Building a haven for young, homeless in Harvard Square
Two recent graduates spearhead effort to open student-run shelter
Every day in Harvard Square, the nation’s best students, glowing with the aura of forward momentum, swirl past homeless kids huddled in doorways or slouched in the square’s central “pit.”
Sam Greenberg and Sarah Rosenkrantz, who graduated from Harvard last year, have been working to change that situation. They are leading an effort to create what is believed to be the nation’s first student-run nighttime shelter for homeless youth in the basement of First Parish in Cambridge, the wooden Unitarian Universalist church abutting the Old Burial Ground.
“Y2Y Harvard Square,” which is scheduled to open in November following a $1.1 million renovation of the church’s subterranean auditorium, will offer temporary shelter for young adults age 18 to 24 during the coldest six months of the year. The aim is to provide a sanctuary where young peoplecan find their way to a stable housing situation and, eventually, a more promising future.
“A guest will feel safe in our space and have an opportunity to take a deep breath,” Greenberg said. After a stay of up to a month, he said, each young person will leave on “a concrete pathway out of homelessness.”
City officials and business leaders say the initiative is long overdue. Harvard Square’s vibrant, youth-oriented character has been a magnet for homeless young people for decades.
“They can’t go to adult shelters because they get eaten alive there,” said City Councilor Marc McGovern, who is also a social worker. “These kids really don’t have a place, even in Cambridge, where they can go and feel safe.”
Youth On Fire, a 15-year-old program of AIDS Action Committee of Massachusetts that has offered a daytime drop-in center for homeless youth providing connections to medical care, counseling, and other services at Harvard-Epworth United Methodist Church, will operate out of the new shelter in the daytime, helping young guests find a path forward.
Interrupting homelessness “at this age, where there are more opportunities than there are later in life . . . could be a game-changer,” said Maria Dominguez Gray, the class of 1955 executive director of Harvard’s Phillips Brooks House Association, the umbrella organization for student-run service programs.
Rosenkrantz, who is from Holliston, and Greenberg, who grew up in Central Square, came to Harvard with a special passion for helping people without housing.
As undergraduates, they spent much of their spare time working at the Harvard Square Homeless Shelter, a 24-bed, student-run emergency shelter for adults that Harvard students have run at University Lutheran Church for over 30 years.
They discovered a unique problem: Dozens of would-be student volunteers were turned away every year; there just wasn’t enough work for them to do. At the same time, the shelter could not accommodate many homeless people, including young adults, for lack of space.
Rosenkrantz and Greenberg talked with some of the young people who stayed at the Harvard shelter and with staff at Youth On Fire, and they learned that only one 12-bed shelter in the Boston area catered to adults under age 24.
“We don’t run an overnight program, so many of our clients go back on streets or are trying to navigate an adult shelter system that’s really unsafe for young people,” said Carl Sciortino, executive director of the AIDS Action Committee.
It is impossible to know exactly how many young people are on the streets at any given time. Youth On Fire served about 300 young people last year. Cambridge’s annual homeless census last year found 21 people ages 18 to 24 in emergency shelters, and none without any shelter at all.
Ellen Semonoff, assistant city manager of human services for the city of Cambridge, said homeless young adults tend to be a hidden population.
“They might spend a few nights on the street but often they are couch surfing, or they are, unfortunately, trading sexual relations for a bed for the night,” she said.
Kitty Zen, 24, who said she is making a transition from a decade of episodic homelessness that began when her family lost its home in a fire, said she preferred to load up on caffeine and walk around until sunrise than stay in a shelter.
“The longer you’ve been experiencing this difficult lifestyle, the more calloused you are from being in survival mode at all times,” said Zen, a part-time peer leader at Youth On Fire and an adviser on the new shelter project. “Older people are more hostile, more territorial. They know younger kids . . . aren’t as street-smart as them.”
And homeless youths tend to need different kinds of help than their adult counterparts. Many wind up in the streets because they have aged out of foster care or because of violence at home. National figures suggest that as many as 40 percent are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender.
Rosenkrantz said the more she and Greenberg learned about the problem, the more clarity they had about how students could help.
“There was a point where I felt like it would be morally wrong not to take on this project,” Rosenkrantz said.
Their advisers at Harvard worried about a long list of seemingly insurmountable obstacles at first, said Dominguez Gray: finding space in Harvard Square; potential opposition from neighbors; devising rules and training that would ensure the safety of both the students and the guests.
But Rosenkrantz and Greenberg worked to overcome each problem. Youth On Fire agreed to move its daytime drop-in center and services to the new shelter. Exhaustive research went into developing policies and training standards for the student volunteers who would run the shelter at night.
And they found a more than willing partner in First Parish, whose denomination was at the forefront of American religious organizations that welcomed gay members and clergy and same-sex marriage.
“Their proposal was very exciting, because it’s a natural extension of the core values of my congregation: unconditional love, equality, and justice,” said the Rev. Fred Small, the senior minister.
“In fact,” he added, “one of our board members, who is in her 70s, actually did a little happy dance when she first heard about it.”
Rosenkrantz and Greenberg have raised about $955,000 of the project’s $1.25 million startup goal so far, including a $500,000 grant from the Richard and Susan Smith Family Foundation. The Cambridge Housing Authority will cover $50,000 of the operating costs each year for 15 years, about half the total annual budget.
Denise Jillson, executive director of the Harvard Square Business Association, said her members support the project because of long, positive relationships with Youth On Fire and the Harvard Square Homeless Shelter, and because the need outside their doors is obvious.
“When you are walking down Brattle [Street] or Mass. Ave., you see these kids every single day,” she said. “You cannot ignore them, nor can you ignore their need.”