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Drawings of youth adult homeless shelter (Studio G Architects)

Cambridge church will host shelter for homeless youth

First Parish partnership with Y2Y Harvard Square will shelter 20 young adults.
By Christian Schmidt

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For First Parish in Cambridge, a move to hosting a shelter for homeless youth and young adults wasn’t just a nice thing to do, it was a chance to fulfill its mission.

Located in Harvard Square in the heart of urban Cambridge, Mass., the Unitarian Universalist church holds a prominent place both physically and culturally, but it wasn’t as involved with its local community as it wanted to be. When the founders of Y2Y Harvard Square, the soon-to-open shelter, approached the Rev. Fred Small, First Parish’s senior minister, he got excited.

“This was a chance for us to fulfill our mission statement, which calls us to work for justice, heal brokenness, and celebrate the sacred in all,” Small said. “That’s what Y2Y Harvard Square is all about.”

It has taken almost 18 months of work to get to this point, and the shelter won’t actually open until November 1, when a major renovation of the church’s basement is complete. For now, fundraising continues, as the shelter has $955,000 of the $1.25 million it needs. Volunteers are being trained, and work with local leaders and area homeless people continues.

When it opens, it will have room for 20 overnight guests, ages 18 to 24, and will provide them dinner and breakfast. It will also host a daytime drop-in center where homeless youth and young adults can connect with various resources. The daytime facilities will be run in conjunction with Youth on Fire, a local organization that is part of the AIDS Action Committee of Massachusetts and provides services for homeless and street-involved youth ages 14 to 24.

The shelter will provide services to young adults, a niche population not well served in greater Boston and who tend to feel unsafe in many adult shelters. A large percentage of homeless youth and young adults are also LGBT, something Y2Y is also sensitive to; the shelter will be gender-inclusive.

When Y2Y founders Sam Greenberg and Sarah Rosenkrantz, both recent Harvard graduates, initially began feasibility studies and were looking for a space to house a youth shelter, First Parish seemed like a natural fit. Greenberg had grown up in Cambridge and had friends who had attended First Parish.

“We were excited about the space” in First Parish’s basement auditorium, Greenberg said. “When we made a presentation to the congregation, there was overwhelming excitement, and it was clear very quickly that this would be a true partnership, not just a renter-landlord [relationship]. There was a sense that they see it as an extension of ministry. They were an ideal host for us.”

For First Parish, hosting Y2Y represented an opportunity to engage with and help a needy population right at its doorstep.

“This was an opportunity for people to contribute in the place we’re living in, to being a part of the world we live in,” said Susan Shepherd, chair of the First Parish Standing Committee. “Being an urban church, homelessness is all around us; homeless people are in the congregation. And I’m not sure we’ve known what to do with that. It also gives us a chance to contribute on the political stage in our community. We can say, ‘We’re doing something. What are you doing?’”

For First Parish leaders, the process to make this partnership happen was a long and intense one. Over the course of more than a year, leaders worked with shelter organizers and specialists to make a plan for the space and the agreement between the organizations.

Many logistical issues had to be solved. The basement auditorium was in use by other renters, notably the non-profit American Repertory Theater, which used the space for rehearsals. Financial details were also important; First Parish will lose rental income as part of the partnership. In the end, though, First Parish leaders made the decision to move forward with the project, and a congregational vote on March 29 was more than 97 percent in favor.

“We were committed to using the auditorium for non-profit purposes already,” said Sylvia Wheeler, a member of the First Parish Sustainability Committee. “But we wanted a more mission-centric use for the space.”

First Parish already had some programming that made sense with this new idea. The Tuesday Meals program, active since 1987, serves a hot dinner to as many as 150 people each Tuesday year-round.

The shelter will be student-run, but leaders from the church and shelter anticipate many opportunities for First Parish members to become involved in supporting the work of the shelter and drop-in center.

Illustration (above): A rendering by Studio G Architects of the Y2Y Harvard Square young adult homeless shelter, which First Parish in Cambridge, Mass., will host in its basement this fall (courtesy of Studio G Architects).

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