Small deeds during the small hours at Y2Y.


It is almost 10 PM when I ring the wrong doorbell at Zero Church Street. This winter night is a mild one, not below 40 degrees Fahrenheit, but First Parish is silent; this is not where I am meant to be. I realize my mistake and shuffle sheepishly down the block until I reach One Church. I can see damp footprints made by shoes tracking in fresh snowmelt. Through the window is the stairwell. Through the quiet murmur of the street, I hear voices and shuffling below. Two floors down, work has just begun. It’s time for the Y2Y overnight shift.

A bag search and a few swipes of a metal detector later, and I’m in the shelter proper. It’s past 10 now, and guests are browsing the internet, chatting on the phone, or eating a late dinner. I head into the kitchen to help where help is needed, but it is hard to discern. People are hovering around the sink. There are food scraps to be composted, empty trays of burritos from Anna’s Taqueria to be tossed, dishes to sanitize, counters to be wiped, guest requests to be fielded, and a shortage of direction. I don plastic gloves and start soaping up dishes. Very quickly, there are no more dishes. I am not sure what to do.

More people filter in as the hour-long overlap between evening and overnight shifts wears thin. A few get to work on tuna melts and grilled cheeses. I venture into the pantry and start taking stock – what’s good, what’s expired, what needs to be put in a new plastic bag.

We run out of canned tuna. A tuna melt becomes a grilled cheese.

Meanwhile, I keep searching for six-digit expiration dates. I re-label boxes with masking tape and permanent marker. I throw out a broken bag of flour. Behind tins of diced tomatoes, I find another can of tuna.

After one hour, Y2Y has 34 neatly stacked cans of garbanzo beans.

This I learn.

This is not exactly a glowing portrait of Y2Y. Not yet, at least – but this is a piece of the reality. Y2Y, Harvard Square’s student-run homeless shelter for young adults, is a little bit of a mess on Saturday nights.

I am telling this story because for at least two hours, I absorbed myself in absolutely mindless work. I am telling this story because when I thought about it, in between wiping and stacking and sweeping, I was doing absolutely nothing “remarkable” with my time or my Harvard education. (My parents would probably laugh and cry if I told them that.) I did not have soul-searching conversations with guests. I did laundry. I measured detergent. I cleaned pots and pans and clothes.

And yet every person who encountered me seemed to thank me – “you are so great for doing this!” “You are the best!” “Thank you, we really needed this!” I was in the most disconcertingly affirming space on campus.

“You’ve done more than enough,” the shift supervisor said to me as I lingered in the morning. I just wanted to finish mopping.

I am not telling this story because I want you to thank me, too.

I might be telling it because I hope it makes you uncomfortable. There is a certain feeling that I have gathered from a great many well-meaning and oft-well-off people. It is a mixture of love and anxiety; of misplaced guilt, maybe, or desire and repulsion in equal parts, locking them into an awkward orbit. I can see it in a lot of future Harvard graduates who want to do good and try their best to do it in a theoretical way.

But there are concrete things that need doing. They are not complicated. They need the presence of people. Little things like keeping a building clean, making sandwiches, and chatting about sports – these are the small acts that underpin a community and make it a place of love. These are the small acts that create a space meaning family unbounded by blood. There is nothing terribly profound about what I do on odd Saturday nights when the shelter is low on volunteers. The tuna melts will not cure youth homelessness; the laundry alone will not repair families, fill stomachs, create jobs, or change the world. But in the meantime, they help.

They shove away the bystander effect that permeates so much of our interactions. They stop waiting. When we graduate from Harvard College, we just might change the world. In the meantime, we cannot neglect the people around us. When we have small morsels of energy and wherewithal to help others, I cannot see why we should not.

I am telling this story in defense of the small acts. The small things must get done.

When I run up the stairs to deliver a blanket to someone on the street, in the middle of my middle-of-the-night shift, the supervisor hands me his keycard and says: “Be safe.” In the few moments between the basement shelter and the street-level landing, my heart slows – what does he mean to be safe? When I open the door, that thin glass skin between the Cambridge night and this shelter we are instructed to call home, should I steel myself for an encounter?

Am I supposed to be brave? I bound up the last few steps clutching the rainbow patchwork quilt in my hands. Should I be afraid?

I open the door and hand it to the guy. He says “thanks.” I say, “you’re welcome.” He leaves. I leave.

Y2Y is not a perfect place by any means. It could always be cleaner, and it could always use a few more staff members, but it’s so desperately needed. When a snow emergency was not declared on the Sunday before last, Feb 12th, guests staged a “sit-in” until midday instead of leaving by 9 AM to face the weather. It is a small luxury to watch the snowfall from an armchair in some junior common room. Cambridge is cold.

I am not telling this story to shame you. I don’t think that asceticism is the cure to anything, nor should guilt be the driving force behind any act. What I think is true is that the whole of a problem is hard, but every small piece is simple. Hard feelings can be reserved for the intractable. For every wishful thought, guilt can be replaced with woolen socks to hand out and hands to hold instead. In simple work, there is no regret. Whether through caring for a close friend or packing lunch for someone experiencing homelessness, we are all capable.

This is the argument I have to make: there is no shame in small good deeds. There is no burnished glory, either: it is what is. That is the beauty. We help each other because we all know how to do it, in different, small ways.

I return to the shelter.

2 AM is quiet. Things are simple. They need to be done. I toast a man’s sandwich by putting it in a waffle iron, and he tells me we should pour syrup on it. We both laugh.

I am not brave, or self-sacrificing, or noble, or good any more than anyone else. I just do.


Audrey Effenberger (effenberger@college.harvard.edu) helps when she can. You can join the Y2Y substitute volunteering mailing list by visiting http://eepurl.com/bDmiMH. You can learn more about volunteering at HSHS, the Harvard Square Homeless Shelter, by emailing hshs.volunteer@gmail.com.