Founders of Y2Y
Youth Homeless Shelter in Harvard Square
The unfortunate reality is that virtually every community across the country could use our model. We joke with some of our friends, who are part of organizations in New York, that New York has 500 beds, which is so radically insufficient but they look at Boston as a joke with our 37 beds for young people. That points to a real need for safe, welcoming spaces that can help young people identify pathways out of homelessness just about everywhere.
By Heidi Legg and edited by Grace Greason
A quick walk around Cambridge is all it takes to realize that homelessness is a persistent and widespread issue. While resources are scarce for all homeless in the area, one demographic is particularly vulnerable to the challenges of homelessness yet incredibly underserved: youth. After learning that shelters in the Greater Boston area designated only 12 beds for young people without homes, two Harvard College students believed they could do something to change that statistic. They have become a model for how to serve young people on the street.
I sat down with Sam Greenberg and Sarah Rosenkrantz, the founders of Y2Y Harvard Square, a homeless shelter for youth, by youth. The revolutionary operation, based in First Parish in Cambridge, serves only 18- to 24-year-olds and is staffed entirely by students from the area. Sam and Sarah sat down with me to talk about how they launched their vision, what keeps it running, and how they are exploring it as a prototype for other college communities.
Can you go back to 2012 and tell us how this all happened?
Sarah: That's definitely when the story starts. Sam and I met when we were in college working at an adult shelter that was also student-run called the Harvard Square Homeless Shelter. It's 35 years old. It opened in 1983. It's been there for a very long time and it's consistently regarded as one of the safest, most welcoming shelters in the Greater Boston community.
Sam and I both worked there through college, met there. This longtime Harvard Square Homeless Shelter sees more adults on the older side from forty- to seventy-year-old range. But when Sam and I were working there, we saw a lot of young people coming through the shelter and we learned that for young people in Greater Boston, there were only 12 youth-specific beds. That is a big problem because young people report not feeling safe in adult shelters. It's nothing against adult shelters, it's that they're not built for youth. Youth even report feeling safer sleeping on the street. In 2012, we started thinking about this issue and working on it and talking to people, which eventually led to opening our shelter three years later in 2015.
What was the community feedback when you announced you were opening up a youth shelter?
Sam: I think it was really exciting for us. When we started it was really, like, ‘We have energy. We want to help address this issue and we're seeing more young people.’ We know they're really vulnerable on the streets. As we talked to folks in the community and built the process, we were incredibly lucky to work with leading experts around service providers, youth themselves who were experiencing homelessness, advocates and faith leaders. It was a really broad community effort. I think what that led to – both in the lead-up and then in the immediate aftermath of opening the shelter – is this sense of, ‘This is our shelter’, meaning this is Greater Boston's shelter. We did this. We helped get this started. And we saw that in the 600 people who showed up to our opening celebration and the hundreds of people who came to paint and help us open before the winter of 2015. And I think similarly once we opened, Y2Y has been, was, and continues to be a really vibrant space where we have people coming in to lead yoga workshops and to lead culinary workshops and to help our young people do job searches. I think that kind of community feel has really led to this sense that it's our shelter and so we're all going to ensure that our young people are not only safe but have the opportunity to succeed.
How did you go about getting this off the ground? What were the steps to launch something this impactful and involved?
Sarah: I think that what was really unique about our situation is that we didn't wake up one morning and decide we wanted to open a shelter. Many people, in conversation, said this is something that you and your team are really well-positioned to do. When we heard that and kept hearing that, it felt like more of a responsibility. It's something we had to do, less something that we were craving to start something new, and I think because of that – because there are so many community members who wanted this – finding the space and raising the money and doing all of those pieces fell into place a lot more easily. With the space, for example, we knew initially that we would have the most luck in some kind of faith congregation, whether a church, or synagogue, or a mosque for lots of different reasons: some zoning reasons, some just kind of mission fidelity reasons. We started banging on the doors of lots of different church community groups. Ultimately, a friend of Sam’s from high school, was a member at the First Parish Church in Cambridge which is where we're located and he managed to get us a meeting with its minister. He was really excited and they have this amazing basement space. What was so cool about it is that the community, the congregation, really took us on as part of their family and their community. They have a very democratic process and when we went to present this idea, people were literally dancing in the aisles because they were so excited. We were very lucky in that way.
