30 Nights: Y2Y Homeless Shelter
The Harvard Crimson– March 24, 2016
“Dude, I walked in here and I was like ‘Holy shit, this place looks amazing,’” Kim, a 22-year-old, tells us over our fourth consecutive game of BananaGrams. She’s remembering her first night at Y2Y, Harvard Square’s only youth homeless shelter. “I had a bed that was on the bottom floor, and I crawled in there and I literally just stayed,” she recalls.
Only a few months have passed since Y2Y first opened its doors in December, but many of the young adults who fill the shelter’s beds each night feel as though they have found a home—at least for the 30 nights at a time they can sleep there.
“There’s food whenever you want to eat. There’s showers available whenever you want to shower. It’s basically kind of like a home,” Jayzena Hernandez, another guest at the shelter, says.
Residing in the basement below the First Parish Church in Cambridge—across the street from CVS and Harvard Yard—Y2Y remains one of only two youth homeless shelters in the greater Boston area.
Over the past three years, a group of Harvard students, alumni, and professors conceived and constructed Y2Y, Harvard Square’s first peer-to-peer, trauma-informed, easy-to-access shelter for young adults experiencing homelessness. They also developed a number of guest-focused initiatives—from yoga classes to legal counseling—designed to improve guests’ stays and prepare them for the future.
The shelter has hosted 60 guests since its opening, and the vast majority have responded positively. Y2Y’s staff and volunteers acknowledge, though, that the shelter can only do so much to tackle the immense and intractable problem of homelessness.
As one guest, sitting within feet of the BananaGrams table, asked anyone who would listen: “How long can we stay here for—30 fucking days? Harvard students ain’t doing shit for us.”
Samuel G. Greenberg ’14, who co-founded the shelter along with Sarah A. Rosenkrantz ’14, understands these constraints. Still, he believes, by creating a place where Harvard students confront the harsh realities existing just steps from the comfort of their dorms, Y2Y plays a critical role in addressing larger systemic inequality.
“It’s 200 Harvard kids saying, ‘We care. We don’t think that our peers should be homeless. Nobody should be homeless, and certainly not people our age sleeping on our doorstep,’” he says.
“In high school, one of my best friends… told me that he had been homeless for most of high school, which I actually hadn’t known,” Greenberg recalls. He’d seen many examples of inequality, both while growing up in Cambridge and studying structural inequity, but it was his friend’s story that prompted him to get more involved in public service in college.
Greenberg, who had volunteered at the Harvard Square Homeless Shelter in high school, decided to devote more time to the organization. It was, he says, “the best thing I’d ever done.”
Working at the shelter exposed him to the breadth of challenges people experiencing homelessness face and the dearth of resources available in the greater Boston area. Greenberg and his friends at HSHS started to think about other ways they might combat homelessness.
After lengthy discussions with service providers, homelessness advocates, faith leaders, and policy-makers, the need for “something for young adults” in the form of a “short-term, low-threshold, easy-to-access safe shelter” became clear. At the time, HSHS was the only shelter where many young people felt safe going, which, to Greenberg and Rosenkrantz, demonstrated the need for another youth-friendly shelter—what would eventually become Y2Y.
Harvard’s Assistant Dean of Public Service, Gene A. Corbin, who sits on Y2Y’s Advisory Board, remembers discussing Greenberg and Rosenkrantz’s initial vision. “They were involved in Harvard Square Homeless Shelter and asking all the right kinds of questions,” he says. “I was always impressed with their thoughtfulness.”
HSHS provided Greenberg and Rosenkrantz a model for student engagement and development. Y2Y staff members shadowed HSHS volunteers in order to learn more about how the shelter operated. HSHS also organized several fundraisers for Y2Y, contributing to the over $1.2 million raised to renovate the space.
Still, when Y2Y opened last semester, staff members at both shelters were anxious to see how the two Harvard Square institutions would share staff and funding. “We weren’t really sure how it was going to work,” Abigail S. Harris ’16, Y2Y’s Maintenance Director, remembers.
