The Harvard Square Homeless Shelter: Nations only student run homeless shelter

There are many shelters serving the homeless in and around Boston. But there is one thing about the Harvard Square Homeless Shelter that sets it apart from the rest: it’s run almost entirely by students.

The Harvard Square Homeless Shelter (HSHS) operates out of the University Lutheran Church in Harvard Square, but is a non-religious organization. The organization is one of 86 programs run by a larger non-profit student organization at Harvard University: the Phillip Brooks House Association.

According to the HSHS website, the shelter serves 24 men and women every night for the 5 coldest months of the winter. The shelter is open from November to April. The HSHS mission statement reads: “We strive to provide our guests with the resources and services that will help them successfully transition into housing. In the meantime, we hope to ensure a sense of dignity that is often absent when people have been maltreated or stigmatized because they are homeless.”

The HSHS first opened in February of 1983. Then it was known as the UniLu Shelter. It was initially started by four students and was meant to be a temporary, short-term project. But, as stated on the HSHS website, “the long-term problem of homelessness remains unsolved and the doors to the Harvard Square Homeless Shelter remain open.” In 1999, the shelter underwent major renovations that drastically improved its facilities as well as its organizational capacities.

Another major point in the history of HSHS was the creation of the Resource Advocacy program in 2007, which is one of the three major programs run by the shelter. Jacob Cedarbaum does work for all three of these programs, including resource advocacy.

“The Resource advocacy program is kind of an initiative within the shelter community that has students help guests at the shelter with things like job searches, transitioning to permanent housing, and help with government social programs like food stamps and health care opportunities,” said Cedarbaum.

Like the large majority of the people responsible for operating the shelter, Cedarbaum is a student. He is currently a junior at Harvard and is in his third year working at the shelter. He is currently one of HSHS’s twelve student directors. The shelter is run by a team of student directors and supervisors, who do different kinds of work for the shelter at different times.

“The way the shelter works is we have twelve supervisors who do the overnight shifts, from 11 p.m. to 9 a.m. The directors are responsible for different aspects of running the shelter. There is a lot of work to be done, so we divide it up,” said Cedarbaum.

Cedarbaum, who has worked in a variety of roles during his three-year volunteer involvement with the shelter, currently serves as the director
of supplies.

“I am in charge of the shelter’s supplies. I make weekly trips out to buy food, and other supplies we need to operate on a daily basis.”

HSHS has three primary programs. The resource advocacy program, discussed earlier, is the newest one and has been extremely successfully since being introduced in 2007. There is also the work contract program, which is a transitional housing program that accommodates four long term guests.

Along with these four long term guests, each night, the shelter provides 25-30 beds for homeless citizens in Harvard Square. These people are typically short term guests. Obviously there are hundreds more people left sleeping on the street each night during the year’s coldest months. HSHS’s third primary program, the Street Team, works to reach out to these people every night. Divya Raghavan, another student volunteer, is the current director of the Street Team.

“I am director of the street team, which consists of twenty-one volunteers. Three go out every night to get food, sandwiches, blankets, hats, gloves, socks, etc. Then we walk around Harvard Square, talk to the people on the street, and we give them the stuff we have,” said Divya.

According to Raghavan, working as a part of the street team is drastically different than working as part of the shelter’s other two main programs.

“It’s very different than working in the shelter because its outreach and we work with a different population, where there is a lot more mental illness. In a lot of cases, we are dealing with people who don’t want to stay in shelters.”

Other services provided for guests of the shelter are computers with internet access, laundry, meals, and referrals. Furthermore, as Raghavan explained, other organizations often collaborate with HSHS and create other, unique programs for the guests.

“Sometimes other organizations work with us. We have had things like a tutoring program and a creative writing class in the past,” said Raghavan.

For Max Yelbi, who was the shelter’s youngest resident ever while he attended Bunker Hill Community College, staying at the Harvard Square Homeless Shelter was a both rewarding and eye opening experience.

“My first step inside the Harvard Square Homeless Shelter (HSHS) wiped out all the apprehensions and stereotypes I had about shelters. I could drink fruit punch and eat as much pastries [sic] as I wanted in front of the television,” said Yelbi, who is now a pre-med student at Hamilton College in upstate New York.

For Yelbi, stuck in the difficult position of being a homeless student, the people and services of the HSHS allowed him to lead a happy and functional day-to-day life.

“The HSHS has been the best place I lived in as a homeless student since I arrived in the USA. Its structure allowed me to get a good night of sleep with a full stomach, to be on time for class each morning and to put a big smile on my face every day.”

During his time at HSHS, Yelbi was struck by the care and compassion exhibited by his fellow students, in drastically different situations than himself, running the shelter:

“The HSHS is more than a shelter; it is a place where people from all backgrounds interact with and help each other and none of that would be possible without the incredible courtesy of the staff members. There is a real sense of respect and understanding from the staff that I have never felt at any of Boston-based shelters I lived in. The HSHS is indisputably the best in Boston, and the students who run this shelter are the reason for its greatness,” said Yelbi.

Despite ongoing rave reviews from guests like Yelbi and various figures in the Boston community, according to Jacob Cedarbaum, the student’s responsible for running HSHS are always looking for ways to better their services.

“We are always looking to improve. We’re constantly trying to reach out to our guests and listen to constructive criticism and take suggestions. We have guest meetings once a semester for this purpose,” said Cebarbaum. “In the short term, we are focused on the very tangible mission of making sure people who are homeless in Harvard Square have a warm place to sleep at night and have access to good meals.”

Originally published by Spare Change News © www.streetnewsservice.org

The Harvard Square Homeless Shelter. Photo: Kris Snibbe/Harvard University

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