Breaktime Cafe doesn’t look like much. It’s 1,500 square feet of typical office space on Portland Street, with gray carpeting, off-white walls, and tables shoved into corners. But by the time the cafe opens in the spring, its founders hope to transform the office into a resource for Boston’s homeless youth.
The opening will mark a major expansion of a six-month pilot program founded last year by a pair of Harvard University undergraduates. It offered a handful of homeless youth on-the-job training as baristas, with the goal of bringing them into the workforce and out of homelessness.
“We’re not creating jobs for people because we pity them,” cofounder Tony Shu, 20, said. “We’re creating jobs for people who have skills and talents within them.”
Once Breaktime Cafe is up and running, the plan is to employ up to 15 homeless youth at a time. They’ll serve sandwiches, seasonal drinks, and coffee made from ethically sourced beans. That will be triple the number served in the pilot program, and a small but meaningful chunk of the estimated 325 people between the ages of 18 and 24 who were sleeping in Boston’s shelters and streets in January.
Schoen said Breaktime has raised about $145,000, with much of the money coming from corporate sponsors and charitable trusts, such as Cambridge Trust and the Harnisch Foundation. He said the cafe also has attracted hundreds of individual donations through crowdfunding campaigns. Donated legal advice, accounting, and other services have helped defray costs.
“By year two, or year three, we hope to have almost all of our expenses covered just through cafe revenue,” Schoen said.
Employees will earn $15 to $18 an hour. Aside from learning how to brew coffee, Schoen and Shu want to teach them financial literacy and professional skills, like writing a resume, personal budgeting, and interview techniques. Part of that will come through one-on-one mentorships with professionals from the cafe’s sponsors, many which are financial institutions like BlackRock and Eastern Bank.
The cafe will occupy ground-floor space at 170 Portland St. Shu and Breaktime cofounder Connor Schoen, 21, are renting it from Community Work Services, the local branch of the national job-training nonprofit Fedcap, at a “very competitive rate,” Schoen said.
“We want to work with a budget that’s achievable,” said Rashmi Ramaswamy, an architect working pro bono to design the space. “We’re asking people to help us build specialty furniture and paint our ceilings.”
The project dates to when Schoen and Shu met as volunteers at Y2Y Harvard Square, a homeless youth shelter run by Harvard students. Shu was inspired to volunteer by his mother, who as a young immigrant to Kansas from China often slept in her car.
“I knew that it was my duty and my opportunity to use the skills and the resources that I have in front of me in order to pay it forward,” Shu said.
Schoen says he was able to come out as bisexual after seeing how comfortable Y2Y’s LGBTQ residents seemed in their own skins. He later learned that up to 40 percent of homeless adults identify as LGBTQ, according to one study.
“It just immediately became something I was really passionate about, and indignant about,” Schoen said. “The fact that people are being kicked out of their homes for just coming out just doesn’t make any sense to me.”
The two men realized that for many struggling young people trying to gain a foothold, there is a tricky period between the end of a work-training program and when they land a paying job.
“For people who may have foundational training programs or foundational work experience, where do they go after that to bridge them to the broader work force and sustainable careers?” Shu said. “That’s what Breaktime does.”
The business partners, who plan to run the cafe full time after graduating, impressed Brittany Butler, who runs the Harvard Kennedy School’s Social Innovation and Change Initiative, a student mentorship program that birthed Breaktime’s pilot. Butler said she was partly swayed to choose Schoen and Shu in 2018 as fellows because of their commitment and complementing strengths.
“Connor [Schoen] is such a doer,” she said, “and Tony [Shu] is very reflective.”
Schoen and Shu’s ability to make an impression also played a critical role when it came time to convince donors outside of Harvard.
“We had a lot of questions for them and they didn’t pretend to have all the answers.” said Susan Monahan of the Boston-based John W. Walden Trust, a charity that donates money to children-related causes and gave Breaktime $25,000. “They were just really honest.”
Erica Grube-Grumt, 26, who graduated from the pilot program in March 2019 and now serves in the Navy — as well as on the new cafe’s advisory board — said it helped to build her self-confidence.
“A lot of people who are homeless, they feel unheard,” Grube-Grumt said. “They feel like they’re in their own little corner on the street just begging for change, or begging for something to change. To finally be able to step on the pedestal and tell people what it’s like firsthand . . . can really make a provocative change.”