To alleviate this tension, the two shelters met to write a “memorandum of understanding”: essentially an agreement not to step on each other’s toes. For instance, Y2Y decided not to apply to grants traditionally pursued by HSHS and sought new sources for food donations.
“It is so cool to have two student-run shelters within two blocks of each other,” Harris says. “We have to work together. It would be absolutely ridiculous if we were just these two separate entities that never spoke to each other.”
In some cases, Y2Y has forced HSHS, which was founded in 1983, to think critically about some of its own longstanding policies, specifically when it comes to gender separation. Unlike HSHS, Y2Y has gender-neutral bathrooms and living spaces.
“As a result of seeing all [Y2Y’s] work in that initiative, we’ve taken it upon ourselves to think about what we can do to make our space welcoming to people of all identities,” Isobel W. Green ’17, an administration director at HSHS, says.
Kennedy School Professor Julie B. Wilson, who has worked with both shelters, remembers that while HSHS “grew out of a crisis,” Y2Y’s policies were “systematically” designed. One area in which Y2Y is particularly methodical is in maintaining a physical space that reflects its overall mission.
“[HSHS] is a really great shelter and everything, but it’s also really gray, really drab and very usual when it comes to homeless shelters,” Harris says. “There’s standard bunks, and they’re all lined up in the same way, and I saw that with Y2Y, there was an opportunity to do something really interesting, really cool, and really thoughtful.”
Y2Y’s open-layout, high-ceilinged, modern design aesthetic looks more like Quincy House’s renovated Stone Hall basement—an inspiration for the architects who designed Y2Y—than a typical homeless shelter.
When Hernandez first moved into Y2Y, the first thing she noticed was “the space.” “It’s big, it’s not overcrowded, and also everything is pretty much clean. I like that a lot,” she said.
Vibrant lime green walls envelop Y2Y’s common area, and pastel blue chairs are dotted about. The far wall boasts a massive mural of stripes and spirals in splashes of neon purple and blue, painted by Kitty Zen, a member of Y2Y’s Young Adult Advisory Council.
According to Harris, who worked closely with the building committee in the months leading up to Y2Y’s opening, the architects designed the space to feel safe and comfortable for guests, a disproportionate number of whom have experienced trauma.
“The best way that we can serve those guests is to create a space that is free of trauma or at least informed by trauma and that strives to not re-traumatize our guests,” Greenberg says.
For instance, much of Y2Y’s furniture “faces the entrance, so you have eyesight on the entrance as opposed to your back to the entrance,” Harris explains. According to several Y2Y staff members, being unable to see the room’s entrance can induce trauma for those who have experienced homelessness.
Spanning an entire wall are three-tier stacks of beds, colloquially known as “pods.” Custom designed for Y2Y, the zigzagging, interlocking nooks provide privacy and personal space for guests, while allowing staffers easy access if need be.
“Most [shelters], you’re either on the floor or need to share a room with somebody. But we each get our own individual pods, our individual bed,” Kim says. “That’s one of the unique features and one of the things I like the most.”
Hernandez also highlights the impact of the pods, particularly the small drawers adjacent to each bed. “This little cubby here, it’s great,” she says, gesturing towards her drawer. “You don’t have to share with anybody else; it’s like your own personal space.”
Every day around 6:30 p.m., a line begins to form outside Y2Y. Staff, volunteers, and guests slowly trickle through the side door of the First Parish Church, where they are all processed by Jared A. Dunham, who manages security during some evenings.
Each check-in—for staff, guests, and journalists alike—begins with the same question: “Any drugs, weapons, or alcohol on you?”
Just inside the shelter’s doors, Dunham, with wisps of gray in his beard and a black bandana over his dreadlocks, rifles through every pocket of every visitor’s bag, waving a hand-held metal detector over each person. Officially dubbed the shelter’s “Youth Worker,” Dunham also acts as a liaison between guests and volunteers. Y2Y’s Youth Workers have all experienced homelessness.
