‘All I Do is Meditate:’ Surviving a Boston Winter on the Streets

BOSTON, Mass.—When the weather gets cold, most people simply stay inside with the heat turned up. But what about homeless people? Where do they go?

Most homeless people go to shelters, such as the Harvard Square Homeless Shelter (HSHS), at the Lutheran church on Winthrop St in Harvard Square. The shelter stays open from 7 p.m. to 8 a.m. after which time the homeless who stay there must leave. If the shelter is at capacity and they cannot find another one, homeless people are sometimes forced to sleep outside.

“[Staying outside is] not an ideal situation, but we try to do what we can, if we don’t have the capacity at our shelter we have emergency blankets we pass out.” said David Tang-Quan, a spokesman for the HSHS.

Although it is not the HSHS’s written policy, Tang-Quan said that when the HSHS was full, the volunteers at the shelter would redirect homeless people to other shelters. As a last resort, they directed them to the emergency room or Logan Airport, which remain open all night. He said they are hesitant to do that because some guests have reported being kicked out of Logan Airport by the police.

Several homeless people said that a man named Sampson, who lived on the streets in Harvard Square, froze to death in early winter during a cold snap. He had fallen asleep outside after drinking alcohol, without adequate protection from the weather. Neither the Cambridge Police Department nor the Cambridge Medical Examiner could confirm Sampson’s death.

The HSHS is only open during the night, but there are shelters that are open during the day. Elizabeth Lund of St. Francis House said that the shelter opens at 7 a.m. and closes at 3 p.m. to give homeless people a place to eat and to stay warm during the day. Like the Harvard Square Homeless Shelter, St. Francis House provides assistance to homeless people looking for more permanent housing, as well as other essential services.

For homeless who don’t make it to any kinds of shelter, sleeping out in the cold is their only option.

“If I don’t get in the shelter then I most definitely will sleep outside; if there’s no other choice then I’ve got to do it,” said Alistair, 47, a homeless man who spends time in Harvard Square.

“It’s unusual, it can be uncomfortable sometimes, but it depends on how much bedding you have. I have a sleeping bag, and a big quilt blanket. If I sleep at night with clothes on I’m all set. I’m not cold.” Alistair said.

Alistair said he typically wears three coats, two scarves, jeans, a pair of gloves and of course his rabbit fur hat, given to him by a friend for Christmas.

Melvin, who is also homeless, will not be sheltered soon at night, as his time at the Cambridge shelter he is staying at will be up. The shelter he stays at is a night shelter only, so he spends his days on the street.

“When you leave you have to make sure you have everything on you, because you can’t come home until six at night. The curfew is 10, I just try to make sure I have all the clothes I need for the winter,” said Melvin.

To help homeless people who are forced to spend the night outside, the HSHS and St. Francis House, as well as other shelters, have street teams that distribute blankets and food. The HSHS street teams are composed of mostly student volunteers from Harvard University, and they distribute aid between 8:00 p.m. and 10:00 p.m. from November to April.

“To stay warm you just stay focused, you meditate and stay focused. It’s not easy to bite the weather here because it’s really cold. All I do is meditate. When I meditate, it takes my mind off the cold. Don’t get me wrong I do feel it. Don’t think I don’t,” said Alistair, who lived in Southern California before moving to Boston a year ago. He said after this winter he plans to go back to California, where it rarely gets below 60 degrees in the winter.

“Guests will usually go to libraries or other public spaces to stay warm during the day if they don’t have some other place to go,” said Tang-Quan. “There’s also drop-in centers that we refer them to if they’re looking for a place to stay warm.”

Jack Adams is a local writer and photographer who covers social justice issues around the Boston area.