It seemed impossible: House 100 young adults living in the street or in the emergency shelter system in 100 days.
The challenge came in September when A Place 4 Me, a local initiative uniting more than 60 organizations and service providers, won a national competition to fast-track efforts to end youth homelessness in Cuyahoga County by 2020.
Nineteen-year-old Raqinda Robinson had been homeless since she was kicked out of her house in January 2016 — six months before her high school graduation.
“I didn’t think nothing bad was going to happen,” says Robinson, who spent a majority of her time outdoors, seeking shelter at Tower City Center, on the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority’s HealthLine and at local parks. “You just have to live life day by day, because you don’t know when your last day is on this earth.”
As reported in last year’s Cleveland Magazine feature, “The Lost Ones,” tackling youth homelessness is complex. Youth 18 to 24, such as Robinson, are transient and vulnerable.
Resistant to an overcrowded emergency shelter system, they’re hard to find and even more difficult to track. As homeless young adults were being identified and A Place 4 Me was learning just how large the issue was in Cuyahoga County, pressing questions remained just beyond the horizon: How did these youth become homeless and how do we prevent others from following in their footsteps? How should we house them? And how do we guarantee they will never become homeless again?
“Going to a shelter never feels dignified and asking for help is not something that comes naturally to people,” says Kate Lodge, vice president of strategic initiatives and executive director of A Place 4 Me. “It’s the way we deliver help that matters.”
With assistance from the national A Way Home America initiative and the Rapid Results Institute, local outreach workers began identifying those already in a shelter and on the street at the start of the 100-day challenge to create a physical list — something that had previously not existed — of every young adult in need of housing.
As they were identified, staff members helped them navigate the complex shelter system and the housing process. Emerald Development & Economic Network compiled a list of landlords willing to rent to them.
By October, more than 90 new apartment units were identified, and federal grant money became available to implement a new rapid rehousing method that could pay for the security deposit and first four months of rent for any youth in the emergency shelter system.
By the end of the challenge, 105 of the 229 youth identified as homeless in Cuyahoga County were successfully housed, including Robinson. More than half of those were reunited with their families. As of Jan. 30, 290 young adults had been identified with 137 of them placed in housing.
“Housing is the basic starting point,” says Ruth Gillett, program director of the Office of Homeless Services. “But then you really need to figure out how to make sure they don’t end up homeless again.”
A Place 4 Me is working to connect youth to employment, strengthen family interventions and rally communal support around additional funding for the months ahead.
Only time will tell if those who are housed will ever be without a stable place to live again — but if they are, there’s now a streamlined support system that didn’t exist before to catch them.
“We aren’t going to eliminate youth homelessness, but we are going to respond to it in such a way that they aren’t going to be on the list forever,” says Lodge. “We have big dreams.”
In the following pages, four youths share their experiences and look ahead now that they’ve found a place they can call their own.