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. 


  1. After living in SF for so many years, I became blind to the homeless situation. Sadly so many are too mentally ill to approach. And I personally knew of one person who would dress herself and her daughter in rags and panhandle in a bad part of town b/c she wanted to devote the rest of her time to tie dying. She shared a lovely flat with 2 other people in a nice part of town. That said, I did see the same 3 homeless guys within 3 blocks of my apartment and I did give them money. One of them used to draw & sell his artwork, and I bought one from him, and gave him a new pad and pastels for Christmas. I remember another one saw us wandering around, shell shocked, after the 89 quake and he came over to ask if we were OK and if our apartment was OK. It's hard to make the judgment call who you give to and who you don't.

  2. JoJo.
    I always look forward to your insights! Thanks for the great comments. :)

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  4. Hey, I'm a young novice. I can make hats, scarfs and granny squares but I have a hard time finding good patterns. If you could post a few beanies that would be great or you can Send them to my Facebook or email. Nice Blog!

  5. Hey, I'm a young novice. I can make hats, scarfs and granny squares but I have a hard time finding good patterns. If you could post a few beanies that would be great or you can Send them to my Facebook or email. Nice Blog!

  6. This is a wonderful piece, I had some strong feelings while reading it. I think people do know what they need, and a lot of the organizations which are supposed to help can end up hindering due to bureaucratic mindset. I've read about some programs which are moving homeless into subsidized housing scenarios without requiring sobriety or treatment, and people are really responding to this- there seems to be a good rate of people helping themselves to treatment once they settle in. I bet the horrible stresses the homeless face can make it very hard to do anything. Plus, some people are homeless because they have trouble with the societal construct, and why not put these folks into a home, too?