“I’m sort of a bridge that goes between the guests and students,” Dunham says, perched at a makeshift station in the stairwell between the shelter and the world outside. “What I’m doing with my experience and my background is working on empowering the volunteers and staff to empower the guests.”
Melinda R. Song ’17, a volunteer at the shelter, agrees that Y2Y cultivates positive and equitable relationships between staff and guests.
“Obviously, my life experiences are very different, and I’m in a different situation than the guests in the shelter, but there is that common humanness,” she explains. “I’ve talked to guests about… drama and relationships, and all these things we’re [all] going through as 20-year-olds.”
Still, hierarchical dynamics between guests and staff are inevitable at a homeless shelter responsible for ensuring safety and security. It is staff, not guests, who are tasked with doling out punishments, giving away beds, and serving two meals a day. These power dynamics are at play as soon as volunteers arrive each night.
While volunteers prepare dinner, guests wait outside. At 7p.m., the doors open, and soon after, the two groups converge outside the kitchen.
Though volunteers try to work with food left for them by the previous night’s staff, they still try to get creative. The pantry contains a wide range of donated food, including a seemingly endless supply of peanut butter, tomato sauce, icing, mac and cheese, and other non-perishables. Harvard University Dining Services and neighborhood restaurants, such as Dado, Market on the Square, and Au Bon Pain, also contribute food at the end of many nights.
On one Tuesday, the staff cooked an entire turkey. Another night, penne bolognese. According to guests, the food distinguishes Y2Y from other shelters. “I gotta be honest, the food is good here,” Ayisha M. Eddins, a guest, tells us.
While the volunteers and staff are finishing up dinner—both cooking dishes themselves and picking up food from restaurants in the Square—guests begin to fill up the shelter’s common space. Some use Y2Y’s computers to research job opportunities, while others play games like Minecraft. A few sink down into one of the shelter’s many couches, needing relaxation after days that, as one guest put it, “couldn’t be any worse.”
Meanwhile, a few staff members change sheets and clorox mattresses for the one-night lotteried beds that are given out if 30-day guests are absent for the evening. Other volunteers and staff members set up nightly activities, which tonight, include yoga and a community meeting.
Concurrently, several law students from the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau set up shop in one of the back offices, where they hope to provide legal advice; case managers await conversations with guests; the medical staff gears up for the night ahead as well.
Y2Y prides itself on the resources it provides its guests, but even after dinner, many who stay at the shelter prefer not to engage in organized activities. On one night, community meeting goes entirely unattended, while yoga boasts just four participants, including the staff member who ran it. The advocacy meeting the night before had only one attendee. The legal aid office received none.
There is one resource, however, that many guests value: Y2Y’s student case managers.
During dinner, several case managers chat with one another about the night’s schedule and Y2Y’s progress, occasionally making small talk about Harvard life. Some of them even try and get ahead on schoolwork, as they wait to talk to guests.
Case managers have a flexible, but critical, role at the shelter. “The case managers are mostly supposed to be a front line to be aware of what [resources] are out there, and then connect guests with other people who specialize,” one manager, Gabriel S. Coonce ’19, explains. The case managers also work directly with guests—to fill out applications for housing, state IDs, food stamps, and other necessities.
“[Guests] can get help whenever [they] need it,” Kim says. “During the period from when you walk in to the time that you leave in the morning, there’s always someone around you—a volunteer, case manager, director—so if there’s ever any kind of issue, you can go to them.”
According to Kim, the model of one case manager per student works, in part, because it’s driven by guest feedback. “Recently, I said it was really hard to have multiple caseworkers helping you, because that’s a lot of personal information,” she explains. “Now, you can email or call your case manager on work phones and you can schedule meetings at the shelter or outside.”
Y2Y considers its guest-feedback mechanism—wherein a guest will issue a complaint, and the shelter will work to address it—one of the most important aspects of their mission. “One of our core values is being adaptive, and I think that is really important to us because we don’t have the answers and nobody really [does],” Greenberg says. “That’s not to say there aren’t smart people working on [youth homelessness], but it is such an understudied issue.”
