Harvard Opens A Student-Run Youth Homeless Shelter

“Young people don’t feel safe in adult shelters. We felt it would be wrong not to open up a space for our peers.”

Huffington Post– March 31, 2016

It’s hard to be homeless at any age, but particularly after age 18: at that age, homeless youth become too old to be in the foster system, but are often too young to feel safe in adult shelters. But now, there’s a new place for them to go: Harvard.

No, not the university — but almost. In December, Harvard alumni Sarah Rosenkrantz and Sam Greenberg opened Y2Y, a homeless shelter in Harvard Square exclusively serving youth aged 18 to 24, and entirely run by students.

“Young people don’t feel safe, and often aren’t, in adult shelters,” said Rosenkrantz to the Huffington Post on Monday. “We felt it would be wrong not to open up a space for our peers.”

Y2Y follows in the footsteps of Harvard Square Homeless Shelter (HSHS), the nation’s first student-run homeless shelter, which opened in 1983. The Y2Y founders came up with the idea for a youth shelter after being involved at HSHS.

A 30-person student team runs the shelter on a day-to-day basis, including directing 200 volunteers who make dinner every night, and bringing in service providers, like legal aid, yoga teachers or case workers.

“Our goal is to meet people where they are, and support them in their goals,” Rosenkrantz said. “Some people want jobs or to go back to school or to find housing, and we have case managers working to connect them with services. Others just need to rest and recuperate from the trauma of living on the street.”

In Massachusetts, there are at last 1,800 homeless youth between the ages of 18 and 24, according to a government count in 2014.

With Y2Y only offering 22 beds at any given time, and the only other youth homeless shelter in all of Boston offering 14 beds, according to an email from their staff to the Huffington Post, the demand clearly far outweighs the supply.

The youth shelter tries to meet the need by putting a 30-day limit on stays — allowing them to cycle more people in, rather than catering long-term to a small few. But not all residents are pleased with this policy.

“How long can we stay here for—30 fucking days? Harvard students ain’t doing shit for us,” said one guest to the Harvard Crimson last week.

“It’s definitely ideal to have a longer stay,” Rosenkrantz said. “We want to serve as many people as we can, and do as much as possible for those staying with us.”

While homeless shelters can often be difficult to get into — with wait lists, applications, and requirements — Y2Y’s only requirement is age, and a basic ability to cooperate with the rules, such as not bringing drugs or alcohol into the space.

“To get a bed you enter a lottery — no screening, no application, just luck of the draw,” Rosenkrantz said. “What that means is even if you have a history of drug or alcohol use, or a criminal record, you can still access the space.”

 

Other schools have caught on to the idea of opening a student-run homeless shelter, including a group of universities in Pennsylvania, but none so far have opened one for youth. Being the only one means that Y2Y has a steep learning curve.

“The biggest lesson learned is that this can’t just be Harvard students swooping in and opening a shelter to save the day — that’s the most dangerous thing you can do as students with the privilege we have as Harvard alumni,” Rosenkrantz said.  “[Teaching Harvard students] is always our secondary goal. Our priority is on the young people staying with us.”