Harvard Square Street People: The New Homeless of Cambridge, MA

Tom Boland (wgcp@earthlink.net)
Tue, 18 May 1999 09:07:04 -0700 (PDT)

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FWD   Boston Globe   May 17, 1999   page A01


     Harvard Square street people increasingly
     are those just starting out

     By Stan Grossfeld, Globe Staff

CAMBRIDGE - Clean-scrubbed with a well-manicured goatee, Jerry Niland, 22,
looked more Harvard than homeless.

But he shivered uncontrollably one evening last winter in '' the Pit,'' the
mecca for young people outside the Harvard Square MBTA station. Niland
tried to catch some warm air wafting up from the subway without drawing the
attention of the T police, who don't like loiterers.

''I don't know where I'm going to sleep tonight,'' he said. ''I'm hoping to
crash at a friend's.''

Following Niland and his friends over the course of several months is like
reading a handbook on survival. They don't turn up in the city of Boston's
homeless census, which neared an all-time record this year.   Nor do they
like to go to shelters like the Pine Street Inn, which has been filled
beyond capacity since last summer. In January, Pine Street reported only
one male guest in its 18-to-24 age group, despite an average January
population of 312.

Niland is a poster boy for what street workers are calling the  ''new
homeless.'' They are young people from dysfunctional families, those who
have run away from the state Department of Social Services or have passed
the age of 18, the agency's basic cutoff point for services. They shun
shelters and stay with friends and acquaintances until they wear out their

''This new homeless we are seeing is different than before,'' said
Elisabeth Ortiz, medical coordinator for Bridge Over Troubled Waters, the
Boston-based social services group that serves mostly young people. ''You
won't see them sleeping in the street. They're too smart for that. They
couch-surf in the winter and sleep outside in the summer. They don't see
themselves as homeless, and you can never, ever tell these kids are

Last year Bridge logged more than 10,000 visitors, an increase of roughly
30 percent over 1994. Their clientele - the homeless, substance abusers,
and runaways - has more than doubled in Harvard Square since 1994, going
from 2,264 visits annually to 4,914. And they seem to be getting younger.
The number of 13- to 18-year-olds seeking non-medical  help in Harvard
Square has more than tripled, going from 616 in 1994 to 1,988 in 1998,
according to Bridge.

Who are these people  who regard the Pit as sacred ground? There are
several different groups, and their numbers,  and rambunctiousness,
increase dramatically in late spring and summer. There are skinheads,
gutter punks, homeboys, Goths, ''Mansonites'' who try  to look like the
shock rocker Marilyn Manson, and  ''ravers,'' or partyheads. According to
Bridge, three-quarters of them come from  single-parent households, and
most have substance-abuse problems or have suffered physical or sexual
abuse. Many have ''aged out'' of DSS care.

''Teenagers under 18 are left out of the system,'' said Nicole Witherbee,
policy coordinator for the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless.
''There's very little services available to them. They can't go to
shelters. Shelters want to talk to their parents.''

Jim O'Connell, president of Health Care for the Homeless, a Boston-based
advocacy group, says the couch surfers are spiraling toward the health and
addiction problems of the chronically homeless. ''They are the feeder
system for the future,'' he said. ''They avoid our services.''

''Pit Rats'' have slept everywhere, from Out of Town News to the laundry
room of a Beacon Hill apartment, or a maintenance room in the bowels of the
MBTA. They have traded a couple of joints or hits of acid for a bed. They
avoid shelters like the Long Island Shelter, isolated in Boston Harbor.
They want action and interaction, not formal programs.

Niland is a likable hustler who hedges his bets by keeping a backpack,
sleeping bag, toothpaste, and deodorant stored at a nearby shelter. His
mood brightened  when he spied the Bridge Over Troubled Waters medical van
heading up Mass. Ave. toward its  Harvard Square stop. Niland knew he could
get free hot chocolate and maybe a sandwich. Bridge offers counseling and
free medical exams in Boston and Cambridge, and emergency housing as well
as referrals to area shelters.

