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What would they give for your MIT bed?

A friend called me and after chatting a minute or so she said, "Look, can I meet you for lunch? My dime is running out." Sure enough, the operator came on and said, "Please deposit...." I said, "See you at the Mandarin," and we hung up. Over lunch, Colleen told me her plan. "I've saved the last two SSI checks and I'm going to catch a bus to Virginia. I have a friend there. She says we can get a two-bedroom apartment for $300 a month." I wished her well with mixed emotions. I would miss her terribly, but Colleen was getting out! She was leaving the ranks of the homeless.

And I thought of Margaret Woodruff, a mutual friend of ours, who is now permanently housed in the Forest Hills Cemetery. She had been unable to find a place to rest during the day of the Marathon last spring. She wandered all over the city, but her usual haunts were filled with tourists and spectators. By the time Rosie's Place opened their doors that night, Margaret was exhausted. Several hours later her heart failed and she died.

Colleen and Margaret are two of the many women I met while working at the Cambridge Armory Shelter this winter. There I learned for the first time the real cause of homelessness: the lack of affordable housing. Many of the guests work a 40-hour week, support children, and struggle to come up with the first month's rent, last month's rent, and security deposit needed to get an apartment in Boston. There are very few success stories, and many of the ones who do find housing, like Colleen, have to leave the city.

The blame for this lies on many heads and there is no benefit to pointing fingers after the damage is done. But Boston rents are skyrocketing and forcing more and more people out onto the streets, and something must be done.

As new MIT students, many of you received a copy of Rachel and Her Children, an excellent source of information about this national concern. More compelling than any book, though, are the sights new students at MIT have been treated to for years. About a ten-minute walk away, Central Square is a popular hangout for Cambridge homeless, and, there, many students see for the first time members of this subculture. There is the tall, long-haired, unkempt man wrapped in a green blanket asking for change. There is the woman sitting by the bus stop talking to herself. There are the drunken men sleeping by the Salvation Army. These are the stereotypes. They exist, and are a constant source of angst for shopowners and the MIT administration -- who feel their presence drives away customers and potential donors, and generally lowers the property value.

On the campus itself, homeless people find refuge in the heated classrooms at night or at the cheapest coffeehouse in town. If they are the stereotypical homeless -- unwashed, inarticulate, anti-social, and possibly thieves -- then the Campus Police will don their rubber gloves and escort them to the city limits.

Many are not so obvious. It used to be that these easily recognizable street people were the entire homeless population. Alcoholic, mentally ill, or socially maladjusted, they are incapable of keeping an independent household. Now, as Rachel and Her Children mentioned, the fastest-growing subset of homeless is families -- single parents with small children. And in Boston, as the housing crunch tightens, many homeless are the working poor. They are holding down jobs and working long hours and just not making enough to afford the $600 a month studios without sacrificing their food budget. And the longer they are homeless, the lower their chances are of finding housing.

Many of the measures being considered to alleviate the problem are slow, long-term, and likely never to be implemented. Mitch Snyder, a Washington, DC, based homeless advocate, makes this analogy. "If your house was on fire, you would not walk calmly about, making plans and forming committees. No one would realize there was a fire and no one would help. Well, the house is on fire, and it is time to start screaming and running. People are dying in the streets."

In the freshman book discussions on Thursday, keep this in mind. As you sit and discuss and debate about whether there is a need, and who deserves help, and what should be done, people are in danger. People are suffering. And people really are dying from homelessness.

Be thankful for that twin extra-long bed MIT makes you sleep on. It is better than nothing.

who

Karina O'Malley is a junior in the Department of Mathematics. She has been involved with the homeless for three years, and currently works at the First Church Shelter in Harvard Square.