Sunday, March 27, 2016

The Harvard Square Hat, the Homeless and Charitable Crafts

Harvard Square in Cambridge, a city just north of Metropolitan Boston, is an eclectic mix that includes the inhabitants of the ivory towers of Harvard University, retail & restaurant workers, shoppers, foodies, tourists, buskers and artists selling their work in the open air. It also has a fair number of  homeless people, of all genders, of all ages, in various states of desperation and despair.

I go to Harvard Square a lot. It is home to one  of my favorite bookstores, The Harvard Bookstore. It is conveniently located on the redline, and my apartment is also conveniently located on the redline, a branch of Boston's subway system. There are lots of nooks and crannies to write in and plenty of park benches to sit on and play with yarn. It's also a great place to walk around and clear your head of pattern puzzles or to be dazzled by a few flashes of inspiration.

I was there in December, a week before Christmas, to pick up an order at the bookstore. It was chilly and crowded. I was there with one of my best friends. We made our way through the crowds to the store. I picked up my book, and after a little while spent browsing the shelves, we headed back to the T. I saw, on the edges of narrowed vision, the homeless scattered up and down the block, but I didn't really see them. I didn't think about them. I was concentrating on getting back to the T station. It was easy to block them out because of the crowd. Brian and I stopped in front of the station and debated if we wanted to go to more shops in Harvard Square or if we should just go ahead to the fair trade store in Downtown Crossing. Ten Thousand Villages won and we turned to enter the Harvard Square Station.

As we were about to descend the stairs, I heard a voice. Quiet, but distinct enough to catch my attention.

"Merry Christmas guys."

I looked down. Sitting in the small space between the stairs and the escalator, his back pressed against the wall, was a young man with a Dunkin' Donuts cup. He was maybe 20, possibly younger, and a little disheveled. He had brown wavy hair, brown eyes and a sweet smile. I noticed that he was not wearing a hat or gloves, and his jacket was suitable for fall weather, not winter. He had nothing but the cup he was holding on to tightly. He didn't ask for anything. There was no sign requesting money, no pleas, no appeals for assistance. Our eyes met. I wished him a Merry Christmas but didn't put anything in the cup. I got to the bottom of the stars and hesitated. Should I go back and give him money? Should I buy a gift card at the Dunkin' Donuts to my immediate left and give him that so he could have something to eat? Instead I ran to catch the train. As I sat in the crowded subway car I debated going back and trying to find him. I felt guilty then and days later. I still feel terrible now as I write this.

Homelessness had a face and I had turned away from it. Or at least that was how I felt at the time.

My struggle with the way I handled the encounter led to a debate among a few of my friends and co-workers. When you give to pan-handlers and the indigent  are you helping them or exacerbating the problem? Are you aiding them or soothing your own conscience? It was a mixed bag of answers to questions that made us a little uneasy to ask.

An article in The Atlantic by Derek Thompson in 2011 asked those very same questions. You can read the piece in it's entirety here. As the story is subtitled the short answer is no. You are better off donating to a charity that you know is going to use the money to help those in need and not waste money on "administrative" costs.

Thompson cited the article in Good Magazine in the UK, also written in March of 2011.

A few months ago, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, a UK-based nonprofit that does amazing work in the field of poverty and social exclusion, issued a surprising report that deserves a much wider readership.The study evaluated the success of a radical new way of working with the long-term homeless. Instead of soup kitchens, shelters, and mobile health clinics, the charity Broadway simply selected 15 homeless people that their outreach workers had found the hardest to reach (one had been on the streets for an astonishing 45 years), asked them what it was they needed to change their lives—and then bought it for them.

And the results?

Two refused to engage with the pilot project altogether, but of the 13 who agreed to take part, 11 are now off the streets. Several have entered treatment for addiction and mental health issues, some have reconnected with their families, and all are exhibiting an enhanced ability to function independently in society (i.e. paying bills, signing up for welfare, and turning up for training courses, etc.).

Another excellent article about solving, rather than managing, the problem of homelessness is Million-Dollar Murray by Malcolm Gladwell that was published in The New Yorker in February of 2006. In that article he tells the story of Murray Barr, an ex-marine that lived on the streets of Reno NV. Gladwell examines the problems with the systems we have in place to deal with homelessness, and how many of them are insufficient. Ten years later the story is still an accurate reflection of the issues regarding homelessness in the United States. Even when removing altruism from the equation, our inadequacies of handling the homeless population are reflected in the lives of those living on the streets and the escalating high financial costs for taxpayers. People continue to throw money at the problem, but we may well be depositing the cash into the wrong places. 

So what can we do and how can we help? It turns out that maybe crafting can help in a small way.

