September 8, 2022
The following story appeared in the Sisters of Charity Foundation of Cleveland's 2021 annual report: 25 Years of Partnership and Authenticity.
The Young Voices that are Ending Youth Homelessness: A Place 4 Me
Between the ages of 16 and 24, young people go through a crucial stage of growth, with an exponential spike
in cognitive, social and emotional development similar to that of very young children. Unlike those young children, however, adolescents are expected to hold steady jobs, provide for family, and utilize goods and services designed for adults with different needs.
It is no surprise that in this system of unreachable expectations, many of these adolescents in Cuyahoga County find themselves facing severe housing instability with little support.
For more than two decades, Sisters of Charity Foundation of Cleveland has been a close partner to the Cuyahoga County Office of Homeless Services (OHS).While long-term homelessness—experienced most
often by older, single adults—has been reduced significantly through the community’s Housing First initiative, the county office noted the challenge of capturing information about 18- to 24-year-olds experiencing homelessness.
Melissa Sirak, program director of the Cuyahoga County Office of Homeless Services (OHS), said that of the 500 to 600 young people seeking emergency housing services each year in Cuyahoga County, nearly one-third do not follow up on the shelter referral they receive.
“We know from national and local data that young people are wary of public systems, are reluctant to seek services in an adult-oriented environment, and often do not seek support through traditional channels,” Sirak said. "We can do better for young people experiencing homelessness in our community."
SOCF, OHS, the county Division of Children and Family Services and the YWCA Greater Cleveland formed a series of visioning sessions in 2013 to think about how to support this population and guide them toward housing stability. Through connections in the county offices, the collaborative was able to survey young people on their needs.
"It turns out, we didn’t really know anything about this group and we really do need young people to be able to advise us," said Kate Lodge.
Lodge is director of A Place 4 Me, a collective impact initiative centered around the voices and experience of young people facing housing instability. The initiative was created following those 2013 visioning sessions, when it became clear that the community needed to dedicate resources specifically to the unique needs of young people. SOCF Cleveland and the Annie E. Casey Foundation provided initial funding and have remained lead partners over nearly a decade.
With space at the YWCA for hosting meetings and group support conversations, plus a small amount of funding for stipends to compensate young people for their knowledge and time, Lodge built relationships and trust with many young people who sought help.
While A Place 4 Me aims to change the systems that create housing instability for young people, it has also grown into a direct-service resource to those in immediate need. A partnership with the Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative helped build direct-service capacity and provided a valuable model for sustained youth engagement.
In 2016, A Place 4 Me launched the REACH action board, a youth advisory committee comprising young people with lived expertise in housing instability. Initially named as an acronym—Resolution, Education, Awareness, Community, Hope—it’s been known simply as REACH in the years since.
Kai, the lead youth navigator at A Place 4 Me, joined the staff at in 2019 after connecting with A Place 4 Me through Opportunity Passport. She joined REACH shortly after that.
“When I first joined REACH, it was scary,” Kai said.“It’s a great place for imposter syndrome, because you’ve been conditioned not to expect excellence for yourself, but I have built so much confidence in myself as a person and as a young professional.”
Kai began her A Place 4 Me staff role as a navigator in early 2019. In 2020, another young professional, Shajuana, joined the staff as a navigator focused on youth aging out of foster care. Kai said the role of the youth navigators is central to helping other young people empower themselves to make change.
Christie Sozio, assistant director of A Place 4 Me, has facilitated the work of the REACH board since its inception. She says she feels a tremendous responsibility to be facing broken systems on their behalf.
“I’m motivated by systems-change work, but it’s really difficult to continue to come up against a long history of oppression and bias, and there’s a lot of responsibility in that,” Sozio said. “But the beauty is to be able to learn from these young people, to step back so they can create the spaces where they feel comfortable and can thrive.”
REACH has met monthly since fall 2016. Today, there are 10 young adults who regularly attend meetings and join committees. Over the last several years, REACH board members have educated themselves on youth homelessness data and social determinants of health and homelessness, served on subcommittees in organizations across the county, participated in youth advocacy efforts, and developed, planned and reviewed applicants for A Place 4 Me’s youth navigator positions.
"Being a peer to other young people like me is so rewarding," said Kai. "I represent to others that you are not your mistakes or experiences. You can overcome that and be the kind of person you want to be."
Together with several partners, in 2021 A Place 4 Me announced plans to build a new 50-unit supportive housing development designed specifically to serve transition-aged youth aged 18 to 24 (TAY) experiencing homelessness. Supportive housing links well-designed, safe, affordable housing with flexible, voluntary support services designed to help an individual stay housed, meet their goals and thrive in the community. REACH board members led the decision processes for site selection, building design and service providers. Residents in the TAY development will coordinate with property management and service providers to set individual goals related to housing stability, education, employment and well-being.
Now, A Place 4 Me’s focus is toward what Sozio calls “one of the biggest dreams of the REACH board”—a low-barrier, “drop-in” resource center where young people can find respite from the sustained trauma of housing instability. With food, hygiene materials, spaces for young children (about 25 percent of young people in this demographic are parents) and community partners in housing and health care access and employment resources, the center seeks to meet young people where they are.
REACH board members and other young adult leaders make up 50 percent of the center’s planning team, and they are instrumental in ensuring the center is equipped to care for young people’s unique needs.
A Place 4 Me is looking to grow in 2022 and add additional navigators to its team who will work directly with young people at the center. SOCF Cleveland continues to be a close partner and adviser on the center’s core planning team.
"Authentically partnering with young people is a newer approach in philanthropy," said Angela D'Orazio, senior program officer for housing at SOCF Cleveland. "The effort to end youth homelessness is about relationships, mutual trust and continuous learning. We work in this new way to achieve results our community has never seen before, and the work is richer and more relevant because of the leadership of young people."
Youth navigator Shajuana said that her collaboration with SOCF is the first time she’s been able to partner with a foundation’s staff in a way that feels productive.
“It wasn’t until I started working for A Place 4 Me that I really saw how things could change for the better,” she said. Having gone through the foster care system, she said her trust was eroded by the many unfulfilled promises she heard. “And now I’m working alongside people who recognize that something needs to happen, and they are doing the work to make it actually happen. It’s not just talk.”
Lodge said that this example is one that SOCF Cleveland set from the beginning.
"If something is going to get done, we can’t do it alone," Lodge said. "The team at Sisters of Charity has been
rolling up their sleeves and working alongside us since the very beginning. Thought leadership, communications support, grantwriting, building connections and trusting relationships, Sisters of Charity has been persistent and really taught us what engaged philanthropy is."