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Assessing and Aspiring on Homelessness

Despite Y2Y’s impact, real change is incumbent on University

The opening of the Y2Y young adult homeless shelter in December marked a new phase in the continuing effort to combat Harvard Square’s decades-long homelessness challenge. As seen in a recent in-depth article, the shelter has since had a significant impact. Though only a small part of the effort that will be required to combat the immense issue that is homelessness, Y2Y’s successes are a hopeful sign that coupling initiatives like it with larger institutional responses can help solve this deep-rooted problem.

Located in the basement of First Parish Church, the shelter has hosted more than 60 guests since opening last semester. The majority of the young adults, who are allowed to stay for 30 nights at a time, have responded positively to the beds, meals, clothing, and other benefits that the shelter provides. “There’s food whenever you want to eat. There’s showers available whenever you want to shower. It’s basically kind of like a home,” said one guest.

As one of just two youth homeless shelters in the greater Boston area, Y2Y’s success is a great feat. The shelter, founded by two recent Harvard graduates, continues to be operated by Harvard students. “It’s 200 Harvard kids saying, ‘We care. We don’t think that our peers should be homeless,” said co-founder Samuel G. Greenberg ’14.

Yet in spite of Y2Y’s tremendous accomplishments, the limit of students’ ability to fight Cambridge’s homelessness problem has become increasingly clear. The shelter relies on volunteers for almost all of its operations, from cooking meals to cleaning the space. This sort of model is quite effective when students are on campus and available to help, but is more difficult to sustain during breaks when students are not on campus. Of course, this is not to say that students are doing a poor job with the issue. Rather, it is evidence of the inherently limited resources that students are able to contribute on fighting homelessness.

Given the understandable limits on how much students can do to solve the homelessness problem, the responsibility of confronting it in the Square lies with larger, more capable institutions like Harvard. In a survey conducted over one night in 2015, Cambridge’s homeless population totaled 464 individuals, many of whom live in Harvard Square. Providing these Cambridge residents with new opportunities for a better life will be no small feat.

The University and its students should thus continue to support organizations like Y2Y and the Harvard Square Homeless Shelter. But the University should also contemplate broader action. For example, Harvard could pursue a partnership with the shelters in Harvard Square to create a hiring and job training program targeted at homeless individuals, which would both supplement student work and address one of the root causes of homelessness.

Although Y2Y reflects the potential for students to have a positive impact, it is clear that the problem is much larger than anything that can be solved by students. Lasting improvements in the situation of Harvard Square’s homeless will require ambitious actions by the University, and by the wider society.

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