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Local Center Provides Pathways to Stability for Homeless Youth 

A guiding hand

Jason Indenbaum, a case manager at On Ramp Resource Center, couldn't wait to share his excitement about the recent success story of a client.

After being stranded in Charlotte with no home or support system, the client was at The Relatives, a network of resources in Charlotte designed to connect homeless or unstably housed youth and young adults.

He was on Indenbaum's caseload for less than a year, working to get on his feet for about six months before securing a job with Job Corps and moving to Memphis, Tennessee. Since then, Indenbaum said the client has completed his certification in phlebology and signed on with the military in a medical branch. He recently sent Indenbaum a picture of his newly signed contract.

"When Jason showed me the picture the other day, I was so excited," said Genine Donovan, a resource coordinator with On Ramp. "That's what we like, those success stories. Those are definitely success stories when they accomplish their goals."

The Relatives operates in three different capacities: a crisis center for youth 7 to 17 years old, a transitional living facility for young men aging out of foster care and On Ramp, which serves the population of 16- to 24-year-olds that find themselves without a home or are in unstable housing.

click to enlarge Resource coordinator Genine Donovan helps a client in the On Ramp upstairs resource center. (Photo by The Beautiful Mess)
  • Resource coordinator Genine Donovan helps a client in the On Ramp upstairs resource center. (Photo by The Beautiful Mess)

The focus of The Relatives is connecting the clients that walk through its doors to job opportunities, helping them find affordable housing and providing educational pathways.

It can be terrifying, and even embarrassing, to ask for help, especially for youth who are not used to being vulnerable, much less with strangers. But it's Indenbaum's job to manage client cases and help them to move forward out of housing and financial instability.

"Having to be vulnerable and ask for help and figure out how to identify those resources is, I think, a really big challenge," he said.

But Indenbaum is part of the compassionate team that connects clients with services as they need them. This could mean helping them search for a job — or a better-paying job — and hunt for an affordable apartment that suits their needs.

Finding that stable and affordable housing can be difficult, but housing coordinator Tom Montaglione works closely with clients to help them secure the funding they need and look for the right apartment.

For clients aged 18 to 24 years old, it's almost impossible to sustain themselves on minimum wage jobs.

Through federal funding and private donors, The Relatives help supplement rent for clients over a 12-month period, slowly tapering it off as the rehoused client pursues education or career goals. The heavily-involved case managers and housing coordinators assist clients in securing units, so through the housing support from On Ramp, most clients are able to get back on their feet and start achieving upward mobility.

"Most of them do end up achieving a better life, higher income and can maintain by themselves after the 12 months," Montaglione said. "The real reason for that is the intensive case management subsidy allows them to take more risk or educational chance than if they were on their own."

Trish Hobson, executive director at The Relatives, elaborated on how the typical life progression of education, then job, then homeownership is not applicable in the cases of the youth and young adults that come to her organization.

Because many do not have stable housing or a support system in the beginning of their lives, it's challenging to pursue an education in order to secure a well-paying job, she said.

click to enlarge Jason Indenbaum, one of the case managers at The Relatives' On Ramp center. (Photo by Courtney Mihocik)
  • Jason Indenbaum, one of the case managers at The Relatives' On Ramp center. (Photo by Courtney Mihocik)

"That's what we're trying to do for these kids, is provide them that stability of a home and then those other pieces will come along," she said. "Education is a huge piece. There's a lot of statistics that say the No. 1 predictor for youth homeless is not having an education."

On Ramp currently hosts a GED tutoring program which is staffed by volunteers and aims to help clients pass the test if they dropped out of high school and want to pursue educational goals.

Hobson said she hopes to expand the current education services and build out the program, possibly adding a full-time education specialist on staff.

In August, UNC Charlotte's Urban Institute released the State of Housing report, the result of a partnership with Mecklenburg County. The report delves into the marriage between two prominent and interconnected problems in the community: homelessness and affordable housing.

Ashley Clark, director of outreach and strategic partnerships at the Urban Institute, co-authored the comprehensive report.

"We can't just talk about housing instability and homelessness in isolation and not also talk about pathways to stable housing and access to affordable housing at all price points," Clark said. "The report really tried to look at housing as a continuum and get a better sense of what we are, as a community, doing at different points on the continuum."

One way that the report references homelessness is with the annual "point-in-time snapshot," which counts the number of sheltered and unsheltered homeless in the county on one particular night. In the 2018 point-in-time count, there were 1,668 people identified as homeless, a 13-percent increase from 2017, but a 16-percent decrease since 2010. This year, there were 77 unaccompanied youth.

This may not seem like a large number, but it's difficult to accurately count the number of homeless youth and young adults versus counting the number of homeless adults over 24 years old.

"Youth tend to show up in very different places than adults do," Clark stated. "Youth might be hanging out at the mall, hanging out at the bus station or hanging out at the Greyhound station, and other places where they're trying to blend in. So the strategies in finding them have to be different."

Hobson elaborated on this, and stated that youth and young adults couch surf frequently, so while they are not sleeping on the streets or in a shelter, they still don't have a permanent residence.

When this population is using friends' couches to crash or living in a crisis shelter, the federal funding The Relatives has for rehousing doesn't apply.