Sam: I think for us, it was super important to say, as Sarah said, for us to have this project defined by people who really knew it. When we said, ‘okay, we've heard all of you that starting a student-run youth homeless shelter is something that is a critical need.’ We definitely tricked ourselves. We had this construction budget of $150,000 and that sounded like a ton of money.
Sarah: I think it was $80,000, at first.
Were you still in college when you began building the shelter?
Sarah: Yes, we were in college.
Sam: That was the most money we had ever heard of! I remember we received our first $10,000 gift, which is amazing, and then we found out the actual construction budget – it's an early 19th century church! The construction budget skyrocketed but because it was in phases, I think that was really important. I think one other thing that was critical for us is for a long time we were just researching something that we could do because we really cared and because we knew there was an issue. By the time we settled on the model, we had this amazing advisory board of all of our mentors and all of our supporters. We had a group of students who were behind us and working with us just as we graduated and started working on this full time. I think for us having this kind of team or this village with us every step of the way was so important. I can't even count the amount of times where we probably would have quit if we didn't have our advisor to call on the phone or just this great group of young people who had experienced homelessness who were giving us their time and their expertise as we built the model.
Sarah: I think a big part of it is also blissful ignorance. Had we known what it would have taken going into it, we probably would not have started and so we were – and we still are – young and naive but even more so. I think that really helped us from being scared off by all the challenges and obstacles that were to come.
Who comes to the shelter? How would you describe the population you serve?
Sarah: We serve 18- to 24-year-olds. The large majority are from the Cambridge Boston or Metro Boston area, and people who aren't are usually from Massachusetts, or who have been in the area for a long time already before coming to us.
When we think about our population and also more nationally with regards to the statistics around youth homelessness, it really boils down to young people and lack of families. About a third of our young people have aged out of foster care or been involved with the foster care system at some point in their lives and are turning 18, or are a little bit older, and are cut off from these support systems.
A third of those without homes were in foster care?
Sarah: Yes. I think even a little more this season, actually. It fluctuates. A large percentage of our guests, or a disproportionate percentage of our guests – again more nationally – identify as LGBTQ. They are coming out to their parents and being kicked out of their home. We also serve young people coming from generational poverty where their families are unable to support them once they turn eighteen, or maybe their families were in shelters growing up. So, again, a lot of it comes down to lack of family, or not strong family, or a family that can’t support their kids.
How many days can guests stay in a long-term bed once they get it?
Sarah: Thirty days. Then they can re-apply for the lottery and we also have one-night beds for emergencies. Generally we're at 27 youth every night, 22 thirty-day beds and five one-night beds.
How often do you see repeat guests?
Sarah: Unfortunately, a lot. A good amount of time people are coming back for another thirty-day stay. The reason we chose 30 days when we were doing our research, is we were really trying to strike a balance between depth versus breadth. Again there were only 12 beds in the area before we opened while many, many more young people than 12 needed a bed or wanting to service as many people as possible while also helping someone really get to a stable place. We know 30 days is not enough time for most people but when we were doing research and talking to other programs here and across the country, people said that 30 days would be a good place to start in order to allow people to rest, to build relationships and to start working on those pathways out of homelessness.
What resources do your guests use most at Y2Y?
Sam: That's a great question. I think it depends on the young person. It depends on the situation but a few things that we've seen most commonly: a lot of our young people really could benefit from getting an ID, whether that's re-obtaining one that they lost or maybe when they were kicked out of their home, they didn't have all of their possessions with them. One thing that I didn't think about enough until we started doing this work is just how critical an ID is for applying for public housing, for getting benefits, for getting a job. So, that's one. Another one that we saw a ton of demand for was an actual job search. That's maybe not surprising but about anywhere between 20 and 30 percent of our young people come into the shelter with a job, and another 20 to 30 percent leave the shelter with a job. It's because our young people are dynamic, resilient, creative, and smart and often need the training or certainly the opportunity to apply. We started working together, not only to build our relationships in Harvard Square – and the Harvard Square businesses have been incredibly generous with hiring our guests and hopefully have identified some great talent – but they have also brought in some programming. We've been really lucky to work with a number of chefs including John Schall from El Jefe’s Taqueria and Gail Arnold to bring culinary workshops in-house because for a lot of our guests, that's a way that they can build on skills and move through them.
