A Baltimore coalition of advocates for the homeless has been working for five years to raise money to provide a safe and stable place where the city's homeless youth can live.
Today, construction officially begins on Restoration Gardens, a $6 million, 43-unit building in southern Park Heights that will give youth between the ages of 18 and 24 not only a place to live, but a broad range of services designed to aid them in getting an education, training and jobs so that they can build a life on their own.
On any given day, an estimated 400 to 500 youths are without stable housing, said Nancy M. Strohminger, executive vice president of Empire Homes of Maryland, Inc., a nonprofit property development and management firm that is building the project, which is the first of its kind in the city.
The actual number of homeless youth is likely to be higher because so many do not identify themselves as homeless, she said. They are often nearly invisible to the public because they hop from one friend's couch to another, rather than show up on street grates or underneath bridges.
"There is a very large percentage of young people in Baltimore who have been in the shadows for years ... unable to get support to break the cycle of poverty. This is an important initiative," said Strohminger. "Our goal is to make them healthy and have better prospects for an economically sufficient life."
Without stable housing, the teenagers and young adults would be more likely to stay at low-paying jobs and become a drag on their communities, she said.
"They really do want to have a better life for themselves," she said, but it is often difficult for them to gather the resources they need.
For Adadike Nnabugwu, 19, the journey through homelessness began when she ran away from home in her senior year in high school. She graduated and won a scholarship to attend Baltimore City Community College, all while living at a women's shelter. She was able to move to a small temporary housing complex in south Charles Village that is run by AIRS, a nonprofit that provides youth housing.
Born in the United States to an American mother and a Nigerian father, Nnabugwu said she and her younger sister were sent by her father to live with family in Nigeria when they were young, but they returned to Baltimore when she was 13 years old. She attended Randallstown and Frederick Douglass high schools before transferring again in her senior year to Northwestern High School.
She left home, she said, because she was no longer able to bear the living environment. "Home didn't feel like home, anyways," she said.
She planned to stay with a brother, but when that didn't work out, she went to a mentor at her high school who directed her to programs in the city where she might get help. She said she ended up at Maddy B's, a shelter where she stayed for nine months, studying late at night in the bathroom, the only place where the lights were on.
Nnabugwu expects to get her associate's degree this spring and plans to transfer to a four-year college to earn a bachelor's degree in nursing. For the past nine months she has lived in a south Charles Village house that offers longer-term housing for several homeless youths.
Often, she said, she has struggled with the depressing and lonely circumstances of her life. "It hits me sometimes," she said. "I just deal with it because it is my reality."
Nnabugwu would be a good candidate for Restoration Gardens, because it is designed for youth who show they have an ability to concentrate on moving ahead with their lives, according to the director of the youth home where she lives now.
Restoration Gardens was the brainchild of the Baltimore Homeless Youth Initiative, a coalition of many nonprofits and foundations. About $3.5 million of the project is coming from the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development. An additional $1.7 million is from the city and includes $700,000 in federal stimulus money, according to F.T. Burton, president and CEO of Empire Homes.
The Abell Foundation and the Enterprise Foundation have also contributed to the project, which Homes for America is also helping build.
Restoration Gardens is expected to be completed in late 2010, and six months from now, Strohminger said, Empire Homes will begin picking the 43 youths who will get places there. Each person will have his or her own unit with a kitchen, bathroom and main room, as well as access to mental health services and guidance on how to get training, education and jobs. The residents also will be taught basic life skills, such as how to cook and how to manage their finances.
"I will not be here forever. I will move on to other things," Nnabugwu said.