This lack of literature on how best to address youth homelessness is just one reason why Y2Y is hesitant in forcing guests to partake in its initiatives. Y2Y also understands that each guest is her own individual and, as such, should not be forced to participate in a one-size-fits-all program.
“All of our programming is opt-in, and that’s because we know that our guests are coming to us at entirely different places of physical ability, mental ability,” Greenberg explains. “The best thing we can do is provide as many opportunities to engage in those processes and remove as many barriers as we can, but know that what we do is not perfect.”
Thus Y2Y continues to expand its offerings for guests, in spite of limited participation. For instance, the shelter hopes to provide more extensive legal services going forward. “Our expectation is that we’ll be able to help people with restraining orders or harassment prevention orders,” says legal volunteer Amanda I. Morejon. According to Morejon, the shelter also hopes to help guests work with housing authorities, navigate Section 8 bureaucracy, prevent wage theft, and secure unemployment benefits.
The medical department for Y2Y also plans to expand its services. Dr. Avra Goldman, who launched the program (and also is the mother of co-founder Sam Greenberg), explained that she currently helps guests out mostly on an as-needed basis. But in the near future, she plans on creating more programs to help with addiction medicine, alongside Dr. Paul Trowbridge, an addiction specialist working with Y2Y.
By around 9:30 p.m., the organized activities at Y2Y are largely concluded. At this point, guests finish eating and turn to the entertainment portion of the night. Many guests ignore the myriad DVDs on the shelves—ranging from Da Ali G Show to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid—as well as the video games (though we hear Rock Band is usually popular), opting for computer or board games instead.
This is where we find Kim holding court at the BananaGram table, where she just came off a victory. “I was an English major,” she says, explaining her fondness for the game.
“Lights off” is at 10:30 p.m., but most guests stay awake for a few hours afterwards. Others try to get to bed as soon as possible, requesting wake-up calls as early as 5 a.m. to get to work on time, or to nab one of the first showers in the morning.
According to several guests and volunteers, this crunch makes the morning shift one of the most difficult for guests and staff alike. “When you have 10 people trying to occupy four different showers, it gets a little hectic in the morning,” Kim explains. “Everyone’s getting up earlier to get into the shower first, and because everyone’s getting up earlier, they’re crankier because they still can’t get into the shower, because the other people that are waking up early are getting into the shower first.”
Because Y2Y allows guests to take showers in locked rooms—a policy that many other shelters don’t share—showers can end up lasting for hours rather than minutes.
Y2Y faces such dilemmas on a daily basis: Is it worth it to help guests feel autonomous, if that means other guests in the space are inconvenienced? In the case of showers, volunteers have decided that it is. In other cases, Y2Y’s verdict has been less clear cut and is constantly evolving with new data. “We always want to be reevaluating our work and see how we can make it better,” Greenberg says.
One of Y2Y’s initial goals was to have their model replicated throughout the country. “From the beginning, we were trying to create a manual for how to run a shelter like this and how to assess its performance so that other sites could pick it up,” Wilson explains. To this end, Y2Y enlisted two data collection directors.
One of these directors, Isabelle Yang ’17, laid out the framework by which Y2Y keeps track of the success of the shelter and its guests from check-in through check-out and beyond. Guests are required to complete in-depth surveys before their first night at the shelter, a process staff members call “contact.”
Over the course of a guest’s 30-night stay, the data directors will collect data several more times, both directly through surveys and indirectly through qualitative feedback given to case managers. “If a guest said, ‘This sucked tonight,’ I’d put that in the nightly notes,” Yang explains. “Every time our case managers talk to a guest, they are supposed to write up a set of notes as well.”
This model allows for flexibility, Yang says. “Say a guest says to us she really likes science books, one of us can bring in science books—we’re students.” Beyond these sorts of individual feedback mechanisms, Y2Y’s methods of data collection add to the conversations surrounding big picture issues, ranging from the food they serve to the policies they enforce.
