Kids These Days: Harvard Square Youth Bridges Gap Between Students and the Homeless

All photos: Alena Kuzub

Y2Y is officially open for business. The shelter, founded by Sarah Rosenkrantz and Sam Greenberg, welcomed guests into its 22-bed facility for the first time in January. Y2Y is for the youth and is also run by the youth, relying on a volunteer staff of over 200 Harvard students, making it the first student-run youth shelter in the country.

Since it opened, the space is evolving to meet the needs of its clients. “We’re constantly having conversations with young people, how do we do this better, and how do we create a really safe space and an effective space?” said Rosenkrantz. “This contributes to the growing pains that we hope will create a really positive space and collaborative space.”

Positive, collaborative, safe and even fun? In the evenings, the volunteers and supervisors eat dinner and hang out with the guests. “There’s a lot of eating grilled cheese in front of a movie or a video game or something like that,” said Rosenkrantz.

Staff and volunteers prepare to open the Y2Y shelter for the night on February 3, 2016.

Staff and volunteers prepare to open the Y2Y shelter for the night on February 3, 2016.

Rosenkrantz and Greenberg felt that the first month was a huge success, with expected ups and downs. “Our staff is not only acclimating to being new staff members in a shelter but are acclimating to a new space where every single thing is a decision for them to make,” said Rosenkrantz.

Clients apply to a lottery for a bed for 30 nights. Y2Y also offers beds on a short-term basis if they have space. Young people apply for those in the morning and hear back by the evening if there’s a free bed. Rosenkrantz and Greenberg put a lot of thought into the 30-nights rule. “We were trying to balance the question of depth versus breadth,” said Rosenkrantz. “How much can we do with someone that’s staying with us, how much support can we give and help them access resources and get on a true path out of homelessness, versus how many people can we serve.”

They felt that a month would be long enough and would also allow them to serve many young people experiencing homelessness. “It would give time for people to come in, to recuperate from the stress and trauma of sleeping on the street, to build trusting relationships with staff and case managers and then start accessing some of the services that they wanted to,” said Rosenkrantz.

Greenberg and Rosenkrantz kept coming back to the refrain of “meeting young people where they’re at.”

“We don’t have compulsory programming other than being respectful and being mindful,” said Greenberg. At the end of a client’s month, they can reapply for housing or get help figuring out where to go next, but they don’t need to.

“Some young people just want to come in and rest and sleep and not engage with our services,” continued Greenberg. “Some people are really excited to work with our case management, our legal aid, our other programming that we’re beginning to ramp up.”

Different sitting areas organized within the common space of the Y2Y shelter in Cambridge, MA, as photographed on February 3, 2016.

Different sitting areas organized within the common space of the Y2Y shelter in Cambridge, MA, as photographed on February 3, 2016.

The space reflects people’s varying needs as well. There are half-finished puzzles, computers and a nook for staying up late to watch TV. There are no rules about when people need to go to bed, just lights out eventually.

“We really like our beds, and they’ve been really popular, but maybe that’s not what somebody wants to do,” said Greenberg. “It feels like the best way we can serve everybody, knowing it’s an incredibly diverse population, knowing that we can meet everybody where they’re at.”

Many youth experiencing homelessness identify as LGBTQ and are often homeless due to lack of support from their families. For this, Y2Y doesn’t have separate rooms for different genders. “Most shelters are traditional men’s, women’s; maybe there’s an other, which doesn’t really make sense,” said Rosenkrantz. “Anyone can sleep here and you don’t have to have that conversation the first second you walk in the door.”

The beds take up one wall of the space—they look a bit like a futuristic honeycomb, but they’re also organic, with green paint and holes in each cubby. “We were thinking a lot about some of the sleeping spaces in airplanes, the first-class pods, some of the hotels in Japan where you have sleeping arrangements like this,” said Rosenkrantz. “We ended up just googling, ‘Cool bunk beds.’”

The beds were a huge decision. They had to offer privacy, safety and comfort. They wanted to stay far away from any kind of institutional feeling. “We had never seen anything like this, in terms of offering real privacy and not just traditional barrack-style bunk beds,” said Greenberg. Rosenkrantz and Greenberg created the shelter after realizing how hard it is for youth to be in all-age shelters.

“Eighteen-year-olds shouldn’t be staying in the same place as 50-60 year olds because they have very different needs,” said Rosenkrantz. “Young people in shelters, through no fault of the shelter, are victims of bullying at a minimum and harassment in the more extreme cases. They feel safer on the street than in those shelters.” They’ve seen evidence of this in their clients. “When we do intake, we ask where did you sleep last night or before this?” said Rosenkrantz. “Many people said on the streets or in the subway or really uninhabitable places.”

Adanya Lustig is an editorial intern at Spare Change News.

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