of showing us the realities of street life --- at least of street life in a neighborhood anchored by a university and its attendant pedestrian traffic. We get a new appreciation for the brothers and sisters who need our smiles and our conversation. But he doesn’t take his personal journey much beyond his summer of 2009, to show us how his encounters have changed the course of his life. Though in writing this, I see that none of us knows who or what we might have been if we had spent a specific summer in a different context.
Frame’s narrative is more thematic than chronological. Most chapters end with “In the Words of…” subsections that feature first-person reflections, garnered from more recent (2012) interviews Frame conducted with four of his notable street companions. Chubby John left Cambridge at night to sleep in a secluded woodsy hideout, and Dane, an older man, hauntingly and philosophically admitted, “If someone can learn from what I have endured, so that they need not go through the same thing, then herein lies my very self.” The most notable character was Neal, who took Frame under his tutelage, struggled with severe health issues, and couldn’t quite kick his drinking, though he’d given up the drugs and, through it all, maintained a strong faith in and commitment to his Jesus of Nazareth.
George, the first homeless person Frame met when he came to Harvard, summed up his situation by saying that “the street grabbed me.” This self-analysis isn’t meant to be a positive commentary. But I’ll end where I started and turn the phrase around. HOMELESS AT HARVARD is a book that can grab you --- as well it should.
Reviewed by Evelyn Bence on August 13, 2013