At the end of the The New Yorker article, the social worker in the piece that worked with Murray Barr, Marla Johns, told Gladwell: “Christmas comes— and I used to buy him a Christmas present. Make sure he had warm gloves and a blanket and a coat. ”

The winter months are the most difficult for the homeless. There is a constant need for hats, gloves, scarves and socks to assist in staving off the brutal weather conditions many of them are forced to endure. By stitching and donating your handcrafted accessories, you are helping the most vulnerable members of our communities. The homeless in this country are not just individuals with untreated mental health issues and substance abuse problems. Extreme poverty, domestic violence and children being bounced from one foster home to another all add to the numbers of people living in shelters and on our streets. 

There comes a time in every crafters journey when you run out of relatives and friends to gift your creations to. Crafting for charity is a wonderful way to continue to immerse yourself in the passion of the work and channel it into a place where it is appreciated and desperately needed. 

Before that day in Harvard Square I practiced charitable crochet. I have made items for bazaars that were sold to raise money for animal shelters. For the past several years I have committed to making 100 hats for our local Caps for Kids every year. It's a program where I work that makes hats for homeless and under-privledged children in the Boston area. You can learn more about the program here in this Boston Globe article. Working in a cancer hospital I have also crocheted and knitted several hats for our chemo patients. 

I know that giving that young man money might have helped him briefly, and it would have made me feel less guilty for a few minutes, but I also know that there are more constructive ways to help. The voting booth is one place and the yarn store is another. I designed the Harvard Square Hat (and the cowl and the fingerless mitts) with that young man, and all of the individuals in similar situations, in mind. I hope that people download the patterns to make gifts for loved ones but I also hope that it is used by crafters to practice their own charitable crochet for whatever cause they hold dear to their hearts. 

Sunday, March 20, 2016

More Free Patterns!

It's a grey Sunday afternoon here in Boston. Both of my roommates are sick, and we are expecting 4-8 inches of snow overnight tonight, so I am hiding in my bedroom working on all things yarn, trying not to get too worked up about how hideous my morning commute into work is going to be.

This post is mostly pictorial. I have some yarn sitting beside me waiting to be swatched. Hopefully those swatches will grow up into beautiful shawls that I can share with you over the next few weeks. There is one shawl I am working on right now I can't wait to release. It's been a joy to design and make. Shawls are going to be the hot accessory this spring and summer and I have a few that are right on trend.

I posted three new patterns on Ravelry yesterday and they went up on Craftsy this morning. The Copley Square Fingerless Mitts, the Copley Square Hat and the Copley Square Cowl. All three are free and they are beginner friendly. I stitched them in Valley Yarns Northampton, using the colors Stratosphere & Deep Periwinkle. It creates a warm, but not too hot, set that is perfect for the transitional weather of spring & fall.

Two more free patterns are coming in the next few days. The Arlington Clutch and the Heart of Glass Hat. I'll let you know as soon as those are up.

I thought I'd share with you a behind the scenes look at my work. I was shooting pics of the the Copley Square Cowl and this is a wider view:

Necessary items for all photoshoots; a cat, an x-large dunkin' donuts coffee, a vitamin water, a makeshift light box and a small box of yarn in the corner. The only thing missing are the cupcakes!

Lastly, I tweeted about the Cassandra Mitts and mentioned that they were named after the character in Neil Gaiman's short story "The Thing About Cassandra". Mr. Gaiman responded to my tweet and wrote "how cool".  I was so dorky excited it was really embarrassing. It's a very wonderful thing when someone you admire artistically -he is one of my favorite writers- turns out to be a kind, thoughtful human being too. So go buy one of his books! 

I'm finishing up Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert. More on that in the next post!

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

New Free Patterns!

I can't believe how long it has been since I posted on here. That is one stubborn case of writer's block when it comes to this blog. I don't believe in New Years resolutions but if I did, posting more consistently would have definitely been one of them.

I have been very busy playing with yarn and creating a new website. The new patterns will be rolling out over the next week or so but a bunch of them are already up on Ravelry & Craftsy. Here are three of them.

Alice's Shawl is made with Cascade 220 yarn, 5 skeins of Color 7802 - Cerise. It's one of the first things I designed officially and it was named after my stepmother. I even entered it in a design contest but I didn't win. I still love this shawl though and I hope you do too.

Cassandra's Mitts take their name from one of my all time favorite short stories -"The Thing About Cassandra"- from one of my favorite writers, Neil Gaiman. The story is in his book Trigger Warnings, now out in paperback. Check it out. You can wear these mitts while you are reading!

I made the sample with Valley Yarns Haydenville, Color 21- Yellow, available from WEBS


Bergy's Infinity Scarf is the companion to the Bergy Slouchy hat, named after Patrice Bergeron of the Boston Bruins. It's made entirely with single crochet in Valley Yarns Northfield, Colors Summer Plum & Avacado, also available at WEBS. Go Bs!

I'll have more on the new website, lots of new free patterns, posts about yarn stashes, creativity & some brilliant books I have been reading. Stay tuned!