For Homeless Youth, Age Can Compound Challenges of Life on the Streets

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ACTING AS PSEUDO PARENTS

In order to overcome these initial defensive reactions of homeless youth, service providers need to prove that they are a trustworthy and constant presence, says Elisabeth Ortiz Jackson, the executive director of Bridge Over Troubled Water--currently the only youth homeless shelter in the Boston area.

“I tell my staff, ‘If you tell a kid that you’re going to have a coat for them, hell freezes freaking over, you better get them a coat,’” she says. “Don’t tell a kid that you’re going to do something if you’re not.”

Jackson’s organization provides a comprehensive set of services for homeless young adults, including an emergency shelter, career and college counseling, a transitional housing program, and a daytime drop-in center that provides hot meals.

She says that Bridge over Troubled Water specifically targets youth because they are more likely to work their way out of homelessness than older peers. “They’re young,” she says. “They’re willing to learn. They want to learn.”

Sintayuh Atkins, 19, is one of the guests with a six-month bed in Bridge’s shelter. In addition to a warm place to stay and hot meals, Atkins receives counseling, case management, and college guidance at the site. The shelter requires guests like Atkins to have a job or take classes, as well as save 70 percent of their income.

Atkins left the Bridge program soon after starting it in Jan. 2013, only to return a few months later after a difficult time on his own.

“When we talk about the kids who go up and down...we are still here for them,” Jackson says. “We become their pseudo parents.”

For all the work that Bridge has done, there remains a shortage of services for homeless youth in the Boston area, those who work with the group say. Youth on Fire, one of the few daytime drop-in centers for young adults on the street, will downsize and relocate in June to Central Square due to funding shortages.

“This isn’t the be-all, end-all,” said Steve Keizer, Coordinator of the Emergency Youth Shelter at Bridge.  “There’s a lot we can be doing with more beds.”

Samuel G. Greenberg ’14 and Sarah A. Rosenkrantz ’14 aim to provide some of those beds. The pair is working to establish a new youth homeless shelter in Harvard Square whose services will be combined with those of Youth on Fire.

For Greenberg and Rosenkrantz, the issue of youth homelessness is particularly salient because they are “youth serving youth.”

Rosenkrantz said she feels particularly called to action by seeing homeless youth her own age in the Square. “That reality, that tangible connection to the problem, is what’s emotionally driving me,” she says.

—Staff writer Sonali Y. Salgado can be reached at sonali.salgado@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @SonaliSalgado16.

—Staff writer Caroline T. Zhang can be reached at caroline.zhang@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @CarolineTZhang

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