On Thanksgiving, when we talk about homeless and needy people, we often don't distinguish between one sort of need or another. But in the case of young adults who are homeless, their needs can be very different from older adults.
"Most of the time when a young person arrives at a shelter for the first time, they're pretty taken back by the fact that it's one humongous room with triple-level bunk beds, maybe 200 men or 200 women in a room, sleeping face to face," said Robb Zarges, who runs Bridge Over Troubled Waters, a youth shelter near the Boston Common. "In our model, what we did is, it's two young people in a room, and it's private."
Zarges is a big teddy bear of a man, with a way about him that you can just tell makes kids feel comfortable.
For years, his organization has offered counseling and support to street kids in Boston. But recently, in response to intense demand, they started offering a shelter, too.
They converted their third-floor offices into bedrooms, to be used only by 18- to 24-year-olds.
"July 11, we opened, we have not had an open bed once," Zarges said. "While the adult shelter system is a very important service, for young adults, it's not the best place for them. They're easily victimized, especially if they're new to the streets. And so we provide a safe place for them to be.
"It's not like a typical shelter where they're in at seven at night and they're out at seven in the morning. They can go downstairs and access all the services they need — case management, breakfast, lunch, places to shower, do their laundry. On our fifth floor we have a GED program and a workforce development program. On our fourth floor is a full counseling department with adolescent counseling, substance abuse counseling. Sixth floor is our dental clinic. Right down the hallway here is our medical clinic, and so literally a young person could come into this building July 11 and not leave the building for six months."
Zarges says the young people are there for various reasons, whether they were thrown out of the house, or aged out of the state's youth services system.
"They could have been kicked out because of their mental illness or drug use or maybe they turned 18 and their parents said, you know, unless you're going to provide, you need to move out," Zarges said. "They may have been kicked out because they came out of the closet as LGBTQ youth. In Massachusetts, one in four LGBTQ youth become homeless. There's literally a hundred different ways for a hundred different kids of becoming homeless."
One of Bridge's residents, 22-year-old Luis Rodrigues, is originally from Puerto Rico, and certainly fits the criteria for getting a bed: vulnerability and need.
"I was referred by my doctor, and from people from the adult shelter," Rodrigues said. "I was a cancer patient but I was in remission, but my immune system wasn't prepared for this type of environment, of homelessness, so they advised me that the safest place I could go to is Bridge Over Troubled Waters."
Rodrigues first moved to Boston over a year ago to get treatment for his leukemia. He'd been living with his grandparents in Puerto Rico and studying microbiology in college. When he got to Boston, he moved in with his uncle, but that didn't work out.
"Then I moved with my dad, that I hadn't [known] him for a while, so when I started living with him, and in the apartment there were some situations where they took the apartment away from his girlfriend, so all of us ended up in the street and my little brothers ended up in [social services] custody," Rodrigues said. "So I ended up with my dad in Pine Street, one of the adult shelters, and from there we began, like, our homelessness."
Rodrigues said Bridge Over Troubled Waters has done a lot for him.
"I thought that being homeless was dangerous for me and it was going to take me to bad places," Rodrigues said. "But ever since I got here, I was helped, I was guided to the right place, they also have connected me with a lot of people who I've learned to care about and they have given me a lot of opportunities to move forward."
Bridge set Rodriques up for a job interview with Herb Chambers to work as a valet. He expects to get the job. They let his younger brother into the shelter too, and they get to share a room. They also connected him to Tufts University, where he is currently taking study skills classes to prepare him to be a student there next fall. And there are the little things, too.
"I'm kind of like a forgetful person, so I forget to take my medicines, but every morning, their staff reminds me of taking my medicine, they keep track of my appointments and they make sure that I'm doing everything I'm supposed to do for my health," Rodrigues said.
With that sort of care, there's already a list of 25 kids waiting for one of bridge's 12 beds. Zarges, the shelter director, is hoping to expand that to 30 or 50 beds within the next three years.
But he also feels that if the shelter is doing its job, those beds will turn over pretty quickly.
"What we try to keep reminding them is that you're not moving in here, this is a stopping place for you. This is a place where you can stop, gather what you need and then move on to your future," Zarges said. "So we do have to constantly remind young people that this is not your home. Your home waits for you. And you will no longer be homeless when you move into your home."
Rodrigues' father is still homeless, living at the Pine Street Inn. Every morning he comes to meet with his two sons outside of bridge for a few minutes, to check in.
But Rodrigues is a different story. Bridge helped him fill out the paperwork to get his Section 8 housing. He should be in his own place by Christmas. And he'll be living with a roommate, his little brother. That means two beds opening up for more homeless youth.