Are they being hired to work in local restaurants in Harvard Square?
Sam: Yes. Shout out to Otto’s and Tasty Burger. They've hired a bunch of our guests and we're very grateful for it.
Sarah: And Pokeworks, now.
If they are with you for 30 days and finding support and community, what happens when those 30 days are up?
Sarah: People are coming back, a lot. A small handful of people are coming back the whole year and then the following year. I think we do a lot of work to help people identify other options and to work towards plans but I think it's hard, especially with the cost of living around here. Many of our young people are working close to full-time, if not full-time, and given the wages they're still not able to afford rent in Greater Boston and that's where their job is. If you don't have a car, if you don't have ways to get to work, living further outside is hard. I think a lot of the work that we can do is to try to be supportive and help identify creative solutions. We also work with a lot of other agencies who do this work really well and have longer-term, more transitional programs.
What are the adults in this space (nonprofits, government) doing about all of this while you kids try to solve it for us?
Sam: We find that people are working really, really hard on this issue all the time and I guess I would say there are two things: Sarah spoke about how we were working at an adult shelter before this and the thing that made it unique is that that adult shelter, which was a student-run homeless shelter, we heard again and again was one of the only adult shelters in Greater Boston where young people felt safe. We were uniquely poised to do this. We were also turning away over 100 volunteers from that shelter. In some ways, this was us plugging a way that we could uniquely help but there are probably thousands of people in Greater Boston who work really hard to support young people experiencing homelessness all the time. It's frustrating that there aren’t more.
Secondly, I think you asked what could we use more of? I was thinking about how our government and our local community addresses this. We're really hopeful that what we did is mobilizing a broader community to get involved in this effort, and not to only start and stop with the 27 beds we provide, but catalyze a community more broadly. There are people doing amazing work right now. We could speak about any of our partners at length that we work with and who provide tremendous support, but part of what we see in our role is not stopping once we open our doors and doing whatever we can to address this issue more holistically.
How would you describe your volunteers? Who are they? What ages?
Sarah: Both of us are really lucky to work with the students and to learn from them. They're incredibly inspiring and motivational. The way our student model is structured is that we have a core team of about 35 student staff members and they're the ones who are on the ground running the shelter. They're in charge. They are making sure everyone is safe and well supported and fed.
I saw them when I toured the shelter doing all of the cleaning as well!
Sara: Yup, cleaning the toilets. And then in addition to the shelter, they supervise a team of anywhere from four to six volunteers in a space of any given time.In total we have about 150 weekly volunteers. The staff members run the shifts, they clean, they make sure things are safe and they also have an administrative responsibility. We have a fundraising director, a volunteer director, and a staff director and these guys are putting in anywhere from 10 to 30 hours a week while going to college, while doing lots of other things. Many of them have jobs. They're part of other partner organizations. Many of them narrow it down to Y2Y because it’s such a big commitment but the time – and not just time – the energy and love and compassion they put into the shelter is absolutely incredible and I hope really transformative. I think it is for a lot of them. They are not only learning how to run an organization but engaging in really difficult conversations every week about what's right and what's fair. This is not in an abstract, but in a, ‘Is this person gonna stay with us tonight? This happened. Our consequence says they should be suspended but it is zero degrees out. What do we do?’ I have the privilege of constantly seeing them question and push each other and grow and learn and it's really fascinating.
Is this shelter alcohol- and drug-free?
Sarah: Yes. People cannot bring in alcohol or drugs but we're a ‘damp space’ which means that you can have used before you came in as long as you're ‘sober-ish’ and in control.
What about safety? How do you ensure both the kids running the shelter and the kids in the shelter are safe? Are there any adults around?
