PBHA’s Y2Y youth homeless shelter hosts its opening celebration.
Over thirty years ago, Harvard students saw a need in Harvard Square for a shelter that was dedicated to providing homeless individuals with a sanctuary. This sanctuary would need to be one in which every volunteer served with compassion and was dedicated to helping guests to transition out of homelessness. Thus, the Harvard Square Homeless Shelter (HSHS) was born in the University Lutheran Church to fill this need and meet these standards. Now, in 2015, a new need has been identified. For youth of all identities aged 18-24 there has been a stark lack of available shelters and services. With this in mind and through the same compassion, intentionality, and fight for social justice, another shelter is opening in Harvard Square.
Last Friday, Cambridge’s First Parish Church was filled with love, excitement, and anticipation as the Phillips Brooks House Association (PBHA) welcomed politicians, youth workers, and local community members to celebrate the impending opening of the Y2Y youth homeless shelter, the first student-run shelter in the nation dedicated to being a safe haven for homeless youth ages 18-24. Senator Elizabeth Warren and State Representatives Marjorie Decker and Byron Rushing were among the speakers at the event.
Approximately six hundred people ambled into the church exchanging hugs and awe over the intentionality that went into creating the shelter from gender inclusive beds to the on-staff caseworkers. Even though all of the attendees came from various circles, everyone was connected to each other through the mutual love and appreciation for a space designed to not only be a safe haven for homeless youth, but also be a space that advocated on behalf of America’s fastest growing homeless demographic.
Once people were settled in their seats, Y2Y maintenance director and co-emcee Abigail Harris ’16 welcomed everyone into the church with “We believe in the power of love and the shelter is part of that love.” Indeed, love is the backbone of every thought and every decision of this shelter. Felix Arroyo, Boston’s Chief of Health and Safety, continued on the theme of love as he talked about how this shelter is closing borders between people before he introduced Sen. Elizabeth Warren.
Warren, known for her impassioned speeches and advocacy for increased access to affordable housing, lit up the room with her brief remarks. “We are going to create a sanctuary, a place that is safe for our youth,” she said. She also touched on how the shelter will not only provide respite for the youth, but will also “advocate on behalf of those whose voices need to be heard.” Calling the space, “beautiful” she touched on the love and care the Y2Y team put into smallest details of the shelter.
As she closed her remarks, Warren emphasized how this project is embedded in the local community. “But the key is what I am here to celebrate is not something we started in Washington. It is something started locally. We can make a start right here in Cambridge.” She continued, “By making a start, we make a real difference.”
Harris, an art and architecture concentrator who is using her skills to help design the space, returned to the stage and talked about her own experiences with how being part of the Y2Y team made her feel at home and welcomed and that she wants those same feelings shared by guests. [Field]”People like me are able to be themselves and be at home in my body.” Harris’ co-emcee Kitty Zen also spoke to the shelter’s personal meaning to her. Recalling her own experiences with homelessness, Zen said, “Having Y2Y would have been a nice clean sanctuary.” It would have been a “stark contrast” to the other options available to homeless youth.
Zen next welcomed member of the Y2Y Young Adult Advisory Board member and youth worker Jamila Bradley to the stage to share her experiences working on the shelter. “We’ve created something here that feels sturdy, and stable, and whole.” She talked about how the shelter’s opening is “[a] moment so big and [means] so much for so many.” Not only for the huge community that is physically, mentally, and emotionally putting the shelter together, but also for the thousands of potential guests.
The opening celebration of Y2Y was not only one of welcome, but it was also one of appreciation for the countless number of people who have made the shelter possible with their time, talent, and treasure. Gene Corbin, the assistant dean for public service at Harvard, and Needham Hurst, a member of Y2Y’s building committee and steering committee, teed off the presentation of awards to Y2Y’s community partners and major benefactors. In reference to a brick that Zen placed during the beginning of construction, each of the awards are inscribed with the phrase “hope is here.” Hurst says, “Today is really a celebration of so many different people who came together to make Y2Y possible.” Awardees included general contractors for the project Skanska and Essex Newbury.
