In March 2020, just as work was beginning on Breaktime Café – an ambitiously planned restaurant to train and employ young people experiencing homelessness in Boston – the pandemic brought construction to an abrupt halt.
The disruption could have killed the dreams co-founders Connor Schoen and Tony Shu, who were Harvard University undergraduates at the time. Instead, it led to innovation.
While the country went on lockdown, Breaktime pivoted into a connection-based nonprofit, matching young people without housing with Boston-area nonprofits and small businesses in need of employees. It accelerated quickly, creating more than 60 transitional employment opportunities and serving tens of thousands of people throughout Greater Boston.
"If we were just running our own café, it would have employed 10 to 15 young adults experiencing homelessness," Schoen said. "We're creating 10 to 15 jobs every single month right now, instead of every single year or every single café."
In the process, Breaktime's employees gain more than a paycheck while they complete the three-month program.
"From the time I walked into Breaktime to now, I've seen so much growth in myself, my confidence, my ambition and drive to make an impact in the community," said Vickie Lahai, a Breaktime employee who works at the Action for Boston Community Development food pantry. "It's definitely been a game-changer."
Lahai, 21, was unemployed and in a youth shelter when a case manager connected her with Breaktime. It didn't take long for her to see the program's potential.
"I have never left a building with so much enthusiasm and excitement for a job, ever," she said. "When I tell you the impact it had – how the staff was supportive of me and my co-workers – and being able to learn and grow with them, to see different types of leadership styles. I even saw some things about me that I never knew."
About 580,000 people in the U.S. experienced homelessness on a given night in 2020, including 34,000 "unaccompanied youth" under age 25, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Housing instability, including homelessness, is linked to cardiovascular problems, according to a 2020 report from the American Heart Association. Particularly at risk are people from communities who are unable to access or afford quality housing because of a historical lack of investment and other systemic problems.
By creating stable jobs, Breaktime helps remove a critical barrier to securing quality housing.
For Lahai, her work touches all aspects of the food pantry: client intake and tracking, keeping logs of services delivered and preparing bags of food for an estimated 100 to 150 people a week, each of them "packed with love and support and positive vibes as well."
"I have gained way more life skills and things that are important in the development of a person that I don't think you can get all day sitting in a classroom," she said. "I'm able to get hands-on. I'm out in the community, being able to connect with people to make a change."
Because Breaktime gives workers a voice and regularly includes them in organizational meetings, Lahai said, she and her colleagues are growing personally and professionally. And as Breaktime's staff meetings grow – with far more faces filling the screen during videoconferences – Schoen maintains an intentional focus on inclusion.
"When we started this organization, a lot of my friends said to me, 'What's it like not having a boss?' I actually have more bosses than I can count because every single person who comes through our program, every single associate – and once they become alumni, too – every single one of those people is someone I'm reporting to," said Schoen, who recently took part in the American Heart Association's Empowered to Serve Business Accelerator. It is a leadership training and grant program that helps social entrepreneurs and organizations solve health inequities in their communities.
"We're really focused on making sure that everyone's perspectives are engaged, that everyone feels uplifted and empowered to share their ideas," he said.
That spirit of collaboration isn't just internal. Breaktime has worked with the City of Boston and Massachusetts lawmakers to deliver increased funding for employment opportunities for young people experiencing homelessness. In 2020, it partnered with 30 meal sites to serve food.
"We've seen the magic that collaboration can do," Schoen said. "We're all sort of in our own bubbles, going through day to day and just trying to do our own work. But when we look outside of our own lives, our own organizations, our own block, we can really figure out more creative ways to come together.
"We can work together and unlock the potential to do things that we could never do individually."
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