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Painted Brain | Urban Observation: Homelessness
We're bridging communities and changing the conversation about mental illness using arts and media.
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  • December 22, 2015

Urban Observation: Homelessness

Sitting next to the window in the second floor lounge of the Starbucks in Harvard Square, I can see the lively bustle of Cambridge’s beating heart. In the relative warmth and calm of the coffee bar, I am free to watch the disparate meanderings of passersby. Disparate, indeed. The interesting thing about the Pit, as the space in front of the Starbucks is called, is how it functions as a meeting place, a public forum of sorts. Grown accustomed to the modern cityscape, I find it difficult to keep in mind that town squares were once commonplace. Here in Harvard Square, the Pit functions as a social center, a place in which worlds and lives commingle and collide. Undergrads dressed in three-piece suits and evening gowns stroll the square, laughing and shouting, trickling through the space in a garrulous stream. Others, more serious, bearing backpacks and briefcases, move in linear trajectories, embodying purpose. A different teleological performance is discernible in the various vendors, artists, and activists granted permission by the city to peddle their wares and their ideals. Not moving through the space, but lying in wait for the inevitable crowds, these public characters contribute significantly to the Square’s aesthetic, catching tourists ambling by, exploring the reality behind the legend of the Big “H.”

Creedence Clearwater Revival blasts from portable speakers as an artist, using nothing more than spray paint and a few basic tools, renders fantastical landscapes, complete with floating mountains and waterfalls, dragons and, often, a lone traveler journeying across magnificently ominous wastes. At other times, the music is played live, an attraction in itself. A folk guitar player stands playing and singing while it’s too cold and miserable for less-hardy or courageous buskers, or a jazz trumpeter creates an uncannily smooth and relaxing ambiance with a muted horn, belying the commotion of the city streets. I am fascinated by the frequency with which the artists conjure an aesthetic of quiet and lonely beauty, seeking to enchant the space with a feeling that it does not want to allow.

People disrupt the intended purpose of the space in other ways as well: street kids, homeless people, the mentally ill, drug addicts, punk rockers, travelers, and vagabonds carving out a space in which to live at the city’s heart. They gather in the nooks and crannies of the Pit to shelter from rain and snow. They often play guitars and sing, but they are not there for the public’s entertainment. Their songs are more their own than those of the buskers hoping to make a buck. Tattoos, leather, faded and stained denim, metal studs, piercings, patches, and plaid announce not only their presence, but their resistance. Resistance against what? Consumerism, industrialization, and capitalism? Exploitation and oppression? Mom and Dad? I do not know. But their very presence is a resistance to a certain social order. At night, beds are constructed out of cardboard, newspaper, trash bags, and miscellaneous raw materials. People sleep on the sidewalk, directly in front of the Bank of America. How fraught with symbolism and meaning is it that the front wall of the bank is made of glass? Prosperity and social participation lie visible, yet just out of reach, as one needs a bank card to get in, of course. It seems to me that sleeping in this public space, along with providing some modicum of safety, constitutes a bodily rhetoric of sorts. Here, at the symbolic foundation of America’s prosperity, the impoverished lie waiting for the dream to come true, their suffering visible for all to see.

This visibility is particularly illuminated when the Pit is juxtaposed with other potential sleeping spaces for those without a home. On a road from Cambridge to Somerville, train tracks cut a swath through light industrial complex. As I wander off the road and onto the tracks, I seem to have entered a different world. I no longer feel myself to be in the city. Rather, I have encroached onto the territory of a foreign species, one of steel and iron, a wasteland of mechanism and technology. Walk far enough along the tracks, and you arrive under a bridge. In this place, one can often find the remnants of human encampments: syringes, charred and dirty garments, pillows, and blankets, the remains of a fire pit, ruined shoes. What must it be like to live here, if only for a night? The space is not intended for human beings. Trains kick up rocks as they pass, firing them like sharp pellets this way and that. I’m not one for Feng Shui, but there is a definite sense of motion in this place. It is extremely narrow and long; shut in completely on two sides, one can see for half a mile on the other two. In this atmosphere, I find it impossible to relax. Uncomfortable as it may be, it seems that this place under the bridge provides an opportunity for a different kind of bodily rhetoric. Selecting privacy over the safety of public, whoever camps here wins a space for themselves at the price of anonymity. I have wished since the day I found this place that I could meet someone who stays here, but I’ve never had any luck running into them. If I could, I would ask them, “Do you come here for the privacy?”
Matthew Lyons holds a Masters degree in Theological Studies (MTS) from Harvard and is currently pursuing a Masters degree in Social Work (MSW) from USC as an intern with Painted Brain and the Center for Innovation and Research on Veterans and Military Families

University of Southern California
School of Social Work
1150 S. Olive Street, Suite 1400
Los Angeles, CA 90015

“CIR- Strengthening the transition of veterans and their families into the community”

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