Lydia Williams says her life has been pretty easy lately.
That’s new for the 18-year-old, who has been on her own for three years, since her mom was hospitalized when she was 15 and could no longer care for her.
Williams lived with her brother for a short stint, but then ended up at Safe Landing Youth Shelter for more than eight months: an experience she describes as “horrible.”
Eager for a way out, she found Harmony House, a transitional and emergency housing nonprofit for young people between the ages of 18 to 26.
“It’s been cool,” Williams says of her time at the first-ever Harmony House for young women that opened last fall. “When I came, I had a lot of anger. I’ve matured and learned how to control it… I had to learn to be independent.”
Now, after eight months in the home, she is moving to her own apartment: a dream she couldn’t have imagined when she was 15 and bouncing from place to place.
Karla McDay saw cases similar to Williams’ every day in her 18 years as a social worker at Summit County Children Services. As someone who specialized in working with young people who aged out of foster care, typically at age 18, McDay helped prepare teenagers to exit for life as legal adults, but she found that many struggled to launch.
“Finding employment, early pregnancy, drug and alcohol abuse: all those issues kept resurfacing. When many people turn 18, they go to this semi-structured, semi-independent environment, whether it’s college, military, living with family,” says McDay, the founder of Harmony House. “What’s happening to foster youth and homeless youth is they just kind of go. I had a vision of creating a home to help not only young people who were in the foster care system, but any young person who needed that transition.”
In 2014, McDay opened the first Harmony House in East Akron with four bedrooms in a shared living environment available to young men. It was important to her to create a welcoming home environment that differed from a shelter, with bright colors, decorations and furniture.
“I really wanted to see change,” she says. “Sometimes change is born outside of systems. Systems and bureaucracies thrive on the status quo. If you want to make change, be innovative and really impact lives, sometimes you have to break out of the system.”
For $10 a day, the young men had a place to live with lights, heat, cable and WiFi, as well as free haircuts, a laundry room and basic toiletries. A partnership with the Akron-Canton Regional Foodbank also ensured meals.
“When I came to Harmony House, I didn’t have no money, I didn’t have no job, I didn’t have nothing,” says 25-year-old Jon Bennett who lived in the original Harmony House in 2014. Bennett stayed in the home for two years when he was on the brink of homelessness at age 18, ultimately leaving after securing public housing through Akron Metropolitan Housing Authority. “It gave me more than a place to stay; it taught me to be independent.”
With the success of Bennett and several other young men, McDay replicated the model in 2018, opening the doors to the second Harmony House with four beds in West Akron.
A year later, the organization received a grant from the U.S. Housing and Urban Development for six apartments at Alphada Place as part of the continuum of care, which are more strictly regulated by government guidelines and focused on a housing-first approach.
The nonprofit also has additional HUD funding, which accounts for about $130,000 of the $300,000 annual budget, to support rapid rehousing for four individuals that find their own apartment. Unlike the homes which support up to age 26, the HUD-funded program assists residents up to 24.
Even in the past year, the organization continues to expand: McDay welcomed the first ever group of women at a Harmony House in October 2020, and a third men’s home opens its doors at the end of June. Both are located on the same block in Middlebury, a historically disinvested neighborhood.
“We have visions to have more impact in this community right here,” McDay says of their houses in Middlebury. “There’s a lot of homeless activity that is hidden in plain sight, and we want to make this a hub to fixing youth homelessness. (The new men’s home) used to house a former street outreach service for shelter care. Young people know this area.”
The program now costs $400 a month for those living in the homes, which are rented at a lower cost to Harmony House by property owners, such as Oasis Outreach Opportunity, who are “sympathetic to the cause.” Sponsorship dollars are available for those who cannot afford the rent. A resident advisor on staff also lives in each home.
Tenants include not only aged-out foster youth, but young people in the courts system in need of housing, those ready to leave parents’ or family members’ homes, victims of domestic violence and any other extenuating circumstance between what McDay calls the most formative years of life. While the HUD-funded apartments are regulated by government guidelines, the homes have more leeway for staff to implement their own rules. McDay decides who would be the best fit to live in the homes through an extensive intake process with interviews about their situations and life goals.
“Eighteen to 26 was the hardest time in my life,” McDay says. “You make the biggest mistakes then. This is the time when you can get a DUI, STD or get into some trouble. This is a time where people really need a safety net.”
In addition to running Harmony House, McDay works full-time as a licensed therapist at Minority Behavioral Health Group. Through research at her previous job, she found that many adults who were previously in children services struggled with access to mental health care. She notes that while minors were in the care of children services, they had readily available healthcare with someone that helped make appointments and secure transportation. Once they reached adulthood, however, that infrastructure disappeared.
Another major problem is homelessness, McDay explains, because oftentimes adults as young as 18 do not understand or have a credit or rental history or an understanding of how to complete housing applications.
The pandemic also poses a problem to finding housing, Lydia Williams says, whose stay in Harmony House ended up being longer than she expected. She had difficulty finding and securing an apartment because of eviction moratoriums and lack of rentals before ultimately finding her new place. Harmony House allows people to stay as long as they need until they find housing, and staff works with residents to form a plan.
McDay is addressing both mental health and homelessness issues in the homes she runs, but has visions for a future with even more wraparound services.
While the homes currently available are designed as a transition to permanent independent housing, each home has beds designated for emergency housing for those needing to imminently escape a situation. She has visions to expand that option with plans to establish a youth drop-in center with eight to ten emergency beds at Oasis Outreach Opportunity next door to the newest Harmony House.
“(McDay) showed me that helping comes from the heart,” says Jon Bennett, the former resident of the original Harmony House. “Any of us can help people and change their lives. Giving advice, giving resources. That’s what she did for me. I stayed there and worked that program, and look at where I am now.”
Abbey Marshall covers economic development for The Devil Strip via Report for America. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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