YOUTH TO YOUTH: Y2Y Harvard Square shelter to open this winter

Spare Change News– August 25, 2015

The Y2Y shelter in Harvard Square has started construction and is on track for a November opening.

The shelter, headed by Co-Executive Directors Sam Greenberg and Sarah Rosenkrantz, will serve homeless youth between the ages of 18 and 24. Employing a unique “youth-to-youth” model, the shelter will have 22 beds, assigned by lottery, and will offer 30-night long stays from about November to May. Additionally, a major focus will be on providing completely optional support services including legal counsel, housing and job search assistance and medical care.

Rosenkrantz says the youth-to-youth model is important for a number of reasons: “A lot of times, there’s distrust toward adult authority figures. When you have a young person in that role, it just creates a different dynamic. It automatically lowers the barriers of trust.” Additionally, the shelter will be completely run by volunteers: “Students are here because they want to be here, not because they’re being paid. That model is really special.”

Though research on youth homelessness is sparse, the Y2Y has divided the reasons youth are homeless into three major categories. First, for some, home isn’t safe: physical, emotional or sexual abuse victims may decide that being homeless is safer than staying in a dangerous home environment. Second, for around 25% of homeless youth, home doesn’t exist: 36 percent of youth who age out of the foster care system, for example, will experience homelessness before the age of 26. Finally, for others, home isn’t supportive: 40 percent of homeless youth nationwide identify as LGBTQ, and by far the largest reason LGBTQ youth face homelessness is family rejection.

One of the major focuses of the shelter will be creating an “affirming space,” especially for youth who identify as LGBTQ. “In general, we know that young people who identify as LGBTQ are disproportionately at risk for trauma, abuse, and generally feel less safe staying in shelters,” states Greenberg. “I think certainly [as a society] we can do a lot more for our LGBTQ-identified peers.”

The shelter will focus especially on creating a safe space for those who identify as transgender. “A traditional shelter setup doesn’t work” to support transgender youth, says Greenberg. In most shelters, for instance, showers and sleeping areas are divided by sex. However, this can create an uncomfortable—and potentially dangerous—environment for transgender youth.

In order to combat this issue, the Y2Y will have completely private single-stall showers and bathrooms and “alcove” beds. These will have a translucent shutter and be surrounded by punched out wood, providing privacy while still allowing staff supervision, a personal locker and lock, a reading light and an outlet. “The idea is to create a feeling of privacy,” explains Greenberg. “The beds will not feel like a traditional barrack-style bunk bed, and we can be entirely gender-inclusive and gender-neutral.”

“[These features] will allow us, from an infrastructural perspective, to approach all young people, and especially those who identify as LGBTQ, in a welcoming, thoughtful, and affirming way,” concludes Greenberg.

But it will take more than just a thoughtful design to create a welcoming space—something Rosenkrantz and Greenberg have thoroughly considered. For example, the staff will be trained in how to use preferred gender pronouns, and the shelter’s intake forms will have a blank space, instead of a multiple-choice list, for gender.

“It comes down to making sure our staff is very well trained and diverse, representing the population that we’ll be serving,” says Rosenkrantz.

During the day, the space will be used by Youth on Fire, a program organized by the AIDS Action Committee that provides drop-in support services to homeless and at-risk youth aged 14 to 24. “We are very excited to share the space with them and think it will add tremendously to our programming,” says Greenberg. “But we are two separate programs, two separate organizations: ones that complement each other but are not the same. We have to recognize that and work with that.” Though details still need to be finalized, the collaboration is encouraging.

When asked how the public has responded since design plans were released in April, Greenberg says, “It’s been inspiring to us how many people within the broader community are deeply excited.”

One major part of the process since the initial kickoff has been working with the Y2Y’s Young Adult Advisory Council, which is a group of young people who have recently experienced homelessness or are currently homeless. “They’ve been involved in every step of the process, and they’re really excited about the designs and layout,” says Rosenkrantz.

But still, youth homelessness, and homelessness in general, is often an overlooked issue. Rosenkrantz says that spreading awareness is going to be a focal point of Y2Y’s mission, but she recognizes that it will be a “gradual process.”

“We see our mission just as much to advocate as to run the shelter. I think a big part of [that] is to provide students a chance to have a deep, immersive, hopefully life-changing opportunity,” elaborates Greenberg. “How do we make homelessness an issue? Part of it is coming face to face with it. I think very few people come face to face with the issue [while] retaining stereotypes they had.”

Anyone can volunteer at the Y2Y and hopefully gain a “much more nuanced, thoughtful, compassionate attitude about homelessness.”

One of the most important ways to ensure that the shelter upholds its core values is having a comprehensive training program for staff. The shelter will be run by 30 college students, who will commit around 10–30 hours per week and will undergo an “extremely extensive training curriculum, on things like how to be affirming and how to be inclusive,” says Greenberg. The training will also focus on issues like racial justice.

Greenberg continues, “We’ll be thinking about it in a very comprehensive way, to hopefully ensure that those students especially, and also our broader volunteer base, are well trained and well prepared to address the complex issues that come up.”

Greenberg and Rosenkrantz have been passionate about these issues for a long time, but it was while attending Harvard that they realized it was something they wanted to pursue further. Both worked at the Harvard Square Homeless Shelter and even said separately that it was the most rewarding thing they had done at the university.

Greenberg says it was the fact that “the Harvard Square Homeless Shelter turns away dozens of students who want to volunteer there every year” that made him and Rosenkrantz initially realize the possibility of expanding the program. They knew they wanted to do something but weren’t exactly sure of the specifics: Rosenkrantz says, “There was a while where we didn’t know the right thing to do. And then there was five minutes where it all made sense.”

Both Rosenkrantz and Greenberg will continue to work closely on the shelter, though they won’t run basic day-to-day operations once it opens. Though they see themselves doing this for at least the next few years, they also have ideas about long-term next steps. Greenberg says, “This is something we believe should and could happen on a broader scale. If this model makes sense, we think it should happen at other schools.”

But for now, both Greenberg and Rosenkrantz are excited to be focused on the shelter’s construction and making sure the opening—in time for winter—goes smoothly. Greenberg concludes, “It’s a great feeling when what you want to do and what is really the right thing to do are exactly the same.”

The Y2Y has raised around $1.07 million of its $1.25 million funding goal; to help out, donate online at y2yharvardsquare.org.