Down and out in Harvard Square: Warm weather brings return of homeless ‘travelers’

Tom Benner
Spare Change News

Maxine Brandeis came to Harvard Square for the same reason Willie Sutton robbed banks — because that’s where the money is.

“The police are more tolerant of panhandling here than in other places we’ve been,” said Brandeis, 21, who is spending a few weeks in the Square with her 25-year-old husband and their four dogs, raising money for a trip that will take them from their home in Maine to Virginia.

Perched against a storefront exterior on a Massachusetts Avenue sidewalk, Brandeis holds a hand-written cardboard sign that reads: Traveling. Anything Helps. Food. Dog Food. Gear. Spare Change. God Bless.

Brandeis has plenty of company. The early warm weather is drawing for a second consecutive year an increasingly visible homeless population to Harvard Square. The Square’s college-town chic, with its outdoor cafes, hip shops, heavy pedestrian traffic, and street musicians and hawkers, is a strong draw particularly to a younger population known as “travelers,” who arrive with spring and sleep in and around the sunken arena-like “Pit” by the Red Line T station.

The bedraggled influx is prompting Cambridge police to look for new ways to keep sidewalks clear for pedestrians, and check disruptive behavior and aggressive panhandling.

One new strategy is to work with merchants to serve as good-will ambassadors to street people.

“Last year we experienced a phenomenon we hadn’t seen for many years, that was a large group of individuals traveling to the Square, setting up their homes for the summer months in the Square, and to some degree causing some destruction because they were not following the normal decorum that we expect to see in Harvard Square,” Cambridge Police Commissioner Robert C. Haas told members of the Harvard Square Business Association on April 24.

“Going into this season, we were hoping to get in front of it. Unfortunately, the weather didn’t cooperate — well, it did cooperate, we had a great winter and we started experiencing people coming into the Square earlier than expected.”

He added, “We’re really trying to move a little bit farther so we don’t have sidewalks being blocked, egress into stores being blocked, and that we don’t see overly aggressive panhandling going on in the Square.”

Partnering with social service groups, Cambridge police are now offering to train merchants as “ambassadors” who can connect street people with services such as shelters and free meals.

“We’re going to put together a small group of ambassadors, if you will, that are going to go out into the Square and reacquaint people of the various services that are available within the Square, kind of approach them, ask them to cooperate,” Haas said. “We find if it’s not police doing that and other folks doing that, maybe the reception will be a lot better.”

Haas also urged merchants to report unruly behavior to the police.

“There’s nothing wrong with picking up the phone and calling us so that we can engage and kind of reset the rules a little bit so people understand what’s acceptable, what’s not acceptable in the Square,” he said.

The Cambridge police department employs two homeless outreach officers, Eric Helberg and Matt Price, who help connect the homeless with social service agencies.

Police say the homeless have a First Amendment right to panhandle, but that stops short of harassing passersby. Police have no firm numbers on the number of homeless people in Harvard Square on any given night.

Harvard Square merchants say they’re increasingly concerned about the apparent rising number of street dwellers who at times act and appear drunk, block sidewalks and store entrances, and aggressively beg for money.

“I’m seeing more people, I’m seeing more aggressiveness,” said Bill Archambault, manager of Bob Slate Stationer. “You see a lot more people walking down the middle of the street, trying to get people in their cars to donate money. I’ve also seen homeless people cross the street without looking; they’re putting themselves at danger. They’ll just step right in front of cars.”

Jinny Nathans, a landlord who grew up in Harvard Square, said she’s long seen homeless people in the Square, but she’s dismayed that young people would want to spend their free time living and sleeping outdoors in the Square.

“It’s more like the late ’60s and the ’70s when the kids used to do that in the summer,” she said. “Still it’s a little bit different, and it’s a shame that this is what people choose to do with their vacation time.”

Marie Santamaria of Via Vai said window etching vandalism, public drunkenness, and aggressive panhandling are worsening problems in the Square.

“A few years ago, nobody ever thought it could get worse,” she said, “and it has.”

TOM BENNER is editor of Spare Change News. Email him at editor@sparechangenews.net

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