Niland says he was a malnourished crack baby who was adopted at age 1 and
kicked out of his Brockton home by his stepfather for using cocaine  when
he was 11.

''My stepfather was a Marine in World War II.  He said I was setting a bad
example for my younger sister. He said, `You've gotta leave.' He gave me
$50 and I went to Harvard Square. ... Basically I'm a throwaway. The reason
why I look like a preppie from Braintree is I don't want people to know I'm

Niland says he learned how to make friends quickly to survive. He boasts of
how he ate for free on a cross-country trip to Seattle. ''I used to wait
outside Burger King in back, and every 15 minutes they'd have to throw out
food. I'd rummage through the Dumpster and eat. I never got sick.''

Some of his story checked out, but not all of it.  ''He left when he was a
sophomore in high school. We never, ever ordered him out of the house,
believe me,'' said his stepfather, George Niland, 73, who received a Purple
Heart as a Marine in Okinawa in 1945. He had a heavy heart when he
discussed Jerry.

''It's been the biggest disappointment of our lives,'' he said in a
telephone interview from his North Easton home. ''He's a good kid, a
likable kid, a gentle kid. We raised nine kids and they've got master's and
doctorates, and then we went through hell to adopt Jerry and his sister.''

Niland said Jerry's future was partly decided by his  birth parents'
mistreatment of him. ''It caused an intellectual deficiency. We fought to
get him into special needs, but he fell in with a wild crowd. We tried to
get him professional mental help and he rejected it. Now the agencies and
state have no room if you're 18. It's sad. He went to Maine to find his
biological parents. His mother was dead and his father was a moron. Jerry's
a dreamer. Jerry revels in being homeless.''

Bridge's director, Barbara Whelan, says the nature of homelessness is changing.

''We now have parents driving to Harvard Square and giving their kid money
and leaving. That's guilt. That's never happened before,'' she said.

The new homeless are hard to track because they learn to lie to survive.
''There's always a grain of truth to their stories, but they know that the
one with the best story gets the most attention,'' said Bridge's outreach
coordinator, Terri Bancroft.

They are different from the traditional homeless, the ''bag ladies'' or men
and women in shelters. The reason: They don't like rules. Period. It's a
party life that seems glamorous until the strings attached to a free stay
start feeling like a noose.

''They think they're invincible. Nothing can harm them,'' Bancroft said.
''The reality? When you're out there, you're going to be put at harm,
either violently or assaulted sexually. Some guy offers you a place to stay
and you do it, and then there are strings attached. The effects of that
last a lifetime.''

''You take your chances,'' said Jerry  Niland, who says he decided to
return to Massachusetts after wandering to Denver. ''I've been raped in
Denver, by one guy who gave me a place to stay. No, I didn't call the
police. It didn't really bother me at first. I basically told him I won't
tell the police if he pays for my bus ticket back.''

Niland wears a beeper supplied to him by a local shelter, so he has voice
mail. He supports himself ''spinging,'' or collecting spare change in South
Station. He says he  makes up to $50 a day telling commuters he needs money
for a bus ticket home. He also sells small bags of marijuana to suburban
youths  who don't know weed from oregano.  ''I'm a con artist,'' he

He says he's tried in vain to return home. ''I felt unloved.''

That changed when he met Emily Schifferdecker, 22, in  the Pit several
months ago. It was love at first sight, according to Niland. Emily,
recently divorced, has jet-black hair and wears horn-rimmed glasses  and
pasty white makeup. She loves leather and literature, and has been homeless
since she was 15. A Quincy native, she says for most of the winter she
crashed rent-free in the apartment of a transvestite. She calls herself the
den mother of the Pit Rats, though  when she had a son she gave him up for

Schifferdecker, who like  Niland was adopted as a baby, says her stepfather
physically abused her. She admits to being in trouble with DSS as a
runaway. But she has  also earned a high school  diploma and loves
computers, psychology,   and reading novels. She  briefly attended college.

