Harvard Square's homeless youth to have beds of their own

Boston Business Journal– August 26, 2015

Homeless youth are a sad but very real fixture in Harvard Square and two recent Harvard grads, motivated by that grim reality, have gone about creating a shelter for them.

Set to open in November, the shelter is meant to provide beds to homeless youth between 18 and 24 years old, a population that advocates say lacks an adequate number of beds specifically set-aside for them.

The new shelter – which will operate during the winter, at least in its first year – also provides some level of relief to business owners, who have operated for years with the homeless sleeping overnight in doorways and panhandling during the day.

A unique twist on the youth shelter, which will be housed in the 4,725 square foot basement of the First Parish Church, is that it will be staffed by and run by about 30 student volunteers, most of them from Harvard. The volunteers will provide everything from case management to legal aid, courtesy of Harvard Law School.

Sam Greenberg and Sara Rosenkrantz are the 2014 Harvard grads leading the charge. To run the shelter, they launched an organization called Y2Y Harvard Square, a program of Harvard University’s Phillips Brooks House Association that will provide support for and oversight of the shelter.

Other homeless shelters operate in the area, including the Harvard Square Homeless Shelter, but none of them have beds specifically for young people, Greenberg said. In the Boston area, he said, there are only 12 beds set aside for homeless youth, many of whom have come out of the foster care system and are dealing with mental health issues.

By and large, homeless youth do not feel safe sharing shelter space with the older, more veteran homeless population, Greenberg said.

“Young people who are homeless are more recent to being homeless. They’re in crisis,” said Greenberg, adding that providing young people with services while they are new to the streets “can be a critical intervention point.”

Greenberg and Rosenkrantz have raised nearly all of the $1.25 million they need to build out the church’s basement space to accommodate 22 bunk beds, a fully functioning kitchen that will serve at least two meals a day, improved bathrooms and new showers. There also will be a medical office on site to provide care for the young people who stay at the shelter.

Skanska USA is working as a pro bono advisor on the project. Studio G Architects in Jamaica Plain provided the design and general contractor Essex Newbury North is doing the construction on the space, both firms working at a reduced rate, said Greenberg.

The Cambridge Housing Authority has agreed to provide Y2Y with $50,000 a year for the next 15 years, which is about half of its projected annual operating budget, Greenberg said. Y2Y has been raising money through individual donors, grants and donations from businesses, he said.

The Harvard Square Business Association has been among the shelter’s biggest supporters.

“We walk past kids every single day who are in need of something. You can’t ignore that,” said Denise Jillson, executive director of the Harvard Square Business Association, which has more than 400 members.