The Innovative Local Collaborations Working Together To Solve Youth Homelessness

No young person should ever have to experience homelessness. 

On any given night in Boston, more than 300 youth and young adults (YYA) are sleeping in shelters or out on the street with thousands more couch surfing yet still technically unhoused. But YYA homelessness is often considered a “hidden” problem as it’s a population often dismissed as transient. This creates a huge gap in services and support, making housing youth and young adults in stable, secure housing extremely difficult. Moreover, this epidemic hits BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ young people particularly acutely.  

To paint the picture:  

  • Around 50% of YYA experiencing homelessness identify as Black  
  • Up to 35% identify as Hispanic or Latinx 
  • Around 25% identify as LGBTQ+  
  • Nearly 50% have been involved in the justice system  
  • Up to 39% have been in foster care  

It’s time to end this. It’s up to us to change the systems and policies in place to uplift these young people and provide them with safe, supportive housing and wrap-around services that will empower them to thrive. But we know no one organization can do it alone. It takes a village of community partnerships and lived experience to create true, lasting change. So, we’re uniting our community to form these connections. 

“Youth experiencing homelessness need so much more than a roof over their heads. They need our support, our guidance and must develop the life skills needed for long-term success. We need to make sure that all programs and services that address youth homelessness include the support services that are so critical to youth development.” Elisabeth Jackson, CEO Bridge Over Troubled Waters.

Here’s a look into some of the most innovative local community partnerships working to address and end youth homelessness. 

Boston is Rising to the Challenge 

To create solutions that work, we have to pass the microphone to those with lived experience. By partnering with young people, supporting their growth and listening to their ideas, we can implement programs and supports that work on the ground – not just on paper. The City of Boston’s Rising to the Challenge Plan was built with the input of over 240 community members, including youth and young adults with lived experience of homelessness.

“We hope that there will be a time when youth and young adults will have the resources and the support that they need to succeed in the world,” said Sheila Dillon, Chief of Housing for the City of Boston. “No one should feel invisible or like no one cares about them, especially when they are young and just starting to make their way in the world. With the work of United Way and its partners, we are working to make that future a reality.”

The Rising to the Challenge plan is being implemented by United Way, the City’s Department of Neighborhood Development, the Mayor’s Office of Health & Human Services, the Boston Youth Action Board, and nonprofits throughout the city – working closely with the Boston Youth Action Board, a group of young people with lived experience who are guiding decision-making. The vision? That all YYA have a safe, identity-validating, and stable place to live with opportunities to reach their full potential in education and employment, and with self-love and awareness. Furthermore, to make the experience of homelessness is rare, brief, and a one-time occurrence.

Built on the tenets of identification, stable housing, health and wellbeing, education and employment, and permanent connections, the plan has identified four core strategies: 

  1. Develop a collaborative system
  2. Improve early identification and outreach
  3. Increase access to and effectiveness of existing resources
  4. Invest in new housing and services resources 

More Than Words and Bridge Over Troubled Waters come together to offer groundbreaking wraparound services

Two of our partner organizations, Bridge Over Troubled Waters and More Than Words, have teamed up to provide a wraparound housing and workforce development program. Together, they’re making sure every young person has what they need to get back on their feet and thrive.  

“We believe housing is a human right. We believe youth should not be made homeless. At More Than Words, we are working to disrupt the fact that nearly 50% of homeless young people are coming straight out of our child welfare system. Our young people are learning their rights to transition plans, advocating for legislative change and systemic accountability, and educating stakeholders and elected officials about this child welfare cliff. At the same time, with strong partnerships, we have been able to house some of our most vulnerable young people in Single Room Occupancies (SROs) to persist through our social enterprise training program while learning to save.” – Jodi Rosenbaum, Founder & CEO More Than Words

This innovative partnership couples More Than Words workforce development programs with Bridge Over Troubled Waters supportive housing, allowing YYA to live in a safe place while developing the executive and life skills that will allow them to thrive. Each organization had a piece of the puzzle, but only by coming together could they create something truly groundbreaking. Without life skills development, education and career support and clinical counseling, youth struggle to stay in housing. Take this story from one Bridge youth as an example of the program’s efficacy. 

“I was kicked out of my house and onto the street right before Christmas last year. I had just turned 18 and was scared of spending the night outside and alone. An officer told me about Bridge and helped me get a bed in Bridge’s overnight Welcome Center on Christmas Eve. The staff welcomed me, gave me some clean clothes, a hot meal, and a warm place to sleep that night. The next morning was Christmas and we had a full breakfast, and believe it or not, presents for each of us to open: a new backpack, personal hygiene items, socks, gloves, a hat and scarf; and a gift card to get something we especially wanted to choose. Even though I was new to Bridge, they had a gift for me. I continued to stay in the Welcome Center each night and the day program each day. I met with my counselor to help me deal with what happened. A lot changed over that first month. I continued meeting with my counselor regularly and moved into Bridge’s Transitional Living Program where I had my own bedroom and was finishing high school. When COVID hit, the staff got me a laptop so I could finish my high school classes remotely and graduate on time. Then the staff helped me decide on a college, fill out my application and financial aid forms, and I am a college student today. Over the last year, Bridge has become my home – and I don’t know where I’d be without them.

The North Shore Housing Action Group (NSHAG) takes a “no wrong door” approach 

In Essex County, we have been partnering with the Lynn Housing and Neighborhood Development (LHAND) to organize training and capacity-building throughout the region. To this end, the NSHAG has created hubs in different areas such as Gloucester, Salem, Lynn and Lawrence with lead agencies in each region who can coordinate services and provide more timely emergency housing and placement for YYA. From there, young people are connected to a case manager to further explore their needs and options. The idea stems from a “no wrong door” approach, where any agency a young person goes to for support will be able to quickly refer them to appropriate support in their area instead of having to turn them away. 

Again, key to this model is the development of a local Youth Action Board (YAB) made up of young people with lived experience who share their experiences and expertise to improve the system of services. 

Looking forward to a new kind of intervention 

We are also looking forward to future innovations in this space, including BAY-CASH, a direct cash transfer program for young people experiencing homelessness in Greater Boston. This innovative model is being designed for Greater Boston by a group of nonprofit partners and young people with lived experience, co-chaired by United Way. BAY-CASH is modeled on the Trust Youth Initiative in New York City and has potential for significant local, state, and national impact. BAY-CASH, or Boston Area Youth–Cash Assistance for Stable Housing, is a Direct Cash Transfer (DCT) Program that will test whether regular modest cash payments plus targeted supports are effective in ending Youth and Young Adult (YYA) homelessness.   

To learn more about our youth homelessness work, please contact