It was in 2013 that youth homelessness became a major issue on the radar of Harvard Square Homeless Shelter volunteers Sarah Rosenkrantz and Sam Greenberg after the two students received news a 20-year-old homeless woman living in front of the CVS in Harvard Square had overdosed and frozen to death. The woman was living in Harvard Square because she did not feel safe staying in an adult homeless shelter.
After hearing about the incident, Greenberg and Rosenkrantz embarked on over two years of research, planning and fundraising, culminating in the opening of Y2Y Harvard Square, a student-run youth homeless shelter based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and co-founded by the pair in December 2015.
On Thursday afternoon, at a Davenport College Tea moderated by Head of Davenport John Witt, 2014 Harvard alumni Greenberg and Rosenkrantz visited Yale to share this story, discuss the youth-to-youth shelter model and reflect on what they’ve learned in the time since the shelter’s founding. The tea drew about 20 students and other attendees, including several board members from Y2Y New Haven, a Yale student-led initiative partnering with Y2Y Harvard Square and the New Haven-based non-profit, Youth Continuum, to implement the youth-to-youth model in the Elm City.
“One of the real silent prob- lems in the United States, hard to see sometimes, is the prob- lem of youth homelessness,” Witt said in his introduction of Greenberg and Rosenkrantz. “Young people who find themselves without housing find themselves in a really hard position in a world where there aren’t institutions well-designed for them.”
To get to the root of this problem, Greenberg and Rosenkrantz talked to “everyone [they] could think of,” Greenberg said. This included government officials, local service providers and an advisory board of twelve homeless or formerly-homeless youth, who spoke with the founding team regularly for nine months. Out of this came a model of a youth shelter run by Harvard students, which tapped into the student volunteer surplus from the Harvard Square Homeless Shelter, an organization that primarily serves adults.
“To be able to work with a peer feels really different,” Greenberg said, adding that young people experiencing homelessness have often been “burned” by the older authority figures they have encountered.
Rosenkrantz and Greenberg underscored that homeless youth, rather than the students running the shelter, guide the services the shelter offers based on their experiences and needs. Over time, they said, the shelter has adapted to new needs that arise. For instance, guests’ need for forms of identification prompted a partnership with Harvard Law School students to help them obtain IDs.
In response to a question from the audience, the speakers acknowledged that the work they’re doing is a “band-aid solution” that can’t fix the overall problem of youth homelessness. Still, Rosenkrantz stressed that the youth-to-youth model can “[plug] in and [offer] one piece of the broader puzzle” by offering immediate resources andaplacetostayaswellasa space to bring people together to push for institutional change.
When deciding whether to support Yalies in forming a youth-to-youth partner shelter, Greenberg and Rosenkrantz said they considered the needs of the New Haven community, the already-developing mobilization around the issue and the passion and excitement of the students.
“I work with the Harvard students a lot, and get to see them get really inspired by this work and how hard it is,” Rosenkrantz said in an interview with the News. “It’s so awesome to see another group of students in a community care about this issue. It feels really good and inspiring to see that.”
Audience members interviewed by the News said they were excited about the initiative.
“I love seeing the world in really good hands,” said Sylvia Baer, an attendee at the event and a Davenport Fellow. “We’re passing along a world that’s filled with problems, but when I hear about students doing things to make the world better, it’s really enriching for me, and it also makes me think of ways that I can, from my perspective, help. Not in a creating capacity, because [young people] are doing that. … This is a wonderful way to see it in action.”
Baer added that she finds it “comforting” that “intellectually privileged” students from schools like Harvard and Yale are keen to share their resources with their communities.
Asha Prihar | firstname.lastname@example.org