Sarah: We have two youth workers and one to two youth workers are in the space every night until 11:30 p.m. and those are actually part-time employees who have other jobs in other shelters such as in hospitals, in mental health spaces, in schools and they have a little bit more experience or are more on the adult side, if you will. They're there to screen people as they're coming in through the doors to make sure that they are in control. They're also doing a security check – actually going through everyone's belongings, volunteers included, to make sure nothing is coming into the space that could be dangerous. They're supporting staff. In addition to this, the staff get over 40 hours of training before starting their roles and a lot of training on conflict escalation and management.
It's a pretty conflict-free though, right?
Sam: Yes. It's kind of amazing. It's 27 young people who are at very challenging places in their lives. Of course we support and work with them on any number of issues but as you said our guests have a remarkable fundamental sense of respect for each other and for the space...sometimes to a slightly excessive degree. (laughs with pride) If they're going to have an issue with another guest, we want it in a supervised space rather than them taking it outside or something but it's pretty incredible. I think you see it in the Apples To Apples games that our guests and students play together in the ways that they build relationships and conversations. One of my favorite things to do is to hang out at the shelter and see those relationships develop and they're not always perfect because life isn't perfect. Sometimes they're bumpy but we do see that our guests and our staff develop really strong relationships and it’s pretty inspiring to see.
What's next? Do you see other cities or colleges trying to model what you’re doing?
Sam: It's something that we've thought a lot about. Y2Y Harvard Square is built around everything that Harvard Square and Cambridge and Greater Boston has to offer and some of our gaps. It was built on the energy and dreams of so many people. We're cognizant that this model may or may not work anywhere else, let alone everywhere else, but there are some universal things that we think we can apply.
The unfortunate reality is that virtually every community across the country could use our model. We joke with some of our friends, who are part of organizations in New York, that New York has 500 beds, which is so radically insufficient that they're agitating for more but they look at Boston as a joke with our 37 beds for young people. I think that points to a real need for safe, welcoming spaces that can help young people identify pathways out of homelessness just about everywhere.
We've been in touch with dozens of communities across the country who have reached out to us since we opened our doors and we want to be part of that. We've shared our ‘resource kit’, so to speak, with just about everybody who's reached out and we're interested in actively supporting communities as they go. We've started supporting a group of students and community partners in New Haven – a group of Yale students – and we're really excited about that work but for us, in terms of where Y2Y goes organizationally, is much more dependent on what we learn and how we can be most effective. There's no point in us growing if we're not going to do our work really effectively and be sustainable and build on what communities have to offer. It's something we're always reevaluating and continue to think about: how to add the most value and support our partners in doing this work across the country.
Who should fund groups like yours? Who should get more involved?
Sam: We could rattle off a list! Let me start with a few. Definitely the institutions. We've had so much incredible support from Harvard across the board in trash pickup and help with food donations. I think it would be amazing to see an institution like Harvard, especially an experience that 150 to 200 of its students are engaging with, or any other institution with which we might partner step up and say, ‘This is something that's critical for the well being of our community and it's critical for the well being of our students to have this kind of deep, immersive, life-changing and service-learning opportunity.’ That's one. The second is the government. The federal government has actually, despite unfortunately cutting a lot of programs around housing and homelessness, at the end of the Obama administration and now at least preliminarily into the Trump administration, continued funding these pilot sites through the Youth Homelessness Demonstration Project. These were intended to develop model communities and then to take those learnings and scale an intervention nationally. That intervention needs to come. It needs real money put to it. Similarly at the state level, Massachusetts has allocated $2 million to support – give or take depending on the year – for the last few years to youth homelessness and $2 million is so inadequate. It barely even…I mean, it's wonderful and people worked so hard for it but we need that exponentially.
Who funds you right now?
Sarah: A combination of really generous individuals in the area who care about this issue and foundations. We've had a really great local support. I think what's so wonderful about the Greater Boston community is that people really do want to invest and really have recognized this as an issue and are really putting their money towards it.
