Harvard Square Business Association Trains Homeless Ambassadors

By Adam Sennott

For a few minutes, Denise Jillson was homeless, pregnant and HIV positive.

However, when time was up, Jillson went back to being the executive director of the Harvard Square Business Association.

On June 2, members of the Harvard Square Business Association gathered with homeless advocates at the Harvard-Epworth United Methodist Church to gain a better understanding of what life is like for homeless youth during an educational training session.

Youth on Fire, an organization that offers services to homeless youth in Cambridge, conducted the educational training session as part of HSBA’s Homeless Ambassador Program.

The seminar was designed to help participants better understand issues many homeless youths face, such as strained relationships with their parents, pregnancy, and drug addiction.

During the exercise, participants were asked to create a fictitious 19-year-old character. They then stood in a circle and each character was given a different set of circumstances, such as being thrown out of their house by their parents’ due to bad grades they received during their previous semester of college.

“It was tough being the women who was getting beat upon, pregnant, HIV positive.” Jillson said. “[It was] hard to relate to her, but I know she exists.”

During each round, participants would attempt to explain how they would deal with those circumstances, which got worse each round. By the end of the exercise, several participants were addicted to drugs, and even incarcerated.

Jillson said the exercise aims to engage homeless kids and travelers in conversation in a way that is respectful and thoughtful.

“This is very real,” she said. “These are issues that people are confronted with every day whether it’s abuse, alcoholism, physical abuse, drug abuse, sexual abuse.”

According to Jillson, the Ambassador Program was developed several years ago while the HSBA was working with the Cambridge Police Department on issues such as aggressive panhandling and crime in Harvard Square, and evolved to include service providers.

Jillson said it is designed to inform people about resources offered in Cambridge, not to address aggressive panhandling.

“It does not address the panhandling issue, of course that’s always a concern, but that’s separate and apart from the Ambassador Program,” she said.

In addition to the training seminar, the HSBA created a brochure with information about six organizations in Cambridge that provide services to the homeless, including: CASPAR, The Harvard Square Homeless Shelter, and Spare Change News.

The HSBA plans on distributing the brochure throughout Cambridge to help better inform people of the services that are available to the homeless.

According to Ayala Livny, Program Manager for Youth on Fire, many of the circumstances the fictional characters were faced with during the training session, are reality for many of the young adults she works with.

“I think all of those situations that we described were real,” Livny said. “They were people that we know.”

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