The West Gate hasn’t had a paying resident in decades. Located between a City Convenience and a Giacomo & Rondi salon in Kenmore Square, not much remains inside the centenarian building except rubble and dusty construction lights. Its only resident remaining is Melvin Ramos, a homeless man who sleeps outside the West Gate’s front entrance under its faded buzzer list.
Behind Melvin is his makeshift sleeping bag, which he has to put away by 6:00 every morning — an agreement he made with local authorities, in exchange for their permission to call his little nook home. Next to him is a sign that reads “NAME MELVIN HOMELESS CAN YOU HELP THANK YOU GOD BLESS.”
“My story? It’s sad,” said 50-year-old Melvin when asked about his life.
Melvin was born in Manati, a small rural municipality in Puerto Rico. When he was five, he and his family moved to Dorchester, Boston, where he was raised for 18 years, dreamed of being a firefighter, and had a “painful” childhood.
“Growing up was hard, Melvin said. “My family was all alcoholics. My mother was an alcoholic, a lot of my brothers are alcoholics, and I was an alcoholic. That’s what brought me here... I really wanted to be a firefighter, but I guess it’s too late now. Can’t stop the fires now.”
Thirty years ago, Melvin’s troubles took control of his life and he took refuge in Kenmore Square as a homeless man. He has twelve siblings (three have passed away), whom he hasn’t spoken to or seen in years. He believes most of them are married. These days, he’s on his own “struggling just to survive.” However, he admits that he’s had help getting by over the years.
Melvin chose Kenmore because it is much quieter and safer than many other parts of Boston (unless there’s a Red Sox game going on, he adds). But he also appreciates the locals in the area who, he said, treat him well.
“Sometimes the police give me help with money and they say ‘good morning,’ all that good stuff,” Melvin said. “The post office people too. The same for the students. They tell me ‘good morning, Melvin’ or ask me how my day’s going, you know?”
He particularly enjoys talking to the students, who are mostly from Boston University along with a few from the New England School of Photography. From time to time, he’ll offer them his own personal tip for success.
“I give [the students] advice,” Melvin said followed by some loud laughter. “I tell them ‘don’t pick up that bottle and drink, man! You’ll end up here with me! I’ll be sleeping in the front and you can take the back!’”
Melvin’s daily life can be as routine as a white-collar worker’s day. He gets up early every morning and tidies up the few possessions he owns into the corner of his nook. The store owners and students around the area will frequently give him a drink and some food throughout the day. He’ll spend a good portion of the day alternating between picking up trash around the block, talking to the locals, and working on the puzzle section in The Boston Globe.
“He’s a really cool and funny guy,” said Kara Canole, who works at the Bertucci’s down the block. “He sometimes sweeps the alleyway behind our store and we give him soda and food in return. He knows who we are [in the store] by name and everything, so that’s cool.”
Occasionally, Melvin will walk around Boston or visit the library, where he likes to indulge in his favorite genre, mystery. Reading “relaxes” him. He points at his personal Bible. “This Bible, it takes a lot of bad things out of my mind, from thinking about bad things. It brings a lot of good things, like Jesus. I like the whole book,” he said.
The Good Book can only comfort him so much, however. According to the 32nd Annual Homeless Census conducted by the Boston Public Health Commission, there were 181 homeless people living on the streets this past year in Boston, its lowest figure since 1997. These would hardly be comforting numbers for Melvin, though.
“It don’t feel good being homeless, man. It’s hard, you know what I mean? Living out here, you don’t know who’s going to harm you,” Melvin said. “I wish I had an apartment, get the hell out of this corner. Even having a single room would make me happy.”
When asked which neighborhood he’d like to reside in if his wish ever came true, Melvin answered, “In Kenmore, I’d stay here, no doubt... I like the people here.”
That feeling is certainly reciprocated by the people in the area, including Brian Williams, a mailman for the local US Postal Service post office on the other side of the block where Melvin resides.
“He seems like a nice guy from what I can tell,” Williams said. “I see him out here, picking up trash, cleaning the place up and whatnot, saying ‘hello, good morning.’ He seems like a generally nice guy.”
Melvin is not one to be too humble, either. He doesn’t have much, but he takes great pride in his amicable and altruistic persona.
“I want people to know that I’m a good person. Don’t be afraid of me, I don’t bite,” Melvin said, followed by his friendly laugh.