'Tale of two cities:' Cambridge faces challenges in reducing youth homelessness

By Diane McLaughlin / Cambridge@wickedlocal.com

During a panel discussion about youth homelessness, moderator and Cambridge Mayor Marc McGovern asked state Rep. Marjorie Decker, D-Cambridge, to talk about her work in the Legislature.

Decker declined, saying she would rather talk about what it meant to have people involved with homelessness gathered together.

“You’re all doing this work, and I can tell you about the things that I’m proud of and that I’ve done, and we can each on this panel talk about data and talk about the work we’re doing,” Decker said. “We’re not going to walk out of here with anything that’s been changed.”

Change, progress and challenges were some of the themes explored in the discussion held Tuesday, Aug. 21, at Y2Y, a youth homeless shelter in Harvard Square. The event, “In Our Own Backyard: Addressing Youth Homelessness,” brought together about 40 people working on homelessness issues in Boston, Cambridge and statewide to discuss the efforts underway to address and end youth homelessness.

Young people at risk

Local, state and national agencies have made ending youth homelessness a long-term goal. Panelist Matt Aronson, a national youth homelessness expert currently working with the city of Boston, said the 2017 annual point-in-time counts showed 55 homeless youths in Cambridge and 360 in Boston.

But the January point-in-time counts do not capture the complete picture, Aronson said. He added that nationally as many as one in 10 young people between the ages of 18 and 24, and one in 30 under 18, experience some type of homelessness.

The populations most likely to be affected by homelessness include black, Hispanic and LGBTQ youths. Young people aged 18 to 24 without a high school diploma or GED certificate also have an increased risk of homelessness, Aronson said.

A key point about youth homelessness is that young people have different needs compared to adult populations, said Sarah Rosenkrantz, Y2Y’s co-founder and another panelist. She said many Y2Y guests have recently aged out of foster care through the Department of Children and Families.

Adam Lawrence Dyer, a member of the audience and minister at First Parish of Cambridge where Y2Y is located, later noted the absence of these populations both on the panel and in the crowd.

Regional issues

One of the challenges faced by homeless youth is the need for services in a region where cities operate individually. Rosenkrantz said many youths travel between Park Street in Boston and Harvard Square for services, not thinking of themselves as traveling between different cities.

“It’s a very transient group that doesn’t see Cambridge and Boston as two separate areas,” Rosenkrantz said. “It’s one broader community with services that should be coordinating and working together to meet their needs.”

Aronson said in a system where communities focus on their own populations, a better framework is needed to encourage programs to serve all youths.

Linn Torto, executive director of the Interagency Council on Housing and Homelessness, said organizations applying for a new funding opportunity with the state will be required to support youths throughout the region.

Torto also said the state recently published a formal plan to end youth homelessness. The long-term strategy requires the state to measure the results.

“It’s a puzzle, and it encompasses a statewide coordinated response,” Torto said of the plan’s framework.

Communities and elected officials

Decker sees more work needed both on the local level and in state government to address homelessness and poverty.

When requesting funds from the Legislature, Decker said she receives pushback because Cambridge is a wealthy community. She referred to Cambridge as “a tale of two cities.” But Decker noted that questions about tackling homelessness and poverty require multiple, complex solutions.

“How do we collectively decide who represents our values and gets that done?” Decker asked.

She cited a requirement under both the Deval Patrick and Charlie Baker administrations that families seeking shelter must first spend 24 hours in a “place not meant for human habitation.” She sees this regulation as evidence that neither governor prioritized homelessness as an issue.

Many communities have different priorities, and she encouraged the audience to continue to make elected officials understand the work being done with homeless populations. Decker said she is putting together an anti-poverty task force at the State House and invited those present to participate.

McGovern asked the audience to continue to speak up for homeless people, who do not have the power and resources to advocate for themselves. He would like to see homelessness become a greater priority in the community.

“If I tweeted right now that at 7:30 at City Hall we were going to have a meeting about cutting down a dead tree in a back alley, I would have 150 people there,” McGovern said. “But when I call meetings to talk about homelessness, I get nobody.”

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