The OZY Genius Offering Homeless Youths a Break
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Tony Shu is not only providing young people with much-needed employment skills, he's helping them build lasting relationships with their communities.
By Crystal Rose
Tony Shu, a recent Harvard graduate and a 2021 OZY Genius Award winner, starts every day with meditation, positive affirmations and breathing exercises. From there he goes to work — fighting to end youth homelessness in Boston through his nonprofit organization, Breaktime.
His genius project is creating a talent pipeline of youths ages 18 to 24 experiencing homelessness. Breaktime differs from similar-sounding organizations because it provides youths with job skills and transitional employment while also strengthening bonds with their local communities. Once participants complete the 15-week job training program, they receive jobs with Breaktime partners.
Growing up in Wellesley, Massachusetts, Shu was surrounded by affluence, but his was a single-parent family with a small business. When his mother immigrated from China to the U.S. as a young adult, she was hired as a dishwasher at a Chinese restaurant and eventually moved up to hostess. A stable job meant she could continue her education and ultimately launch her own business. It’s a story that imprinted on her son, whose educational journey similarly changed the course of his life.
When Shu arrived at Harvard, the Deepak Chopra fan was immediately struck by the vast resources on display at the elite Ivy League institution — and by the sight of homeless youths, many his age, in Harvard Square. He wanted to do something to help, so he began volunteering at Y2Y, the country’s first student-run homeless shelter founded in 2015 by Harvard alums.
“I was immediately inspired by the hope, creativity and resilience of the young adults staying at the shelter,” Shu, now 21, says, recalling his freshman-year experience. “However, despite their best efforts, they continued to face immense barriers to employment: negative stigma, lack of educational attainment and employment experience, life instability and more.” A different, broader solution was needed, and in response, Shu designed his own academic major, urban studies, that taught him about real estate, government, entrepreneurship, sociology and urban planning while also preparing him to turn theories into practice with the launch of his nonprofit.
As it happened, Connor Shoen, a Harvard classmate and fellow student volunteer at Y2Y, shared Shu’s desire to change the landscape of youth homelessness in the U.S., where 1 in 10 young adults experience homelessness each year. In 2018, Shoen and Shu co-founded Breaktime, Boston’s first transitional employment program for homeless youth. They originally set out to equip youths with job training — stable employment is the most critical factor to achieving stable housing — but quickly realized that hard skills alone would not cure homelessness. So they embraced a different strategy that would provide not just career-focused job training but also softer skills, such as financial literacy, plus a sense of family, belonging and purpose. As part of Breaktime’s commitment to building resilient local communities, they started serving thousands of meals each week and distributing tons of groceries and produce to address food insecurity. During the pandemic, Breaktime “associates” prepared more than 650,000 meals to mitigate hunger in their community while earning a living wage ($16 per hour).
Shu and Shoen’s work drew the attention of the Harvard Kennedy School, which in 2019 selected them as Cheng Fellows, recognized for advances in tackling a social challenge. Brittany Butler, who runs the Harvard Kennedy School’s Social Innovation and Change Initiative, recalls choosing Shu. “My decision was not only due to Tony’s dedicated track record working on public service causes,” says Butler, who’s now serving as Shu’s mentor for his OZY Genius Award project, “but also the passion and authentic motivation to scale his organization, Breaktime, and successfully launch the careers of young adults experiencing homelessness through employment and empowerment.” Further recognition was quick to follow — Shu and Shoen were named to this year’s Forbes 30 Under 30 list, were featured in The Boston Globe and were selected as finalists for this year’s Social Innovation Forum award.
What distinguishes this nonprofit from others is the continuity of opportunities to which the trained associates will have access. Upon finishing their paid training, the associates get to put their experience to use through local community employment provided by partners who pay living wages.
Looking ahead, this OZY Genius winner says, “Breaktime is working toward ending young adult homelessness across the U.S. But just as important as this macro-level goal is the impact Breaktime has at the individual level: We will continue to empower young adults experiencing homelessness to see their own worth and potential and become changemakers in their own right. We hope that our work sets off a sustaining positive chain reaction.”