Sam: We've had amazing support from the Liberty Mutual Foundation and from the Draper Richards Kaplan Foundation. We've partnered with the Cambridge Housing Authority as an incredible financial partner for us. BNY Mellon. Bank of America. A whole range of others but I'm sure I'll forget some. As you asked earlier, we've thought about ‘should Y2Y grow? Or can we scale this kind of program?’ We've deep local community ownership, which is absolutely remarkable, but if we want to do something bold and really address this issue at scale, it involves catalytic funding, which is why our first thoughts were large institutions and the government. Thinking about philanthropic partners in that way, there's absolutely an opportunity. One nice thing about our model is that because it's student-run, it's really cheap. A relatively small investment within the scale of a lot of corporate partners, foundation partners and individual philanthropists can make a fundamental difference.
What are the biggest expenses to running an urban shelter like this?
Sarah: We do have the professional part-time staff that we talked about. We're actually really lucky with food in that we get almost all of it donated from local businesses or through Food For Free where they take leftover food from Harvard and other institutions and repackage it. We're very lucky in that sense. It's space, it's utilities, it's salaries, it's the part-time people.
When did you both graduate?
You could make more money doing something else with those Harvard educations. How did you get to this decision to stay and run this post graduation?
Sam: I hope our parents aren't listening.
Sarah: First of all, I think I speak for both of us when I say neither of us had any chance in finance or consulting. I don't know about you Sam but I definitely did not have the background or math skills for that.
I wouldn't recommend journalism either.
Sarah: I didn't have a choice. No, I'm just kidding. I mean, it's funny you say that. I think so many of my friends personally look at me and Sam and say, ‘Oh, my gosh. I can't believe what you're doing. You've grown so much. You have this incredible job and opportunity.’ Which isn't to say that is not what keeps us going but it definitely reminds us in the moments when it is really hard and when you're working really long hours – which I should say I think our hours are probably better than the finance high-banking people who are in until two a.m. – but I think it's important to step back and realize just how incredibly lucky we are to be doing this work and be working with the community in this way. For me, I get really energized when I get to go into a space when I have a really great conversation with a guest or a student when I get to hear about what it means to them and how they've grown from it or talk with them about the challenges that they're encountering. Those are the moments that feel really rejuvenating for me.
Sam: I like everything Sarah said and I think the one thing we've tried really hard to do, and it hasn't been our own brilliance by any means, is to make sure that we build, for not only the two of us but for our team, a sustainable workplace that actually is durable and does allow you to feel rejuvenated and doesn't make people dream of the much larger paychecks. Our board has pushed us really hard to think about this. I would also agree that I feel endlessly lucky. There definitely are moments when the days are long and it feels like we're never getting through it all. Certainly there have been moments in the project where it's like, ‘Man, we've gotta get the shelter open by the winter.’ Those can be really draining times but, we get to work with some of the coolest people in the world. Our funders, our students, our guests, our organizational partners like the people who Sarah meets with weekly to review some of our case management systems – They're some of the most brilliant, inspiring people. I don't know. I don't mean to say it's all roses but we're not martyrs either. We're doing work with people we love on an issue that we care a lot about.
Do you feel like you’re being mentored?
Sarah: Absolutely. I think that's one of the things for which we are so, so lucky and grateful. We have an incredible board, an incredible group of mentors, both for us individually and the organization as a whole and it's made all the difference in the world. We knew absolutely nothing coming into this.
Are your guests being mentored?
Sam: Yes. Our guests mentor us sometimes too in really important ways, but absolutely. I think that's one thing that we all love about Y2Y and certainly that our guests love, is that it's a space full of life with a lot of people who care about each other. I think there's a lot of shared relationship building that happens.
This year we saw incredible leadership from high school kids around the need for gun regulation. Do you relate with them?
Sam: I was at the march on in Hartford, Connecticut, which was really personally moving because it was really driven by young people in Connecticut who had grown up in the age of Newtown and the Sandy Hook Massacre. As a matter of fact, the young man who organized it, his aunt was the principal of the Newtown school who was killed trying to defend her students. It was moving for so many reasons but I think one thing that was pretty cool was to think about the ways in which so much of that optimism and activism and, to your point of saying, ‘We're just gonna do this because it's right whether or not the adults say it's okay’, really resonates with our work. I think it certainly informed Sarah and my path to say, ‘This is really important. We're the right people. So, we're gonna do it.’
