Ballyhooed Harvard philanthropist duo pivots, still hopes to help fight homelessness
All along Mass Ave in Cambridge, there are skeletons of luxury condos (and completed ones as well) that are sprouting up across the street from newly minted pharmaceutical labs, high-end restaurants, and of course, the usual nationally registered historic places.
While these spaces occupy the lump sum narrative encircling the Greater Boston area, arguably much less noticed is the enduring systemic homelessness and economic disparity that also surround the region’s colleges and tourist destinations.
Enter Breaktime, an effort to fight young adult homelessness hatched by two Harvard undergraduates, Connor Schoen and Tony Shu. Motivated by the stories they have heard as volunteers at the Y2Y student-run shelter in Harvard Square, the pair is aiming to fill gaps in programming and provide stable employment, vocational training, and career-based education to young people who are experiencing housing insecurity.
Schoen and Shu initially planned to open a brick and mortar cafe in early 2019, specifically at 1000 Mass Ave in Cambridge. While trendy cafes can be hallmarks of gentrification, the Breaktime team sought to turn the dislocation process on its head in a state where, as estimated by the 2017 report from the Massachusetts Commission on Unaccompanied Homeless Youth, among other things, there are “multiple populations of unaccompanied homeless youth.” The report additionally found that “lack of access to safe and stable housing is the common denominator,” with “distinct clusters of causes, service needs, barriers, and coping strategies among different subpopulations and across different regions of the state.”
For Cambridge, Shu said, “We wanted to go with a physical space,” adding that such a setup could “promote face-to-face interaction.” Having won a grant from the Harvard College Innovation Challenge and the Harvard Graduate School of Education—and received a crush of press for its early announcements—Breaktime has made some progress, raising nearly $10,000 more on GoFundMe as of this writing. For now, though, the costly cafe plans are on hold, and last month the crew pivoted to starting with a catering business while scouting potential locations for a different storefront.
Whatever form their efforts take, Schoen said that he hopes Breaktime can provide some of the safety that is lacking in the shelter system, all while cutting steady paychecks and providing vocational training as well as career mentorship. For many who experience homelessness, workforce participation is an uphill climb. For young women, LGBTQ youth, and non-English speakers, it’s even steeper.
“A second-stage employer is somebody who recruits actively from first-stage programs … and that provides people with both the hard skills and soft skills necessary for basic entry-level jobs,” Schoen said. “There is a gap between the amazing programming that people are doing and the broader realities of the workforce.”
In time, Schoen and Shu hope that their efforts can be replicated elsewhere. Estimates put the number of young adults experiencing homelessness across the US at more than 4 million.
“There [are] unfortunately huge, discriminatory barriers that we can’t completely destroy on our own,” Schoen told the Dig. “That takes a huge cultural movement.
“We’re creating the second-stage program in order to begin combating those, combating that stigma, providing a source of support to bridge the gap between first-stage programs.”
For more info or to support Breaktime, visit them at breaktime.us.