''My situation, it was my dad,'' she said, referring to her stepfather. ''I
mean, yeah, I wasn't a great child, but you know what? Getting beaten is
not something I want to deal with. Of course, if you asked him, he'd deny

Scott Gledhill, Schifferdecker's stepfather, denies abusing her.    ''She
wasn't abused at home, at least not at my home,'' Gledhill said.
''Typically, Emily only tells part of the truth. I lost my temper with her
twice. Once she smacked me in the head while I was driving down a highway
and broke my glasses, and there was one other time in her lifetime. But she
was always out of control, abusive and violent. I brought in the top
professionals. My guess is it had something to do with drugs and a sense of
abandonment. She wouldn't obey anyone. I even had to get a restraining
order against her.''

Schifferdecker says her problems began when her parents  divorced in 1986.
It is a story Bridge Over Troubled Waters has heard again and again.

''Part of the problem is only 25 percent of the people we see are from
intact families,'' said Whelan, director of Bridge.

Schifferdecker chain-smoked  as she told her story: ''I was 10, that's when
things started going bad.''

She says she escaped from DSS several times. Once she ran into her
counselor on the streets of Weymouth at age 17.

''She said, `Don't worry, I'm not going to turn you in. You're 17, it's not
worth chasing you down.'''

Schifferdecker got pregnant when she was 18 and moved back home, but not
for long. ''My  dad'' - her stepfather -  ''kicked me out, and promptly
called DSS. The baby was born the day after I turned 19.''

Schifferdecker laughed when asked about the baby's father. ''Matt is my
son's biological father. Matt has 24 piercings in his head. He is a very
disturbing-looking individual. Wicked sweet heart, though.

''My son, he lives with the people that took me in when my father kicked me
out. I see him all the time, he knows who I am, but he calls them Mommy and
Daddy because we're not going to confuse him  any more, at age 3, than he
already is. But he comes and gives me hugs, he misses me.''

Her life is hand-to-mouth. One evening she and Niland ordered a meal at
Pizzeria Uno, and then she went   panhandling on JFK Street to  pay for it.
She overtipped the waitress because ''we sit there so long and they let

She has never had to sleep outside in the snow. ''Most of the time during
the winter I got pulled in. People would come out and find me and make sure
I had a place to stay. I wasn't ever out past October.''

Back in Harvard Square, there was a circus atmosphere as the temperature
started to climb in spring.

One evening, a man from Scotland bought all the underage Pit Rats vodka,
and one tipsy girl was offering sex in Cambridge Common while others
whispered  about sexually transmitted diseases the girl supposedly had.
Schifferdecker said the same girl had made a play for  Niland and she'd
punched her out. Some of the others were discussing how many drinks you can
mix with painkillers before turning into Karen Ann Quinlan, the New Jersey
woman who mixed alcohol and drugs and withered away in a coma until she
died in 1985, about the time some of these  people were born.

Niland and Schifferdecker seemed oblivious, holding hands and kissing.
Later, they  spent the night at a squatters' house in Somerville. From
afar, the row house looks respectable. But the smells of leaking natural
gas on the outside, and of cat urine on the inside, are reminders that
squatters take what they can get.

Several working people live in the squalor, including a Starbucks employee
and a ticket seller for a Boston trolley tour. Schifferdecker and Niland
are tolerated, barely, sleeping on the floor. But most of the time they
still hang in the Pit, sometimes making a little money buying liquor for
underage  teens who ascend from the T with big eyes and bigger pockets.

With the profits, they decide to go to a club in Central Square. Four
pennies tossed in the T box the right way sounds like 85 cents and the
token seller never looks up. If Emily has money she shares it with her
friends, not the T.

Kindness to strangers is not a cliche to Pit Rats.   One chilly night, a
15-year-old named Gary kept moving in the Pit, smoking cigarettes but
barely talking. He wore a light jacket left open to reveal a Nirvana
T-shirt in honor of his hero, Kurt Cobain, who committed suicide in 1994.
Gary had run away that night from his Somerville home. ''My mother is
abusive. Verbally abusive,'' was all he would say. He thought about
sleeping in the Cambridge Common, but the Pit Rats told him there was snow
on the way.

