Yale students launch peer-to-peer center to combat youth homelessness
More than 800 young adults, ages 18 to 24, in the greater New Haven area are estimated to be homeless, according to the Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness. But there are only 12 “emergency” beds designated specifically for this group in area shelters, and no shelters in the state dedicated to homeless youth.
That will change this fall in New Haven, thanks to the efforts of Yale students in partnership with community organizations. A new overnight program for homeless youth called Y2Y New Haven (short for “Youth to Youth”), which is modeled on the nation’s first youth-run homeless shelter in Cambridge, Massachusetts, reinvents the idea of a homeless shelter as a safe space for youth, by youth, with gathering spaces, workshops, and a modern design aesthetic.
And it will create a space where young people don’t have to worry about threats from older adults.
“There’s all this research showing that young people do not feel safe in adult shelters, to the point that they won't enter them and will resort to staying on the street or couch surfing,” said student volunteer Lauryn Phinney ‘21. “This will be a space that will feel vibrant, that will feel safe, where people can come and stay and be surrounded by their peers.”
Sam Greenberg, cofounder of Y2Y Harvard Square, the model project, is now leading the New Haven effort.
“Youth who are homeless are in a really vulnerable position,” he said. “These are often youth who are aging out of foster care, or coming out to families as LGBTQ and getting rejected, or leaving an abusive or neglectful home.”
The key difference between the Harvard Square and New Haven models, says Greenberg, is Y2Y New Haven’s integration with a youth services organization, Youth Continuum, that operates an array of services for youth experiencing homelessness in Connecticut.
“We really feel like it’s the best of both worlds, where students can help create this really safe and welcoming place, but then we're partnering with community expertise, people who have been doing this work and know how to do it,” Greenberg said.
Advisory board members include Hannah Peck, Yale College assistant dean and director of student affairs; Peter Crumlish, executive director of Dwight Hall; Emily Bazelon, a journalist, lecturer and senior research scholar at Yale Law School, and expert in mass incarceration; and Ronica Mukerjee, a clinical lecturer at Yale School of Nursing, who specializes in care for LGBTQIA communities and HIV+ individuals. Turner Brooks, a faculty member at Yale School of Architecture, is one of two architects leading the design of the two-story space.
The new program will be housed in Youth Continuum’s existing headquarters at 924 Grand Ave., near Wooster Square, and provide 20 sleeping pods for short-term stays for young people in need. They’ve already made adjustments to their design in light of the pandemic, Greenberg added, including upgrading ventilation and generally making sleeping pods as “COVID-proof” as possible.
The drive for a youth-focused overnight program in New Haven began four years ago, when Yale students who were part of the Yale Hunger and Homelessness Action Project out of Dwight Hall reached out to Greenberg. During the process, students have navigated a host of complexities, from site design and permitting to community advocacy, programming, and fundraising. The project is expected to cost $4.5 million; working with Youth Continuum, organizers have just under $200,000 left to raise.
About 50 students, mostly undergraduates, volunteer with the project. They come from Yale as well as other nearby colleges, including University of New Haven, Southern Connecticut State University, and Quinnipiac University.
Among other commitments, students will run the facility’s overnight component. “I don't think that many students have an opportunity to do direct volunteer work where they have to take on a leadership role and take ownership over the actual operations of the space and develop relationships,” said student volunteer Nicole Brussel Faria ’21 from Yale College. “Students will be running intake, making beds, helping with dinners, talking to clients — it’s really a peer-to-peer model.”
“To do something like this is an enormous logistical feat,” said Peck. “The student leaders have been very humble in their approach. They have gone in asking questions: ‘Would this be helpful? What would this look like? How would it partner with what already exists in New Haven?’ And there have always been voices at the table of people who would be using the space.”
But ultimately, it’s the students who are leading the conversation. They have organized a series of workshops and discussions on topics relevant to homeless youth for Youth Continuum clients, such as discrimination in employment and housing and resume building. Planned workshops will bring in Yale experts to discuss financial literacy.
Collaboration is key, the students say. When community members suggested a street-facing café that would also provide employment to homeless youth, the students incorporated it into their designs.
“In its truest sense, Y2Y is a collaborative community effort,” said Brussel Faria. “And that is the only way that we've been able to succeed and keep all the moving parts together. There are a lot of people on board, putting their all behind it.”