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Winter 2011

Books: Shelter: Where Harvard Meets the Homeless

Cover shot of Shelter: Where Harvard Meets the HomelessWhat happens when you bring society’s most privileged and most marginalized groups together under one roof? In Shelter, Scott Seider, Ed.M.’04, Ed.D.’08, explores the ramifications of that encounter through the lens of the Harvard Square Homeless Shelter, where every night from November to April Harvard students and the homeless gather to share sustenance, stories, and security.

Drawing on detailed field notes from a single night at the shelter, Seider opens the book with a vivid chronological description of what happens between the arrival of the first Harvard volunteer at 6:30 p.m. and the team’s 8:30 a.m. departure. These volunteers, when they could be studying at the library or sleeping in their warm beds, are busy cooking and serving meals, washing dirty laundry, cleaning bathrooms, and occasionally settling disputes. Yet the homeless are by no means the only parties that benefits from this encounter. Seider writes, “The Harvard students volunteering at the shelter utilize the shelter as a mechanism for identity exploration and as a ‘shelter’ from some of the academic, social, and personal pressures that are a part of the college years and young adulthood.”

Told in three sections focusing on the impact the shelter has — on its guests, the student volunteers, and society — Shelter is both educational and emotionally moving, a blend of statistics and stories. Through nearly 300 pages, Seider takes special care to highlight the symbiotic nature of this unique encounter, providing countless examples of positive transformations both for the homeless and for the volunteers. He claims that the “youth and inexperience” of the college students operating the shelter often combine to create a teacher-student dynamic that empowers guests in a way older professional social service workers cannot, ultimately making a persuasive case for the replication of the Harvard Square Homeless Shelter’s student-run model in other major cities across the United States.