Melvin Jenkins Remembered by Friends On and Off the Street: Cambridge Homeless Man Dies at 58; Described as Talented, Caring and Loyal

CAMBRIDGE, Mass.—Alistair Finlay misses his friend. He first met Melvin Jenkins two-and-a-half years ago, and he seemed like the kind of guy worth meeting. They became best friends. Both were homeless, seeing each other at drop-in centers and at Bread and Jam for breakfast. Alistair found Mel a very helpful man and a loyal friend, full of great stories – all of which were true, according to Alistair.

“He always had a beautiful smile on his face,” Alistair said. “There was something magical about him – I can’t describe it, you had to meet him.”

According to friends, Mel was a brilliant mechanic who co-owned an auto shop before he became homeless. Even on the streets, he could diagnose the problem with a car by ear. Bikes, refrigerators – he even fixed the sandwich board Alistair sits next to in front of Harvard Bookstore on Massachusetts Ave., in Harvard Square.

In 1986, at the age of 30, friends say Mel was working on top of a diesel truck when he slipped and fell off. He broke many bones and ended up in a coma for a while. He left the hospital full of pain in his back and knee. Soon, he became addicted to painkillers, heroin and alcohol – anything that could numb the pain. After a knee replacement, he had to use a cane.

Mel tried staying with family in an attempt to stay clean, including his ailing mother. Sadly, he ended up homeless after his mother died in 2010. Eventually he found his way to the First Church Shelter, where he stayed for nearly a year and a half.

“He tried to cope with a lot of discomfort, but he seemed very concerned about other people and didn’t want to be burdensome,” said Program Director Jim Stewart. “He was very sensitive and complicated, in the ordinary sense of the word.”

Mel started panhandling on his own after encouragement from Alistair. But he never quite got the hang of it.

“He told me he felt like an animal in the zoo, people walking by and ignoring him,” Alistair explained.

Mel’s pride got in the way of his panhandling. One day, he only made seven dollars. According to a Boston Globe obituary, he was always nervous about seeing someone from his better days. However, he had his moments. On his birthday, he pinned his driver’s license to his jacket and made $50.

Alistair and Mel looked out for each other constantly. “He sat with me all the way through the Polar Vortex’s freezing cold,” said Alistair. Mel always made sure Alistair was warm and safe, and Alistair always made sure Mel had food or tobacco.

Melvin spoke to SPARE CHANGE NEWS back in January, a few days before he lost his spot at First Church.

“Sometimes it feels so degrading doing this,” he said.

In the winter, his sign would get blown away and he would have to chase after it with his bad knee and cane. People would speed by and knock over his cup of change. Some would pretend to give him change, and pocket their money instead of placing it in his cup.

He told Jack Adams about how his back and knee injuries and that he could not get surgery until he had a place to recover. He tried to get housing while at the shelter, but that did not work out.

Mel claimed he was losing his chance at housing because of mix-ups and faulty record keeping on the housing program’s part. The program claimed he missed meetings or was often late, but Mel said the program made mistakes with dates and times.

The housing program, HomeStart, declined to comment for this article.

After he lost his chance at housing and his spot at the shelter, Mel started drinking again. “He lost hope after that,” said Alistair.

According to the Globe, Mel entered a detox facility several days before his death. After they discharged him, Mel went back to drugs and alcohol. He suffered a cardiac and died in Massachusetts General Hospital on June 16, only 58 years old.

About 50 people showed up at his service, including family. “He definitely had more friends than he realized. And was more liked than he realized,” said Alistair.

“I wish things could have gone better for him,” Stewart said. People recounted his sense of humor, his smile and his talent for repair.

“I miss him,” said Alistair. “He was my best friend. We all miss you, Mel.”




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