PBHA executive director Maria Dominguez Gray, PBHA president Jing Qiu ’16, and staff director for Y2Y Jennifer Hao ’16 rounded out the awards with a thank you to the Harvard Square Business Association for being welcoming neighbors to this shelter. Following the award, Gray touched on how Y2Y continues PBHA’s long tradition of providing immediate services and advocating social justice. “For over 110 years, our students have fought to fight structural oppression with community partners.” She also shared how two and half years ago Y2Y was just the dream of 2014 Harvard graduates Sarah Rosenkrantz and Sam Greenberg, but with the help of so many people, Y2Y is set to open in less than a month. “This was impossible, but someone showed up to make the impossible possible.”
Feeding off of the energy in the room, formerly homeless spoken word poet Diamond came to the stage. Diamond has been an inspiration and mentor to many of the formerly homeless members of the Y2Y Young Adult Advisory Board. She began that this project “is a long time coming.” She thanked the shelter for its ability to revive hope in the many young people whose circumstances have caused them to lose hope and courage. “Often times, when you are a young person on the street, hope is the first thing you lose.” Diamond closed reminding young people who are going through homelessness that “you are beautiful and you are loved. This is only temporary.”
So many hands have touched this project literally brick by brick or through donations and other forms of support. Each of these touches leaves an indelible mark on a space designed for hope to thrive and for people to be well cared for. Even the Harvard Chaplains banded together to leave their blessings on the space that is “of real permanence and beauty.” The chaplains have commissioned an interfaith quality to hang from the shelter in addition to the choral benediction presented at the opening ceremony.
Later in the evening, State Representatives Byron Rushing and Marjorie Decker shared their thoughts on how the opening of this shelter is a catalyst for other political actions. Rushing, while happy that this shelter is opening, is hoping that Y2Y’s advocacy efforts will one day eliminate the need for such a space. “Let me be clear…we are celebrating a space, a wonderful space. The students have put something together that we hope, we pray that does not last.”
Decker, who is the state representative for Cambridge, talked about her original skepticism for the project. [Field]”Sam and Sarah, when I first met you, I thought you were nice and lovely, but I was cynical.” She shared that witnessing the dedication of Rosenkrantz and Greenberg and their Y2Y team changed her mind. Decker ended her remarks with a call to action. [Field]”It was going to require a really large village to hold this thing together,” and that “[Field]It’s our job to take care of each other. We will work really hard to hold ourselves accountable.”
The evening closed with reflections from co-directors and co-founders of Y2Y Sarah Rosenkrantz and Sam Greenberg. Rosenkrantz and Greenberg along with a few other HSHS volunteers dreamed of a shelter that would serve the fastest growing and least resourced population of homeless individuals over two years ago. Now the pair stood in front of the crowd ready to welcome people to their dream-turned-reality that would open in less than a month. Noting the sheer amount of support Y2Y has received over the past two years, Greenberg opened with “Thank you to the many of you who have given us your resources again, again, and again.”
“For so long, this mission statement has felt far off and not real. But as we look out today, with Y2Y set to open next month, never has this mission statement felt so real,” Rosenkrantz adds. Both recalled the many meetings discussing seemingly minuscule details and the depths they went to include the voices of the youth who would be seeking reprieve from the streets in the shelter in all of the decisions.
While Rosenkrantz and Greenberg acknowledge the progress that they and the rest of the Y2Y team have made in getting the shelter ready to welcome guests, Greenberg reminded everyone that “[Field]The real work starts next month: twenty-two meals to serve and hundreds of dishes to wash. We’ll have a sanctuary to maintain and a future to build.”
Shaquilla Harrigan ’16 ([email protected]) is inspired by the hope and love displayed at the Y2Y opening ceremony.