“You’re coming into a space that is primarily filled with people that are in your age range, and I think in any world that’s a safer space to be.”
Cambridge Unhoused is a series of articles, columns, explainers, and informational graphics by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism documenting homelessness funding and services in Massachusetts with particular attention paid to Cambridge. Since the topic is complex and ever-changing, we are publishing multiple short focused pieces that highlight specific issues or stakeholders but that also connect with other coverage for this project. Media produced for the Cambridge Unhoused series is distributed through the MassWire news service of BINJ and can be found together at binjonline.org.
Harvard students Sam Greenberg and Sarah Rosenkrantz were volunteering at Phillip Brooks House Association’s Harvard Square Homeless Shelter when they discovered that there were only 12 shelter beds in all of Greater Boston specifically for young adults.
The two soon realized that many homeless youth didn’t feel safe staying in adult shelters, and set out to create space specifically for them. In November 2015, their dream came true when Greenberg and Rosenkrantz opened the country’s first student-run youth homeless shelter in the basement of the First Parish Church.
“They saw the problem,” US Sen. Elizabeth Warren said at the grand opening. “They had a vision for how to fix it, and that’s what’s going on downstairs. And I’ve got to tell you—it’s beautiful.”
In the years since, the shelter has become a haven for the city’s homeless youth. It serves young adults between the ages of 18 and 24, with 22 beds that make up about half of the youth-specific shelter beds in the region. Guests can sign up to enter a randomized electronic lottery system for 30-night or single-night stays, and Y2Y also provides a number of other resources including washers and dryers, showers, and internet, as well as dinner, breakfast, and snacks.
Sometimes, they’re made to adjust. While the shelter has 22 beds, it wasn’t offering the one-night emergency option during the pandemic, and only recently reintroduced it after some of the facilities went unused.
“Over the summer we had low utilization, maybe 16 to 18 beds were filled on average,” Executive Director Sasha Purpura said. She noted the “shelter is closed for two two-month periods during the year as students transition in and out.”
Y2Y also went without top leadership for about a year. Purpura, who was hired in August, said she has spent her first few months reconnecting with other organizations in the community.
“I think that some of the relationships had fallen off,” she said. “So people weren’t as aware of us, because during the pandemic it was very different. It wasn’t open to people coming and going and I think we’ve needed to do what we’ve been doing very recently, which is get the word out that we’re back … we were never gone … [and] that emergency beds are available. [We’re] rebuilding those relationships so that people are referring folks who need our services.”
The space is designed to make young people feel comfortable, especially members of the LGBTQ community, who comprise about 40% of the homeless youth population. Purpura said unhoused individuals helped in the design of the shelter, which has gender-inclusive bathrooms and colorful open spaces.
“There’s a lot of issues at home often when you’re LGBTQ, and so you’re more apt to potentially wind up on the streets,” Purpura said. “That is a component of the population we’re serving that I think really requires a safer space.”
It also helps that clients who use the shelter are often their peers.
“You’re also coming into a space that is primarily filled with people that are in your age range, and I think in any world that’s a safer space to be,” Purpura said. “It’s something you’re familiar with, it’s people you can relate to.”
In addition to providing shelter to the young, Y2Y also has additional services including helping clients obtain IDs, write resumes, and even sign up for transitional assistance or other housing programs.
“We have student case managers that will help guests with any kind of need they might have,” Purpura said.
The staff is made up of students from Harvard, Boston University, Tufts, and Northeastern. Each worker has to go through serious introductions to prepare them to work there.
“There’s a lot of trauma-informed training of all of our students because most of these young people have experienced trauma of sorts,” Purpura said. “And so we make that a priority—anybody working in the shelter has some trauma informed training.”
“Some of these students are first-generation college students, they’re on financial aid,” Purpura said. “They may have not been homeless, but they have more of an understanding of a struggling life.” On the other hand, “Some are not, some are being exposed for the first time to these types of social issues.”
“Their majors are across the board,” Purpura added. “What connects them all is they care deeply about community and want to participate in some way. … What’s really beautiful about this model is it does expose students from Harvard that are going to potentially have a lot of influence one day, it really exposes them hands on to social issues. … And that’s potential for systemic change.”
As for the founders, Greenberg and Rosenkrantz told BINJ they’re glad the shelter is continuing to fulfill its mission of providing a haven for homeless youth in Harvard Square. The latter still serves on Y2Y’s board of directors, while Greenberg still advises the program.
“We feel proud that Y2Y Harvard Square continues to serve young adults experiencing homelessness as it has since 2015, and that it withstood the immense challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic to safely house guests throughout that time,” Greenberg and Rosenkrantz said. “The Y2Y community is a vibrant one, built on the hard work of hundreds of community partners, student leaders, young adults experiencing homelessness, and supporters.”
The founders added, “Given the ongoing need for Y2Y Harvard Square’s services, we are grateful for the current generation of staff, student leaders, and partners who continue to ensure Y2Y can be there to provide sanctuary to support young people in need and support them in building pathways out of homelessness.”