Do-Gooders, Key Players, and Game Changers: Cambridge YWCA

YWCAPhoto by Sasha Pedro.

Body, mind and spirit are the three pillars of the United States YWCA—the institution’s original logo is composed of a triangle with its sides representing these facets of its services. In Cambridge in particular, the YWCA has strived to support underprivileged women and families since its founding 128 years ago. 

For most of the YWCA’s history, it has provided housing, as well as educational and emotional support services, for local women. The organization also provides an exercise space; these spaces are occupied primarily through commercial tenants, who in turn offer various exercise and fitness programs.

Housing options are concentrated within two properties: in-house accommodations at Tanner Residence and Renae’s Place for Homeless Families. Tanner Residence—a long-term living solution—has 103 units of single-room occupancy housing for women who have experienced trauma. Some women live there for upwards of 10 years. Tanner has staff on call at all hours. 

The YWCA also has private rooms at a market rate of $750.

“That’s definitely more for women who have come here from out of town and are starting over and need a stepping-stone place,” Whitney Mooney, the fund development manager, explains. 

Renae’s Place, located at a separate site in Central Square that the YWCA began leasing from the city in 2018, provides living space for 10 homeless families at a time. Clients arrive there on a referral basis. Families are required to work in job-training programs or volunteer. They also work regularly with a case manager to improve their situations. 

“The whole idea is to help them to create an environment in which they can build life skills that will keep them from being homeless in the future,” Executive Director Eva Martin-Blythe explains. “It’s long-term planning, long-term education.”

A need for housing in Cambridge has stayed consistent throughout the past 100 years.

“What’s beautiful about the YWCA is that we’re very much a bottom-up organization,” Martin-Blythe says. “We respond to the needs of the community. We’ve provided housing from day one because the community has needed us to provide housing from day one.”

A number of factors impact the rise of homelessness and poverty in Cambridge, including exorbitant housing costs, layoffs in the workplace, and an economy in which staying afloat remains difficult.

“There are middle-class families who are one step away from homelessness,” Martin-Blythe says.

Fulfilling a need for housing helps the YWCA work towards its stated mission of eliminating racism and empowering women.

“Stable housing and supportive housing is a means of empowerment. The reality is …  if you’re homeless, everything else becomes secondary,” Martin-Blythe says.

The organization also recognizes that empowered girls become empowered women. Girlx Only Leadership Development (GOLD) is the YWCA’s training program for girlx—a spelling changed this year from “girls” to signify the program’s embrace of nonbinary individuals. Initially conceptualized by former Cambridge Mayor Denise Simmons, the YWCA took over the program five years ago. GOLD, which focuses on seventh- and eighth-grade girlx transitioning to high school, provides them support through adult mentors, as well as peer mentors who have graduated from the program. 

Programming emphasizes experiential learning. This year, the GOLD cohort has been to the Cancer Research Center at MIT, completed a scavenger hunt at the Museum of Science, participated in programs to develop acting and writing skills, and learned about financial literacy. Trainings cover health, self esteem, sexuality, and healthy relationships. A Career Night each year encourages participants to think about their futures and introduces them to successful women.

Social justice is also a priority for the YWCA. The annual, national “Stand Against Racism” event is a two- or three-day symposium rife with trainings and workshops. Last year’s focused on immigration issues with a special focus on services available to undocumented immigrants in the Cambridge area.

Women’s issues are important to the YWCA as well, and “anytime there’s a women’s issue, it affects black women and women of color even more,” Whitney explains. The YWCA advocates for abortion access and provides free menstrual products for all women who participate in its programs. 

This story appears in the Jan/Feb print issue of Scout Cambridge, which is available for free at more than 220 drop spots throughout Cambridge (and just beyond its borders) or by subscription.

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