The apartment complex on Martha street just looks like any student housing. It has a hunter-green awning that shelters a bright green door, but still looks like any other apartment complex in the neighborhood.
Walk through the doorway, though, and the LIFE Skills Foundation comes alive.
According to the 2016 Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Point in Time Report, there were 31,862 homeless youth between the age of 18-24. The same report states that the exact population is more likely to be homeless than other age groups.
Based on a 2016 report by the North Carolina Coalition to End Homelessness, Durham accounts for 8 percent of North Carolina’s homeless population compared with Mecklenburg which has the highest at 15 percent. As a vulnerable population in one of North Carolina’s most concentrated areas for homelessness, LIFE Skills starts by providing a home, but that is far from the end of the story.
In August 2015 LIFE Skills bought the first of two apartment complexes near North Carolina Central University’s campus, adding the other across the street in spring 2016. The location seems optimal for youth- near downtown, on the bus line, and accessible to employment and schooling opportunities.
Currently, they house or provide rent assistance in the community to 25 youth. In addition to those they house, LIFE Skills also provides 44 other youth with counseling and support measures.
LIFE Skills has a large staff of counselors and transitions specialists on site to aid in supporting youth beyond housing. They are based off of the idea that every youth is entitled to living “life of happiness, full of possibility and free from oppression,” said Transition Specialist Shiesha Bell.
The LIFE Skills approach is built upon six domains: housing, employment, education, health and wellness, financial literacy, communication, and building a support network.
Bell explained why there was no sign indicating visitors had arrived at LIFE Skills. “We want this place to be as normal as possible,” Bell said. LIFE Skills is not an emergency shelter program or a group home, but a supportive housing program aimed to be a stop along the way. Most clients stay at LIFE Skills for 18 months, but LIFE Skills’ flexible, individualized programs do not have one set of rules while clients are enrolled.
Cristina, 21, is an example of the personalized support plan that LIFE Skills offers.
Cristina is from Durham but grew up “all over” the city. She has a wonderful smile and was eager to share her LIFE Skills experience.
Three years ago at the age of 18, Cristina moved from her aunt and uncle’s Durham home and found LIFE Skills.
Shortly before she moved from LIFE Skills during her initial stay, Cristina had a baby girl. After, she found herself without a home, but was unable to stay at a shelter because she did not qualify due to her income from working at Walmart.
“They told me to go out and find an apartment,” she said, “which would have cost $800 that I didn’t have.”
While LIFE Skills typically does not take clients with children, “this was the only place she had,” Bell said. “It was here or nowhere.”
Now, Cristina and her daughter are back at LIFE Skills. When asked about her daughter, Cristina lights up.
Though some youth are referred to LIFE Skills by the Department for Social Services (DSS), many hear of the program through friends or neighborhood word of mouth. They currently serve Durham and have a contract with Orange County DSS. It is important to LIFE Skills to try to serve all youth who come to them, whatever their situation.
Bell’s role as a transition specialist is to aid youth in whatever they need to become proficient in each of the six domains. From attaining bus passes to signing up for food stamps, transition specialists help with it all. They assess each situation personally and advise on relationship maintenance, recognizing family relationships are important but not always the healthiest.
For Cristina, LIFE Skills provides a “substitute for that parent that [she] still needs,” she said.
Transition specialists plan quarterly meetings to set goals and assess domain proficiency, but typically they meet more often. One of the main tasks of a transition specialist is getting clients employed or enrolled in schools.
At LIFE Skills, getting a high school diploma is a No. 1 priority.
Because of the nomadic nature of the foster system, it becomes hard to stay in school. Youth are often living in one neighborhood attached to one school, then suddenly moved to a different neighborhood with a new set of schools and expectations. As a result, the high school dropout rate is high.
“To get a living wage job, you need a high school diploma,” Bell said.
For Cristina, her 18th birthday fell before she could graduate. After returning to LIFE Skills, she is now enrolled in a GED program.
“It’s really awesome to have that extra support when you’re lost and don’t know which way to go,” she said.
Clients are expected to work or be in school at least 30 hours a week. Additionally, clients are expected to pay 30 percent of what they are making. That money goes into a savings account they will receive when they leave LIFE Skills.
It was pretty quiet on a recent Friday afternoon around Martha Street, which was “definitely a good thing because it means people are working or in class,” said Laura Wendell, director of operations and development.
Cristina now works at NCCU through the help of LIFE Skills. While her grandmother helps with childcare, LIFE Skills also supports her work by supplementing day care vouchers.
Bell was candid in saying that any of the staff could really take on any of the staff positions if needed because they know the clients so well. The flexibility, according to Bell, is what makes the youth feel so comfortable at LIFE Skills, and the comfort is evident.
“They’ll come by for dating advice,” Bell said with a smile. Executive Director Alexander Protzman gets two to three calls a day from youth just to chat.
The wraparound care services include quarterly outings and activities to not only educate but to provide a community for the clients. Recently, Burt’s Bees and Big Spoon Roasters visited LIFE Skills to put on job talks and brought along samples for the clients.
LIFE Skills organizes Thanksgiving and Christmas celebrations yearly to maintain traditions. Last year NCCU donated the Thanksgiving dinner, which was “a big help,” according to Bell.
Cristina mentioned that she won their cookie decorating contest last December and her prize was a crockpot. She is learning to cook for herself and her daughter.
When asked what makes LIFE Skills different, Bell had a couple answers.
“We believe in second, third, fourth, fifth chances,” she said.
The staff at LIFE Skills understands that they are working with youth and young adults who might mess up, but still deserve an amazing life. The collaboration with DSS is also unique, according to Bell.
In 2016, foster care extension legislation was passed to aid ages 18-21, meaning most youth at LIFE Skills have active DSS caseworkers and can receive small housing stipends. Both organizations have meetings with the youth and working together makes a big impact.
“We all help maintain relationships,” Bell said in reference to LIFE Skill’s relationship with DSS.
Why does Bell, who received her Bachelor of Arts in Psychology and Master of Social Work from North Carolina State University, do what she does? To put it simply, the youth.
“They’re really good people who just need a chance,” she said. She genuinely loves the beauty in the challenge, she said, and for her, no two days have ever been the same.
“Knowing you can change the direction of one young person is incredible.”
Going forward, LIFE Skills hopes to open up a collaborative resource center called The Hub to aid youth in transition. LIFE Skills receives grants, funding from DSS, and monetary and in-kind donations. For more information on LIFE Skills Foundation or to donate, go to http://www.lifeskillsfound.org/.