This spring, a group of our students and guests went to the Massachusetts State House in partnership with the Massachusetts Coalition For The Homeless for their legislative action day and one of our guests sat down with Senator Sal DiDomenico and said, ‘Hey listen, Sal, you're a great partner for us. We've gotta do this together.’ Senator DiDomenico was incredibly receptive and warm. We have great allies at the elected level who could help drive this change forward and what's inspiring is to see our guests and our students work together on making sure that those allies have the platform that they need and that the people who don't listen to them get voted out or at least get convinced to change their mind.
There are now more Millennials and youth than Baby Boomers. What's the thinking about youth? I know you mentioned on my tour of the shelter that you are measuring a lot of data.
Sarah: It's funny, I feel like in the past couple of weeks that Millennials stopped having such a bad rap – that we are always on Facebook and Instagram. I think you see that in so many ways in the organization itself and how young people are running it and guests are leading. I also very much think on an individual basis that the young people we work with are so hopeful and know that they are going to be successful in life.
In their adversity, are they able to be resilient?
Sarah: Yes. They have this incredibly strong knowledge that this is temporary and that it's a step on their path to really do incredible things, which is very different than what we experienced at the Harvard Square Homeless Shelter where people were more resigned and didn't see that in themselves or in the system. It’s been incredibly inspiring to see and encouraging.
Sam: I think it's an opportunity and it's an obligation. Sarah mentioned obligation earlier. Our guests are really motivated and really driven and we know that research shows that if we can support young people in getting off the streets, they're way less likely to be on the streets when they're forty, fifty and sixty. When we talk about Y2Y and the urgency behind it, it's, of course, night-to-night. We don't want our guests being on the streets anytime but it's also generational. What got us started with Y2Y is this feeling that we as Harvard students had an obligation to ensure that young people weren't literally sleeping on our doorsteps and that it was so fundamentally critical that they had the resources to succeed. I also think we see this generational trend in being adaptive – even if a little bit irreverently. Our students push and pull and look look at our data we are gathering themselves, all the time.
Sam: All the time. In fact, so frequently and they make a ton of changes on the ground and organizationally and we do that together. One of core values at Y2Y is being adaptive and it's something that our students honestly do a much better job than we ever imagined.
What data are they looking at? What intrigues them to see?
Sarah: It's everything. We have this incredible sales force database. The platform that we built out is called The Shelter App and it's used to track everything from someone's stay to where their bag is in “X” locker and I was actually sitting with one of our student data directors on Friday and he was explaining sales force and how the different logic mapping works. He was like, “Let's make a report on how many bags were stored in ‘X’ period of time.’ We are really looking at everything and saying, ‘There are trends here. What does that mean for policy?’ or ‘We don't have data here. How are we gonna go out and get it?’
Sam: One data point that we looked at early on was nights where there are more challenges, more arguments, more disagreements, more incidents. Is that because it's a night of the week and is that a night of the week where our guests are more rowdy? How do we use that data? Is it dangerous outside? We use that to actually tweak and map our staffing model. We could allocate our resources to be more heavily staffed on those nights or on those days where there was a higher probability of there being a challenge, could we deescalate it in advance?
How can people donate?
Sam: Y2Yharvardsquare.org is our website. You can find all the information about volunteering, about running drives, or giving in kind, or donating online. It also has the way to get in touch with us and if somebody's interested in figuring out how they can be of value, or in talking about any of it including our growth plans, we'd love to do that.
Since our interview, Y2Y has had a robust summer program. They finished their second summer season on August 7th having served 79 unique guests. They expanded their summer program from 6 weeks last year to 8 weeks this year, bringing the total year round operations up to 238 days.
They kicked off a culinary program that allowed guests to work with local chefs and restaurants to learn food prep skills and cook dinner for their fellow guests in the shelter. They also piloted a summer job program funded by The Boston Foundation in partnership with Harvard's Phillips Brooks House Association (PBHA). A current, and a former guest, both became science teachers as part of PBHA's Summer Science program which supports 12 camps throughout Boston over the summer.