Natasha spent her childhood in the Cleveland foster care system before living with relatives as a teenager. But when she turned 18, her family informed her that she was on her own and had to leave. With $5 and a pack of gum in her pocket, Natasha found herself homeless.
“I was very confused,” Natasha recalls. “It didn’t really hit me that I really had to leave until after I packed my bags. I thought no one really wants me. I felt alone in the world and I felt abandoned.”
Natasha turned to Cleveland homeless shelters before ending up in a traditional housing facility on W. 25th
Street while she finished high school and got a job at Taco Bell, where the manager took a chance on her with no job experience and made her a team leader.
“It was difficult at first, but I managed to do it,” she recalls. “I was eventually able to move out on my own.”
Natasha’s story is just one story among many that prompted the creation of A Place 4 Me
in 2014 – an collaborative housed within the YWCA of Greater Cleveland
that harnesses the strengths and resources of more than 30 partners to help youth age 15 to 24 who are at high risk of homelessness, particularly those who age out of foster care.
Earlier this month, A Place 4 Me launched the 100 Day Challenge to house 100 at-risk youth in 100 days. Cleveland is one of only three cities to be chosen by A Way Home America
to participate in the challenge and receive coaching and support toward ending youth homelessness from the Rapid Results Institute
The Cleveland challenge team is made up of A Place 4 Me and 12 other organizations focused on youth homelessness. “This is a collaborative in the community concerned with homelessness and youth aging out of foster care,” says Kate Lodge, A Place 4 Me project director. “There are 500 people a year age 18 to 24 in Cleveland in a shelter – 100 people on any given night – and this doesn’t even count the people not showing up.”
Approximately 150 people age out of foster care each year in Cleveland, Lodge adds, and 40 percent are likely to experience some kind of housing instability by age 24. The 100 Day Challenge aims to not only house 100 youth in 100 days, but also reinforce the support systems to prevent youth homelessness. The challenge ends on November 14.
Cleveland was chosen after a competitive application process. Lodge says 20 cities applied. In addition to Cleveland, Austin, Texas, and Los Angeles were also chosen. Team representatives went to Austin earlier this month for a convening of the three challenge cities.
Cleveland's harsh winters, says Lodge, was one of the reasons it was chosen. “In warmer climates there are hordes of youth homeless [on the streets],” she says. “We don’t have that here. We pitched our goal, and planned out strategies. We’re really focused on helping the youth who are in the shelter get out of the shelter," she says. "It’s going to be intense.”
The goals include identifying at-risk youth; care coordination; establishing links to available resources; providing a list of types of housing available; and homelessness prevention through planning.
“This is building upon something we’ve been working on for two years,” Lodge explains. “This is going to help us get there faster.”
As for Natasha, she is currently living at Independence Place
, the YWCA of Cleveland’s permanent supportive youth housing facility.
Now 24, Natasha has earned her associate’s degree in business from Cleveland State University
and will earn her bachelor’s in international business in December. She says the wants to start her own business and employ young people who need a chance at gaining job experience.
“I want to open a business that never goes out of style, like childcare, hair care or auto parts,” she says. “Even if cars start flying, they will still need repairs. A lot of job applications say you need two to three years of experience. When you’re 18, 19, you’re not going to have that. I want to hire younger people and give them that experience.”
Natasha’s advice to other young people facing homelessness: “It may seem dark right now, but there is going to be light at the end if you keep pushing toward greatness,” she declares. “This challenge is really close to me. I’m really excited for the 100 Day Challenge because I feel like it’s an issue that needs to be addressed.”