When Kai Cotton offers advice to youth struggling with homelessness, they listen, because she was once in their shoes.
She’s no typical charity worker. She’s one who’s been homeless, who knows exactly what it is to have the rights and privileges of adulthood but no place to call her own.
Today she has all that and more. Now, instead of “couch surfing,” as she did at age 18, Cotton spends her days as lead youth navigator at A Place 4 Me, a conglomerate of Northeast Ohio service organizations, hosted by YWCA Greater Cleveland, which champions affordable housing and guides young adults that would otherwise be homeless into those properties.
“After reading the job description, I thought, ‘This is perfect for me. I can do this,’” Cotton said. “I applied, and I got the job.”
Cotton being hired shouldn’t be a surprise. She’s lived the situation she’s now trying to prevent. Two years after aging out of foster care at 18, she found herself homeless and didn’t seek shelter or other aid because she was unaware of her options.
Eventually Cotton discovered A Place 4 Me, which trained her in financial literacy and helped her with payments on her first house. Three years later, she learned of the job opening she was soon to fill, assisting young people with housing crises.
Now she’s doing even more with A Place 4 Me. In addition to its lead youth navigator, Cotton serves as chair of the group’s Youth Action Board, a body composed of young people who’ve been on child welfare or experienced homelessness or housing instability.
“Kai has an incredible amount of credibility,” said Angela D’Orazio, senior program officer for housing at The Sisters of Charity Foundation of Cleveland, a driving force in the founding of A Place for Me in 2014.
“That enables her to develop a relationship with a young person that you or I might not be able to do.”
Falling through the cracks
The roots of youth homelessness like Cotton’s are deep and broad, and extend far beyond poverty. Some people age out of foster care or simply reach adulthood while others embark on their own under duress, to escape family strife.
Those most at risk of homelessness are those who fall through the cracks of local or state support because they have no parent or legal guardian and, like Cotton, aren’t aware of what’s available to them.
In 2019, some 500 young adults sought homeless services through Coordinated Entry, the front door to homeless services in Cuyahoga County. Cotton said she’s certain the actual number is much higher, as many young people – loathe to mix with homeless adults and fearing exposure to drugs, theft, sex trafficking, and other threats – avoid shelters.
“Young people see homeless shelters…as a dark, scary place, and sometimes in reality that’s what it can turn into,” Cotton said. “‘It’s just not a place where they want to be or live.”
Some help is underway
Cotton and A Place 4 Me are far from alone in their mission. The state of Ohio is also on their side.
The Ohio Housing Finance Agency (OHFA) recently awarded a $1 million tax credit to encourage construction of the Cuyahoga TAY (Transitional Age Youth) development, a complex of 50 supportive housing units for adults ages 18 to 24. There, residents will receive voluntary help maintaining their housing and work with experts to set goals related to housing stability, education, and other areas of personal and financial well-being.
The development, whose full cost is an estimated $12 million, is being built by the Cuyahoga County Housing First Initiative, which is made up of Enterprise, CHN Housing Partners, EDEN Inc., FrontLine Service, and Care Alliance, in partnership with A Place 4 Me. The project will be located on E. 45th St. in Cleveland’s St. Clair-Superior neighborhood, and is expected to be completed by summer 2023.
The St. Clair-Superior complex is one of six such developments in Cuyahoga County and 36 in Ohio to receive a share of some $31.5 million in state tax credits. Together, these credits will support the construction of over 1,900 units and remain in effect for 10 years. They also guarantee that the properties will remain affordable housing for 30 years.
Scrambling for help
The need for such properties is real. Elaine Gimmel, executive director of EDEN Inc., a Housing First Initiative partner, said her organization knows of 500 households in search of homes where rental assistance vouchers can be used.
“It’s a crisis,” she said. “We need private landlords or affordable housing providers to give us units, so that these individuals and families can move into housing.”
Developers are also looking for assistance.
Supportive housing for young adults has been a priority at the OHFA for two years. The choice was exciting, D’Orazio said, because the strategy of using tax credits leverages the strengths of both Housing First and A Place for Me and results in unique housing options.
But obtaining those credits isn’t easy. Gimmel, of EDEN, Inc said that of the 82 applications for credits by “service-enriched” or “permanent-supported” housing projects this year, only 36 received approval.
A collaborative, safe place
D’Orazio, of The Sisters of Charity, said the entities behind the St. Clair-Superior TAY complex – EDEN, Inc. and Cleveland-based CHN Housing Partners – have consulted young adults on the design of the building and the services it will offer.
Cotton said her Youth Action Board already has played an active role in that regard, expressing the needs of its constituency and supplying developers with preferences related to location and access.
“We wanted it to be close to grocery stores, bus lines, access to jobs and daycare…so our young people can actually thrive, and not be out far in the middle of nowhere,” Cotton said.
Indeed, the larger goal, Cotton said, isn’t just to put roofs over heads but to promote permanent, stable communities and stave off homelessness in future generations.
“Shelter, I don’t believe, is home for anyone,” Cotton said. “This is a place where [people] can come and breathe. They have stability, in a community of people who look like them. Stable housing, in conjunction with supportive services, will enhance the long-term success of these young people.”
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