Two Harvard grads want to change the way we help the homeless

Y2Y Harvard Square will be a new way to help young adult homelessness, its co-founders say.– August 27, 2015

Sarah Rosenkrantz was tired of turning away people from the Harvard Square Homeless Shelter. She felt like they could’ve done more, she said, so she set out with colleague Sam Greenberg to speak with service providers, community activists, and people experiencing homelessness in the area.

“Time and time again we were hearing about this issue of young adult homelessness,’’ Rosenkrantz said. “The numbers are sort of hard to pin down, just because there isn’t a lot of research on the issue. But we know that young people often don’t feel safe being in the adult-shelter system, and often times actually report feeling safer sleeping on the street.’’

Rosenkrantz and Greenberg decided to build their own shelter. Construction begins Thursday for the nation’s first student-run homeless shelter for young adults: Y2Y Harvard Square.

“The more we learned about [young adult homelessness], the more we realized that the student-run shelter is actually a great model, because a lot of times young people have really negative interactions with authority figures,’’ Rosenkrantz said. “The youth-to-youth relationship automatically lowers the barriers of trust.’’

The shelter is set to open November in the basement of First Parish Church in Cambridge. It will have 22 beds that can be occupied for 30 days at a time. Rosenkrantz said they expect to serve 130 people in the first year. Once the 30 days are up, people can come back. She hopes they won’t have to.

“Ultimately, 22 beds isn’t going to change everything for young adults in Greater Boston,’’ she said. “But we hope those that stay with us will get on a track out of homelessness so it doesn’t become a revolving door.’’

These resources will include meetings with case managers, financial planning, resume building, and referrals.

Along with the service providers, advocates, and researchers, Rosenkrantz and Greenberg worked with construction group Skanska to design a shelter to fit the unique needs of the homeless youth.

A quarter of homeless youth in Massachusetts have aged out of the foster system, Greenberg said, and there’s also a high population of homeless youth who identify as LGBTQ—they’re primarily homeless because of family rejection and conflict.

A rendering of the bunk beds designed for Y2Y.

“When we started the design for this, we felt like it was really crucial to talk to the young adults that we would ultimately be serving,’’ Greenberg said. “We held a number of space design workshops with young people at drop-in shelters saying, basically, ‘If you could have your dream shelter, what would it look like?’ And we heard back really strongly that it shouldn’t feel institutional, that it should be gender inclusive, and that it should feel private and welcoming.’’

Carolyn Jamison, the project manager from Skanska, said that she is excited to work on this project because she’s familiar with the issue after working in the area.

“We spent the better part of four years in Cambridge, and you can’t spend that much time in Cambridge without being impacted by the homeless situation there,’’ she said. “We like to build things that matter and it’s always great when you get an opportunity to combine construction with something more altruistic and serves a greater purpose.’’

Y2Y’s beds will each be in their own private alcove with a reading light, outlet, and locker. There will be a fully industrial kitchen, single stall bathrooms and showers, and a large drop-in space with work stations for people to meet with case mangers and work on computers.

“As far as our research has shown, this design has never really been done in a shelter for young adults,’’ Greenberg said. “We’re really excited about this not only being an excellent shelter in Harvard Square but also being a nation-wide model.’’

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