Eryn, who first left her Marblehead home when she was 14, suggested Gary go
to the Kingston House Shelter in Boston, where he would have to lie and
tell them he was 18 to get in. Eryn decided to take him there herself.

A lot of the  youths in the Pit say they are bisexual, and they talk openly
and loudly about sex. ''Most of us are,'' said  Niland, shrugging. An
18-year-old  woman gives a goody-goody interview - afraid her mother might
read  about her - then goes into the hallway of the Cambridge Garage and
kisses another  young woman while a security guard looks on, unamused.

When the Bridge Over Troubled Waters van pulled up, a half-dozen Pit Rats
climbed aboard. A  spike-haired teenager named Wyatt says he has mutilated
himself with an  Exacto knife on his chest. He lives in Somerville - he
calls it ''Scummerville'' - but doesn't pay rent.

''I'm the house pet,'' Wyatt  said.   ''They don't have to clean out the
refrigerator. I eat everything.'' The medical staff worries about his
wounds and his stick-thin, 100-pound  form.  He laughs and wraps his arms
around a girl  in hot pants  who is wearing a unicorn necklace  that
doubles as a weapon.

''Sometimes I sleep in the cemetery,'' he  said.  ''I don't think I'm
homeless. I have a place to go. Homeless means you don't have any place to
go when it's pouring rain. Homeless are too stupid to find a place to

The Pit Rats amuse themselves making fun of what they call the ''Listo
bums,'' those raggedy souls who  have grown old drinking Listerine in front
of the Store 24, across the street on Mass. Ave. ''The Listo bums should be
destroyed,''  Wyatt said. ''Bam. Eliminated from the gene pool. If you are
still out here when you're 40 and up and you don't have a home, you should
be put down by society.''

Bancroft, of Bridge, sees the irony. ''They don't realize that that's where
they are heading.''

Back in the Pit, Schifferdecker looked scared. ''They arrested Jerry  and a
whole bunch of kids because there was a fight or something 10 minutes
before,'' she said. ''The  plainclothes MBTA police grabbed him. He did
nothing wrong. I swear. We were just walking off the train.''

Within 10 minutes she  had raised $50 for bail from friends and workers in
Harvard Square and was off to MBTA headquarters in Roxbury to bail him out.

Back at the Pit, Niland got a hero's welcome. He told  a wide-eyed
14-year-old  called Little Joe about his exploits, how he'd sworn at the
cops and how they'd whacked him. Little Joe, though not homeless, was
taking notes. Niland went into Starbucks and the server offered him a free
coffee drink of his choice.

Early last month, Jerry  said that two days  before he had had a heart
attack. Emily  said it was caused by cocaine damage to his heart years
earlier. There are several  versions of what happened at the hospital,
including an unlikely ''flatlining'' of the monitor. But one thing was
clear: Jerry's heart was still fluttering.

''I had a heart attack, and on my deathbed I asked my girlfriend to marry
me and she said yes,''   Niland said proudly. ''I've had quite an
adventure. I'm not gonna take life for granted.''

Two weeks later, Schifferdecker and Niland  vanished. A Somerville
housemate  was angry because, she said, they had sex in her bed and
everyone else's bed. Money was missing, and the couple reportedly spent
several nights at the Harvard Square Hotel ($199 per night). Their bill was
paid  by a friend. Schifferdecker was pregnant, she told friends, and was
headed with Niland to Cincinnati, where her mother lives.

Ohio State University confirmed that Schifferdecker has been accepted
there. George Niland said he got a call from Jerry at a bus terminal saying
he was heading to Ohio. ''He just blows in the wind,'' he said sadly.

A 15-year-old who lives with his parents in South Boston but calls himself
a Pit Rat  was asked if he knew how to get in touch with  Niland and
Schifferdecker.  A week later he  called the Globe. ''I got the number,''
he  said proudly. ''But it'll cost you two bottles of vodka.''


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