So far the team at Y2Y has spent more time collecting data than analyzing it, but Greenberg says that Y2Y does “know some stuff [about the average guest experience.] We know that at least seven of our guests have moved into long-term or transitional housing…. We know that in the month of February, 87 percent of our guests felt safe in our shelter and 100 percent would have recommended Y2Y to a friend… We know we’ve had some successes with IDs and jobs, but we don’t have a trajectory, and that’s something that’s a project.”
Understanding the average experience of a guest at Y2Y will unavoidably take time, according to many staff members we spoke to from the shelter. This is especially true, because it is difficult to stay in touch with guests after their 30-day stays. “If we had money—if we could get the donations—one thing that might be useful might be to get contact information on [guests] and check in with them periodically, offering them some incentive to complete a questionnaire,” Wilson says.
But, for now, Y2Y does not have that money to spare. The data collection team must acquire as much information as they can during guests’ one-month long visits to the shelter.
“We researched a lot of stuff,” says Yang. “The feedback we got reinforced these decisions that we made, which is a good sign…. The end goal is to make sure that that’s still the case and look out for times where there’s a disconnect.”
Perhaps because of its recent opening, the shelter still encounters unforeseen obstacles. Harris gave us an example. “We’ve had a couple of incidences of people putting used needles in the feminine hygiene disposals in the bathroom,” Harris says. “I hadn’t thought about that.”
Volunteers at Y2Y believe that intervention at a young age may help to prevent chronic homelessness. Of course, though, what Harvard students can do in 30 days is necessarily limited.
“30 days is enough for some things—like, if someone wants to get a birth certificate or something like that, that’s relatively easy,” Benjamin Gaytan ’19, a case manager, tells us. “But if someone wants to get housing or a job, that’s a little harder—that’s not guaranteed.”
Especially as Y2Y’s first season comes to a close this April, many on the staff have been trying to determine how best to follow up with guests after their stays.
“Obviously, [30 days] is not enough for a lot of the bigger problems,” Gaytan continues. “But for a lot of the smaller stuff, I think it is. And once people have the smaller stuff, it’s a lot easier to get the bigger things done.”
This has proven to be true for many guests at Y2Y, including Hernandez. “I’m actually on my way to getting a single room occupancy through Boston housing,” she says. “I couldn’t be any more happier about news like that.”
But for guests with less certain plans than Hernandez, the idea of spending Day 31 outside of Y2Y can be daunting. The 30 day cap can also feel restrictive for the case managers, legal aids, doctors, and other staff who spend their nights working with guests.
Still, according to the data team, Y2Y is “able to accommodate a good percentage” of the youth homeless population looking for a place to stay. “It does change day by day, but it’s not like HSHS where they get 30 callers a night for three beds,” Yang says. A representative from HSHS confirmed this assessment, calling it “pretty on-point.”
In many cases, though, it’s just 30 nights at Y2Y and out. “It’s something that I don’t think we have the answer to,” Greenberg says.
When Greenberg and Rosenkrantz first conceived of the shelter, Y2Y was not only supposed to aid Harvard Square’s youth homeless population, but educate Harvard students as well.
“I think that school never made sense to me until I started working at the shelter,” Greenberg says. Without hands-on experience, he does not believe he would have entered a career in public service.
“Not to be excessively crass, but this is why people at Harvard who get the privilege of studying this shit still go into fields that actively increase inequity,” he says, explaining his desire to involve more Harvard students in Y2Y. Especially for students who didn’t grow up in places where they saw homelessness, Greenberg argues, “it is so important to volunteer.”
“If you see you have some letters here that you can move somewhere else and make a bigger board, by all means do it,” Kim says. Back at the BananaGrams table, she’s explaining her strategy. It doesn’t sound too different from Greenberg’s vision of extending Harvard’s resources in order to bolster the greater community.
“We’re a fairly small shelter doing a fairly niche thing in a deep and structurally unfair world,” Greenberg says.