Friday, May 24, 2024

051115i-Suzanne-KenneyFor five decades, Cambridge has been at the forefront of social justice actions to alleviate poverty and all its ills, including homelessness. The most recent example of this is the creation by Harvard University students of Y2Y Harvard Square, a shelter with daytime and overnight support for youth experiencing homelessness.

LetterNearly 50 years ago, in 1967, a group of Harvard Seminary students concerned with the growing population of runaway kids in Harvard Square and Boston Common created Project Place. What are we to make of the fact that five decades after the creation of a safe haven for runaway teenagers, especially at-risk and drug-addicted youth, there is need for another?

We could be discouraged with the failure to solve a problem that has plagued us for centuries – in 14th century England, so-called “vagabonds” were put in stocks – in just 50 years.

Or we could be encouraged by the willingness of creative and resourceful advocates to take on seemingly insurmountable social challenges. Homelessness is a complex problem: Its roots and causes are as varied as the individuals who find themselves without a home. The lack of affordable, safe and quality housing for adults and quality alternative housing for youth who can’t live at home play a major part in homelessness. But young people and adults who are homeless often have many things in common, including a history of abuse; addiction; mental illness; little or no family support and no strong substitute supportive relationships; and limited education and/or past criminal records that limit earning potential as well as attempts to obtain housing.

We can also be encouraged by the ways in which all social outreach efforts improve as society itself evolves. Y2Y Harvard Square will be open to all youth in need, but is making a special effort to ensure that youth who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender – who make up up to 40 percent of all youth experiencing homelessness – will feel safe and welcome at Y2Y Harvard Square.

One of the great lessons Project Place has learned over the years is that there is no single approach to ending homelessness that will solve the problem. Its causes are interwoven into the fabric of our society. But every program that has met with any degree of success has one thing in common: the promise of hope. In the 1980s, Project Place shifted its role in the community from helping those in crisis to working with the increasing numbers of homeless adults looking to change their lives by building economic stability and independence over a lifetime.

It takes marketable skills in local, growing industries to land a job that will lift someone out of homelessness – and keep them housed. Such training must run the gamut from classroom-based instruction in computer and customer service skills to actual employment via internships or social enterprises focused on providing real-world work experience. Robust training programs will also support job-seekers throughout the employment application and interview process, offer meaningful references and networking opportunities, and provide ongoing support during the inevitable ups and downs of employment.

That said, early intervention in homelessness remains critical. Young people experiencing homelessness who are able to stabilize their lives are far less likely to experience homelessness as adults. In the meantime, we can all take heart from the creative, energetic – and hopeful – work that continues to take place in Cambridge to alleviate poverty.


Suzanne Kenney is the executive director of Project Place.