Faces of the Unknown, Part 1: Cambridge, state officials focus on new approach to youth homelessness

Originally published Jul. 2, 2014 in the Cambridge Chronicle.

Jose, 21, asks for spare change Tuesday morning, June 17, in Harvard Square. Known only as "Taco" on the street, Jose said he has been homeless for years. He has bounced in and out of several residential youth facilities since he was 14 years old. Wicked Local Staff Photo/David Gordon

Jose, 21, asks for spare change Tuesday morning, June 17, in Harvard Square. Known only as “Taco” on the street, Jose said he has been homeless for years. He has bounced in and out of several residential youth facilities since he was 14 years old. Wicked Local Staff Photo/David Gordon

Editor’s note: This is the first story in a three-part series examining homelessness in Cambridge.

The stairs of the Methodist church in Harvard Square are quiet. There’s not a lot of foot traffic and the awning keeps away the rain and, in the winter, the snow. Max, 24, has been sleeping there for three years.

On this morning, Max wakes up bleary-eyed to the face of a Cambridge Police officer. It’s time to move on.

“The people at the church here are actually pretty nice. They don’t really hassle you as long you can get out by 9 a.m., and they can get in the front door,” she said. “It’s usually pretty rare for the police to wake you up here.”

Max’s close-cropped hair is bleached blond and hugs her face with bits of brown peeking out from the roots. What happens when it snows?

“You hope you have enough blankets,” Max said.

By 9 a.m., Harvard Square is bustling with students and professors and employees from shops in the square. Tourists flood the streets and Max becomes nearly invisible. Passersby look the other way when they walk past her perch in The Pit – the area around the main entrance to the Harvard Square MBTA station.

They see her, but assume she’s on drugs, she said. That she’s a miscreant. That she doesn’t want to work. She’s been called a junkie and an addict, but she says she’s never shot up.

“It sucks when you’re a stereotype,” she said.

Max is one of an unknown number of homeless youth, ages 14-24, who live in Cambridge. Unknown because until this year, no organization, government or non-profit, had collected statewide data specifically on homeless youth.

The state’s Special Commission on Unaccompanied Homeless Youth is remedying that shortfall with a first-in-the-nation census on youth homelessness, which was funded in 2013 and conducted in January and February. The commission expects to release its report this month.

Depending on the day and whether or not she has a doctor’s appointment, Max can be found hanging in the square or “spanging” (asking for spare change) in Boston. After a young homeless woman, Colleen, died last fall from an overdose in Harvard Square, police began to crack down on young people idling there, Max said. The city implemented a program of putting out tables and chairs in The Pit, and Max said more of her friends started getting arrested.

Max can’t work because of a condition called Chiari malformation, in which brain tissue extends into the spinal canal, putting pressure on the brain and causing seizures, dizziness, and loss of balance, among other symptoms. Although she’s lived with the condition her whole life, the symptoms have grown worse as she’s grown older.

She lost her job at McDonald’s three years ago because of the seizures, she said, and soon after, lost her apartment and her place at Newbury College, where she was studying criminal justice. She couch surfed for a while, and then found herself on the steps of the church.

But Max is one of the lucky ones; since the Chronicle’s interview with her, she was able to obtain a housing voucher through her caseworker at Cambridge-based non-profit, Youth on Fire, a drop-in center for homeless youth.

It took her half a year to find Youth on Fire, which happens to be housed in the basement of the same church. The center was founded in 2000 in response to the growing number of young people hanging out in the square, said the center’s program manager, Ayala Livny.

“We did a needs assessment and found that these young people weren’t connected to services and didn’t want to be connected to services, but were engaging in a number of behaviors that put them at risk for things like HIV and AIDS, Hepatitis and other negative health outcomes,” Livny said.

The city’s Department of Public Health, Police Department, and the Harvard Square Business Association worked together with the AIDS Action Committee to convene the first youth advisory board and asked them what they would want if the city could do something.

“They said, ‘We want a place where we can go, where we can be safe, where nobody is going to hassle or bother us, and where we can get our basic needs met. And, yeah, if there was staff there, we’d talk to them and maybe get some condoms,'” Livny said.

Since Livny started working at the center nine years ago, she said she’s seen the number of youth served grow from 150 to 500 annually. There’s no way to know whether those numbers have increased because there are more young people on the streets, or if the center is just doing a better job at reaching them, Livny said.

“At the state level, it’s also really hard to count how many homeless young adults there are because homeless young adults often don’t want to be found,” Livny said. “So, they’re not necessarily engaging in the systems and the systems don’t necessarily have any way of unduplicating those numbers (if the same person visits more than one shelter or service provider).”

Sitting on the state’s commission to study youth homelessness, Livny takes her successes where she can get them. The commission initially asked for $500,000 to fund the statewide youth homeless count and received $140,000 for a pilot of the count instead. That will go a long way in identifying where the gaps are for programs serving homeless young people, she said, but Youth on Fire’s primary challenge is getting the young people off the streets as quickly as possible.

“The longer they’re on the streets, the more bad things happen to them, and the more bad things happen to them, the longer they’re on the streets,” Livny said.

A big problem is the waiting, said Max. She waited for approval to get on MassHealth, and then had to reapply when she didn’t have an address to send the forms. She waited to get on food stamps, and now she’s waiting on approval for disability status. But the wait for housing could take years, she said, since so many people are ahead of her on the list for the Cambridge Housing Authority.

“It’s a long process of waitlists,” Max said.

She shuns the adult shelters because she said they’re not safe. She’s had to carry a knife with her before.

“You can’t rely on anyone to protect you,” she said.

Youth on Fire was awarded 10 Section 8 vouchers at the end of last year to house some of their clients, but Livny said what they really need is an emergency overnight shelter tailored specifically to young adults. The fact that there is not one in the state is criminal, she said.

Together with the Harvard Square Homeless Shelter’s Youth Initiative, Livny said Youth on Fire is raising funds to open up the first youth homeless shelter in the state. They’ve identified two potential locations in Harvard Square, but are “a ways away” from their fundraising target, said Sarah Rosenkrantz, who is helping lead the push for an overnight shelter. If all goes according to plan, Rosenkrantz said they would open the shelter in February 2015.

In their teens and early 20s, Livny said most people are just trying to figure out their place in the world, and any homeless services directed at youth should take into account where the young people are in life.

“To end homelessness, you need a roof over your head, but we also know it’s not as simple as just putting a roof over your head,” Livny said. “Moving someone from the streets to being housed takes a lot of support and there’s a lot of critical intervention for the first 3 to 12 months.”

Most 20-year-olds today are not living completely independently, Livny said, so it’s not realistic to expect them to do so without any of the supports that most young people get from their parents at the same age.

House Bill 135, or the Unaccompanied Homeless Youth Act, would provide funding for programs that offer housing to homeless youth in conjunction with supportive services. Legislative advocacy director for the Mass. Coalition for the Homeless, Kelly Turley, said the House included $150,000 in its version of the budget for the bill, but the Senate did not.

“Especially young adults that have been let down by the various systems that were supposed to enable them to transition successfully into independent adulthood,” Livny added. “For young people, we need to create support systems that are trauma informed and take into account the wealth of terrible experiences young folks who are homeless experience.”


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