Creating Safe Spaces for Young People at Y2Y Harvard Square – And Beyond

First Republic Bank
February 28, 2020

For Y2Y Founders Sarah Rosenkrantz and Sam Greenberg, the issue of youth homelessness has always been a personal one. The two first met as Harvard College students volunteering at Harvard Square Homeless Shelter, a student-run service for adults. While speaking to the residents, they learned young people often didn’t feel safe in most adult shelters across Greater Boston.

“Both of us have loved ones who have experienced homelessness as young people,” Greenberg says. He and Rosenkrantz recognized that they, along with other young people, were uniquely positioned to help.

In December 2015, Greenberg and Rosenkrantz co-founded Y2Y Harvard Square, the nation’s first youth-led, youth-staffed homeless shelter exclusively for those ages 18–24. Its opening more than doubled the number of beds available for homeless youth in Greater Boston.

This year Y2Y is expanding their reach with a new outpost in Connecticut — Y2Y New Haven — in collaboration with Youth Continuum, which has served youth in New Haven since 1966. There, the two organizations will continue Y2Y’s data-driven model to develop programs that improve the lives of young people experiencing homelessness.

First Republic recently caught up with Greenberg to learn about the unique needs of homeless youth, the power of nonprofit partnerships and using data to create positive change.

As a student volunteer, what did you learn about youth homelessness while speaking to residents at Harvard Square Homeless Shelter and others? How has that driven Y2Y’s approach?

We learned that young people have fundamentally different needs than the adult population. They often experience homelessness because home isn’t safe. About 40% of homeless youth nationally identify as LGBTQ, compared to 7% of the general youth population. Finally, young people are homeless because they age out of foster care at age 18 — or, in some cases, 21 — with nowhere to go.

The longer a young person is homeless, the more likely it is that bad things will happen to them. And the more bad things that happen to them, the more likely that they’ll stay homeless. So young people need a space that’s significantly focused on being an intervention point.

How has using data shaped the way Y2Y Harvard Square works?

We have been collecting data in a pretty intensive fashion since the day we opened. Our data collection system includes a custom-built Salesforce-based web app, which basically tracks everything — from our nightly logs and our supplies to data about our guests’ experiences.

Two student data directors work through the data we collect and provide monthly reports, while full-time staff and our board’s program committee continuously look at larger data trends, and can shift programming to respond to those. Data have also shaped our staffing model. The best way to describe it is “constant tweaking.”

Do you have an example of how data helped you make positive changes at Y2Y Harvard Square?

We were getting a lot of feedback that there wasn’t enough fun at Y2Y, so this past year, we launched regular outings. We’ve gone kayaking, to movies, to Celtics games and concerts. Staff who go along see our guests light up in a way that, from a basic human perspective, feels really important.

As a result of that change, we see a significant difference between how interested young people are in our case management resources when they come in and when they leave. It can be up to a 30, 40 or 50% increase on aggregate.

We hear that it’s really about trust. When our young people trust us, they feel more comfortable asking for stuff, and they feel less burnt than they may have been by other systems. So the more we can do to sustain and grow that trust — that’s a really worthwhile programmatic strategy.

How does Y2Y use data to help advocate for homeless and youth beyond shelter walls?

I think the engagement that we’re most proud of is pretty recent. We shared our data and participated in Boston’s city plan to end youth homelessness, an initiative conducted in 2018 and 2019. In an earlier draft, there was not a recommendation for additional shelter beds for youth.

We were able to provide the data that, on any given night, we receive an average of 20 requests for a bed and can only accommodate 45% of those — that 55% of folks that try to get a bed can’t do so. In the final version, there’s a recommendation for a 24-hour drop-in center specifically for youth. We hope that our data helped inform this change.

How did the partnership between Y2Y and Youth Continuum come about? How did you decide it was the best way to expand?

We really believe in the power of the youth-led model. Youth Continuum’s strengths are exactly the things to complement us. They own the building where Y2Y New Haven will be located. They have deep relationships and credibility with partners at the local, state and federal levels, and they provide an amazing array of resources. It was unquestionably a win for the youth that we serve to deeply embed ourselves in Youth Continuum.

What does Y2Y bring to the table in this partnership?

By far the biggest one is a youth-to-youth model. Youth Continuum recognized that they needed to strengthen that aspect of their programming. That is what we do best. We also have learned to put the experience of young adults who are homeless in the forefront of our space design and our program design. Finally, we bring a real focus and commitment to data collection and program evaluation.

Do you see this partnership as a template that can be scaled nationally?

There’s no doubt that there’s a need for our specific resources in communities all across the country. I think we want to do some analysis once New Haven is up and running to understand what we uniquely bring and how best to scale that.

What are some lessons you’ve learned through your work with Y2Y?

The first is that our guests are the experts in their own experience. We, as a field, maybe don’t invest in that carefully enough. In the for-profit business, it would be crazy to design a shoe without having people try it on and test it out. Figuring out both how to elevate and prioritize the voice of young people, and to invest real resources into that, has probably been our biggest learning.

The second is that the rest of our right decisions have come from community partners and folks who have been doing this work in the community. We can’t do this alone. We recognize that the Y2Y model may not be as good at providing really intensive clinical services, and that’s why it’s so important that we work with our partners.

The third is about making a central commitment to constantly working to do this model better. What I really mean by that is listening — to anecdotal feedback, to our data, to what our young people and our partners are telling us — then actually doing something with it and investing resources in it.

[Photo credit: Jon Chase, Harvard Gazette]


The views of the interviewee of this article do not necessarily represent the views of First Republic Bank. This information is governed by our Terms and Conditions of Use.