Think about the last time you felt that bout of insecurity or sudden jolt of anxiety walking late at night back from Lamont or riding public transportation alone in unfamiliar neighborhoods. Now imagine how you would quell those fears if home for you were not a securely protected, swipe-access dormitory, but rather Harvard Square or Cambridge Common or the homes of people you don’t know or trust. Imagine if these constituted your only opportunities to sleep indoors. Can we even begin to imagine the life of someone our age, experiencing homelessness?
The powerful documentary “No Place Like Home,” features a young woman experiencing homelessness describing her horror at waking up to find a pervert in her sleeping bag. As a female living on the street, even in shelters, this is a realistic scare—one of the daily (and nightly) challenges she, like other women sleeping on the streets, must face.
Young adults experiencing homelessness have a presence in Harvard Square that is visible to students and Cantabrigians alike. Walking to class we see youth perched in the square selling handmade jewelry, and at night as rowdy crowds of students head “out,” we pass youth “sleeping out” on park benches. Whereas we as students have the freedom to take to the streets late at night, the unfortunate reality for many youth is their lack of another option.
Beyond what we as their neighbors choose to see of youth experiencing homelessness, their presence is evidenced in data collected on 18-24-year-olds by service providers. The Boston Globe reports that Youth on Fire, a drop-in center for young adults in Harvard Square, sees more than 500 youth per year. Program manager Ayala Livny says this is five times the number of youth being served 10 years ago. Boston youth shelter Bridge Over Troubled Waters (BOTW), which also offers drop-in services, saw nearly 400 young adults in the fall of 2013. That is nearly three times the number of youth they saw in the fall of 2012. And that is how many students currently live in Mather, my Harvard dormitory. The difference is, those 400 youth were competing for BOTW’s 12 beds–the only 12 youth-specific beds in all of Boston. Forget Harvard undergraduate housing day; these odds are unconscionable.
This disparity hits us close to home, but as students we are therefore in a unique position to step up and support our peers. Last year, class of 2014 seniors Sarah A Rosenkrantz and Samuel G Greenberg transformed their vision of a homeless shelter for young adults into a campus-wide and widely recognized project. For years these two Harvard Square Homeless Shelter (HSHS) staff members saw the potential for a youth shelter much like the current student-run shelter on Winthrop Street, which houses guests of all ages. Through their program management, outreach to service providers and the youth themselves, the seniors rallied everyone from graduate students to high schoolers behind the Youth Housing Initiative, commonly referred to as YHI.
The 1,000 Nights campaign of spring 2014 shared with Harvard’s campus YHI’s mission to open a shelter, and made known the problem that is youth homelessness in Boston and Cambridge. We earned the awareness and support of hundreds of students, faculty, and community members, crucial to the success and momentum of this student-driven project. Some of those supporters (myself included) went on to join the graduate and undergraduate steering committee, as well as a taskforce of several dozen committed volunteers. With one year until opening, we are focused now on building a foundation of funds, development of policies, and shelter branding, with guidance from our now graduate fellows, Sam and Sarah.
Once operational, YHI will continue to be organized and run by students. HSHS is student run and is therefore preferred by many youth, a great number of whom have held abusive or tense relationships with authority figures and adults in their lives. YHI is meant to be a sanctuary for young people who might feel intimidated by adults experiencing homelessness, and who as youth have very different needs from adults. The Harvard Square Homeless Shelter is unique in that it is the only non-youth-specific shelter where YOF director Ayala Livny will send young people. The energy of HSHS staff and volunteers and the welcoming space they create contribute to it being preferred among youth; this is the atmosphere we hope to replicate with our new youth shelter.
Besides standing out as soon-to-be one of only two overnight youth shelters in the Boston area, YHI is unique for our dedication to accommodating people who identify as LGBTQ (25-40% of youth experiencing homelessness, nationally). As students constructing this initiative organically, with the support of a university community and community partnerships, we have the opportunity to design our program through collaboration; we look at what works for other youth shelters nationwide and at what works for local service providers invested in our project, and consult our advisory board of experienced professionals in the field of ending homelessness. It is through this collaboration that YHI will implement informed best practices for supporting youth in their construction of personalized pathways out of homelessness.
YHI must balance the intention to innovate around and improve the system that entraps youth with the crucial goal of maintaining each individual’s story and agency. We are designing self-advocacy curriculum to provide local youth with tools for speaking out about their experience, to feel and be heard. Whether they choose to advocate for change at the Statehouse or to build confidence and leadership for their future careers, young adults will have access to these resources as well as a variety of workshops for developing different skill areas.
In addition to the advocacy team that is working on curriculum and spreading campus-wide awareness of policy geared at ending homelessness, other specific initiatives within YHI include our fundraising, marketing, and model building workstreams. We are also updating a manual for replication, a record of the challenges we overcome and our progress as a project. It is our intention to make this manual available to other university communities with the capacity to replicate the YHI campaign and construction of a youth shelter in years to come.
We go about our lives as students so conscious of our future careers and of the impact we will make on the world. But if we turn that consciousness towards our community, towards our campus of dreams and possibilities, we see youth experiencing homelessness. We may not be able to fathom the experience of homelessness on a cold Boston night, but that does not mean we should ignore the experience. All young adults, whether we sleep in Mather House or on a park bench, will inherit the same country, the same emergency shelters and housing policies, and the same inequalities and misfortunes, which can befall any of us; our futures are intertwined. According to a 2010 University of Pennsylvania study, today’s homeless youth are likely to become the chronically homeless of tomorrow. It seems we should approach the enduring problem of youth homelessness with the same sense of urgency as requires writing a paper to meet a 5pm deadline, or preparing last minute for an interview with the firm of our dreams.
YHI has high expectations for the Harvard Square of tomorrow, inspired not only by the accomplishments of Harvard graduates and faculty, but also by the hope that our shelter will provide a sanctuary of support and affirmation of all identities. We hope to see our peers on the street made safe inside, to see our classmates and roommates volunteering and engaging in the space, and eventually, to see replication of our model across the country. This is an initiative run by students, working alongside our peers, and holding onto a vision of the world that welcomes all youth home–to their futures.
To learn more and get involved with the youth in our area, visit hshsyouth.org.
Allison (Mather, class of 2016) is currently a staff member at the existing Harvard Square Homeless Shelter, and is a member of the Youth Housing Initiative’s Steering Committee.