In order to qualify for the funding, a client has to be "literally homeless," or unsheltered so that they may be rapidly rehoused.

"A person on the street might think that another person is homeless because he doesn't actually have a place to live," Hobson explained. "But he's not staying on the street so the federal government doesn't classify him as homeless."

She emphasized that The Relatives does not advise clients to not seek shelters or crisis centers in order to be eligible.

To supplement federal funding, The Relatives takes donations from public entities like the Joey Logano Foundation.

The reasons that this population finds themselves without a home or a safe place to sleep vary. In the State of Housing report, 79 percent of unaccompanied youth were kicked out of their home or forced to leave, while the remaining 21 percent chose to leave.

Of the 79 percent that were forced to leave, the top two reasons were due to family conflict or due to gender identity or sexual orientation.

Time Out Youth, a resource center that focuses on the at-risk youth of the LGBTQ population, just moved to a larger and more accomodating location. When Creative Loafing profiled the organization in February 2017, staff was in the process of moving from a 3,000 square-foot location in NoDa to a 7,400 square-foot building on Monroe Road.

The move has allowed TOY to work closely and coordinate with other LGBTQ organizations in Charlotte. Since then, the organization has rolled out a new online chat platform , and in 2020, the organization plans to open a 10-bed shelter on the new property for LGBTQ youth who have been kicked out of their homes.

But for cities that don't have organizations like TOY or The Relatives immediately available to connect at-risk and homeless youth to the resources, the National Runaway Safeline is a country-wide resource that children can turn to when they are in crisis.

click to enlarge On Ramp stores organized bins of items that are available to clients. (Photo by Courtney Mihocik)
  • On Ramp stores organized bins of items that are available to clients. (Photo by Courtney Mihocik)

The safeline is an anonymous hotline accessible via phone, text, chat service or email, and the staff works with youth to connect them to a shelter or crisis resource center in their area or put them in the Home Free program, which gives them a bus ticket home. For those under 18 years old and legally classified as a "runaway," reunification with family or trusted friends is the first option that the safeline staff explores with the youth that contact them.

Susan Frankel, executive director of the National Runaway Safeline (NRS), said the hotline's first priority is supporting the youth that call them with the resources and options they need to be safe without judgment or preaching.

"We're really here to provide services for whatever that youth needs. And while they may have a million different things going on in their lives, if the main issue for them is finding safe housing, that's where we're going to work for those resources," she stated. The NRS has thousands of resources across the country to connect homeless youth to in an effort to ensure they end up in a safe place to live and sleep.

A network is important, not only is having a country, county or a community that interconnects their resources for homeless youth and young adults crucial, but having individual support systems isnas well.

One goal of The Relatives is to create a network of support for those who have been abandoned by their natural support systems. This could mean pairing them with a mentor for social support or referring them to a therapist or counselor for mental health support.

"That's a big part of what we're trying to do here, for these folks who have been abandoned by their natural supports, or come in without having those supports. Our primary objective is to connect a support network around each individual," Indenbaum said.

Being a mentor is outside of Indenbaum's scope of duties, but when The Relatives pair mentors with mentees through the center, the personal relationship that forms can help the youth feel supported emotionally and socially.

Furthermore, through education workshops that The Relatives organize, the youth can learn more about financial independence while also getting the community involved. For instance, On Ramp may host someone from Charlotte Metro Credit Union to speak about setting up a checking and savings account to help lead the clients toward financial independence. Then the organization may run mock interviews or host local non-profits like Running Works to guide the clients toward career goals.

Volunteers are welcome, too. During a recent CL visit, volunteer Jane Sacks was sitting in a room at On Ramp going over a practice GED test to prepare to tutor anyone who walked in. No one showed at the time, but Sacks wasn't bothered, she would remain there in case someone did, much like the other volunteers at On Ramp.

"It's always great to be able to have folks come in and share that knowledge with our young adults to help them move toward independence, and have that educational component as well," Indenbaum stated.

click to enlarge A volunteer at On Ramp works with a client. (Photo by The Beautiful Mess)
  • A volunteer at On Ramp works with a client. (Photo by The Beautiful Mess)

The community at large can also play a helpful role in providing the resources that this population of at-risk and homeless youth and young adults need.

November is National Runaway Prevention Month and a time to help shine the light on the runaway and homeless youth issues in communities by raising awareness and educating the public on the experience that youth and young adults face when they are without a safe place.

But it's critical for the community to continue the conversation, Frankel said.

"I think any time that communities can start to look have conversations about how to provide safe and accessible support for homeless and at-risk youth is really important," Frankel said about the Shine a Light theme of NRPM.

But with organizations that focus on the younger population of homeless persons, Charlotte can start to address these issues and alleviate the challenges that youth and young adults without homes face.

"I think that organizations like The Relatives and Time Out Youth might have a good sense of — in addition to housing — what might be other challenges these kids are facing," Clark said. "[They] certainly play a role if you can't find affordable housing or have a job that earns enough to be able to support housing at the cost of Charlotte rent."

It's the success story Donovan shared about a former client that shows it's important that The Relatives — and the city — continues to grow and connect the youth and young adults to housing stability, financial independence and a better life.

We could all use more success stories.

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