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Archie Ingersoll, Published January 24 2014

Serving the 'invisible population': Fraser works to provide area's first supportive housing for homeless youths

FARGO – One bitterly cold night this month, when the polar vortex was swirling its nasty swirl, Ian Boyd needed a place to sleep.

His usual options of crashing with friends or staying in a hotel room were not on the table. So Boyd, who’s 20 years old and homeless, decided to spend the night at a shelter, something he’d never done before.

To find a bed, he made a painful 2½-mile trek in subzero wind chills, bouncing from one shelter, which turned him away, to the downtown police station, to finally a second shelter that took him in.

The next morning, one of his feet was black and blue. A doctor told him the cold was to blame for the discoloration and that he had narrowly avoided a case of frostbite.

“Fortunately, I got lucky,” he said. “It was brutal outside.”

Among young people in the Fargo-Moorhead area, Boyd is not alone in his struggle to secure housing and stay warm during the winter. Fraser Ltd., a local nonprofit group, runs a five-bed house for homeless young people, ages 18 to 24, and each year turns away more than 90 of them, said social worker Sarah Kennedy.

With homeless young people in mind, Fraser is renovating a brick, three-story building at 711 S. University Drive that years ago was the Florence Crittenton Home, a haven for unwed mothers and their children. The building, part of which will open next month, will eventually have 21 single apartments for young people and four units for young families.

This is good news for Boyd who, according to Kennedy, is at the top of the list for a room.

“There’s a hundred other Ians,” she said. “As soon as we get the green light, we’re moving them in.”

‘Invisible population’

Those who work with the homeless call the young adult age group the “invisible population,” one that mostly goes unseen by the public.

“They’re not the chronic homeless, chronic mental illness, chronic substance abuse that you see. It’s not an older gentleman passed out downtown,” Kennedy said. “You can’t tell by looking at them.”

In 2012, a one-day census of the homeless in Fargo and Moorhead tallied 67 people in the 18-to-21 age group, but an analysis of the census done by Wilder Research said this was likely an undercount. “Based on past surveys, it is known that this population is most difficult to find and least likely to be accurately represented in a survey of the homeless,” the analysis said.

Emergency shelters like Fargo’s Gladys Ray Shelter, which doesn’t house anyone under 18, can be intimidating places for young people who often don’t understand how to navigate the shelter system.

Kennedy, who runs Fraser’s drop-in center for teens and 20-somethings, recalled recently driving a group of teens from the center to the Gladys Ray Shelter, a place none of them had stayed before.

“They were terrified. I could see it in their eyes,” she said. “It’s very scary to be in a big room with a bunk full of men who have been on the streets for many years.”

First of its kind

The building under renovation, which Fraser has not yet named, will be “permanent supportive housing,” which means residents will be encouraged to live as independently as possible, seeking education and employment, so they can ultimately escape homelessness.

There are a couple of similar programs for adults in Moorhead and Fargo, but this one, exclusively for ages 18 to 26, will be the first of its kind in the metro area and in North Dakota.

“We aren’t pretending this is going to solve the problem, but we’re hoping it’s at least going to make a dent,” said Sandra Leyland, Fraser’s executive director.

The project, funded by donations and government grants, will cost $1.6 million, and the organization has just over $1 million left to raise, Leyland said.

The supportive housing program will be run in conjunction with Fraser’s drop-in center, called the Stepping Stones Resource Center. The center at 2902 S. University Drive, open from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Friday, gives young people, many who are homeless, a place to take a nap, play pool, watch TV, use the Internet and address basic needs like food, hygiene and clothing.

Young people from a wide range of circumstances frequent the center. Some are running from traumatic experiences. Some are trying to take care of their own children. Some are adjusting to life outside of jail.

“Whatever walks in the door, we just kind of assess and try to find a way to help that person,” Kennedy said.

‘Going on 40’

On Thursday, Jordan Fischer stopped by the center to take a shower. He grew up in Phoenix and became addicted to opiates when he was 16. He moved to North Dakota for a new life, but ended up in Grand Forks County Jail on a theft conviction. He was released just last month.

With a goatee and forearms inked with tattoos, Fischer looks mature beyond his 19 years. He describes himself as an old, independent soul who’s seen the underbelly of life.

“I may be young, but I’m going on 40,” he said.

Fischer has been homeless off and on for 1½ years. He doesn’t sleep at shelters because he fears he’ll run into an addict and slip back into the rut of drug use.

“Some days I want to cry, but I know I’ve got to keep my head up, and I have to stay positive,” he said.

He usually stays with friends, but occasionally he finds himself dozing in bathrooms at West Acres mall and Wal-Mart.

“You gotta do what you gotta do to survive,” Fischer said.

Living in Fraser’s supportive housing is something Fischer is considering. But for now, he’s looking for work. Eventually, he wants to earn degrees in culinary arts and business management, so he can open a restaurant.

“I love cooking,” he said. “I love taking care of people. I love making people smile.”

‘The trickiest part’

Many of the young people who come to the drop-in center are veterans of the foster care system who sometimes don’t have the safety net that parents can provide.

That’s the case with Boyd, who lived in foster homes starting when he was 8 years old after his parents were charged with abuse and neglect. He’s been coming to the drop-in center since he was 16.

In the mornings, Boyd, armed with his laptop and video-game controller, rides the bus to a sandwich restaurant where he works as a part-time cashier. He’s trying to find a second job while he decides what he wants to study. But his biggest concern is housing.

“The trickiest part is, for me, I don’t have any rental or credit history,” he said. “So I can’t get a place without a co-signer.”

In the supportive housing program, Boyd and other residents will have to pay 25 percent of their earned income in rent. This way, they will build a rental history and eventually be able to live on their own, Kennedy said, adding that she envisions most residents staying for a year before moving on.

‘Everything in between’

Binaka Becirha came to the U.S. as an Albanian refugee when she was 4 or 5 years old. Fleeing the violence of war, her family settled in Fargo.

Becirha lived with her mother and siblings until this year. “Home got so stressful for me, I couldn’t be there no more,” the 21-year-old said.

She tried to make it on her own but quickly became homeless. Right away, she found a spot in Fraser’s five-bed house where she lives in a room with pink carpet, blue drapes and a “Twilight” poster over her bed.

Becirha and her housemates, each faced with tough situations, have created an improvised family.

“I’m very close with all of them,” she said. “We’re all there when we need each other, when we’re down.”

With her immediate need for housing fulfilled, Becirha is making plans beyond homelessness.

“Soon I’m going to have my own place. I have a job. I’m going to go to school and everything in between,” she said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Archie Ingersoll at (701) 451-5734