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Michelle Davies | The Journal Gazette
The Courtyard of Fort Wayne has one- and two-bedroom apartments.

A place for former foster youth to land, learn

Amenities at The Courtyard include an exercise room.
Among programs available to residents of The Courtyard will be cooking classes in a restaurant-style training kitchen. They may be able to grow food as well.
Photos by Michelle Davies | The Journal Gazette
The Courtyard of Fort Wayne will offer housing for young people aging out of the foster system.
Kevan Biggs, president of Ideal Suburban Homes in Decatur, says the project is one of the most complex his company has tackled.

Last month, staff members of agencies that aid area young people took a tour of The Courtyard of Fort Wayne.

They saw some of its 36 one- and two-bedroom apartments, its two spacious common areas, conference room, restaurant-style training kitchen, workout room, arts room, laundry rooms and courtyards designed for gardens.

What they didn’t see is the philosophy behind the soon-to-be completed two-story structure at 2828 Fairfield Ave., on the site of the long-vacant and now-demolished Duemling Clinic.

According to its developers, The Courtyard, designed to ease young adults leaving foster care or otherwise at risk for homelessness into living successfully on their own, is more than just a building.

The facility will use a new approach called trauma-informed care, says Donna Bolinger, business director for Specialized Alternatives for Families and Youth, a nonprofit organization based in Delphos, Ohio, collaborating on the project. She says it’s the first of its kind in Indiana.

The new approach, Bolinger says, reflects a growing recognition that young adults placed in foster care because of abuse or neglect as children have enormous needs as they age out of the system, typically at 18 or 20.

Studies show, she says, that former foster children are at higher risk for unemployment, poor education outcomes, reliance on public assistance, early parenthood, incarceration and less-than-optimal health.

When their foster placements end, she adds, many have nowhere to go, let alone a stable place to live. That leads to “couch surfing” – crashing on friends’ or relatives’ couches until told to move on. Nationwide, about 25 percent report being homeless within two years of leaving their last foster home.

Now, Bolinger says, studies also show something else – that the brains of many of these young people don’t function as well as other people’s.

She compares the condition, called Reactive Attachment Disorder, to a post-traumatic stress reaction – one that results from biochemical changes in the brain related to the abuse, violence, uncertainty and upheaval the young people faced as children, before they could develop mature coping skills.

RAD, Bolinger says, leads to a pervasive diminished ability to establish trust, make and follow long-term plans, regulate anger and frustration and understand actions and their consequences.

“You’re looking at compromised brains,” she says. “We used to think it was hopeless.”

But now, many strides toward healing can be made. Medication and therapy can help stabilize the emotions of affected young people, Bolinger says. But they also need to form secure attachments with others instead of isolating themselves.

“The good thing is that trust can be learned, but it takes time,” she says.

That’s where The Courtyard comes in.

The idea is to surround the young people with support – economic, social and emotional.

Residents will pay no more than 30 percent of their income for rent, with some paying as little as $50 a month or even nothing for a time if they are unemployed. The rents are subsidized through the Fort Wayne Housing Authority.

The Courtyard will also have policies and programming aimed at preventing, or limiting, harm the young residents might do to themselves. “On their own, they tend to shoot themselves in the foot, so to speak – not intentionally but out of lack of knowledge and fear,” Bolinger explains.

Tenants will form an advisory council to set rules and plan programs and social events. A live-in staff member in a 37th apartment will help with problems or disputes. Counseling will be available at an on-site Park Center office.

Job training will be offered in the kitchen to prepare residents for employment, while the arts room will have programs to help with stress and self-expression. If they wish, residents will be able to grow flowers and food, possibly for sale at area farmers markets.

“In this population of 18- to 24-year-olds some have been in 20 or more foster homes in their lifetime,” Bolinger says. “What we’re excited about is the opportunity (residents) will have to form community,” Bolinger says.

Kevan Biggs, president of Ideal Suburban Homes in Decatur, which built the project and will manage the property, says The Courtyard has 24 one-bedroom and 12 two-bedroom apartments, which will allow for couples and parents with children. Four units accommodate residents with disabilities.

“People who have gone through these apartments have said, ‘Wow, these are like some of the nicest apartments in Fort Wayne,’ ” Biggs says.

Indeed, at 625 and 875 square feet, the apartments are just a little smaller than one- and two-bedroom units at The Harrison, the new complex next to Parkview Field.

Biggs says the $8.7 million project was funded by the federal government with assistance from the state and city, including tax-credit financing. The project has been in the planning and building stages since 2011, he says.

He says the project was one of the most complex his company, fresh from projects in rent-to-own housing at Renaissance Pointe and low-income and senior housing, had ever tackled.

“We were taken by the tremendous need there was for this kind of living arrangement,” he says, adding that Ideal was aided by the project management team of Weigand Construction.

Stop Child Abuse and Neglect in Fort Wayne will own the property.

Bollinger says about 500 youth leave the foster system every year in Indiana. Locally, Fort Wayne Community Schools reports a growing number of “unaccompanied youth” – students who attend school without parental support, she says, and local homeless shelters report growing numbers of young people.

Residents will begin moving in July 14, Bollinger says. She says youth will be eligible even if they’ve tried to reunite with a birth parent or parents and have not been successful. Felons will not be.

After a period of time, residents will become eligible for vouchers for other Housing Authority-subsidized properties or might be able to seek housing through the private market, but they will be allowed to stay for as long as they wish.

“The idea is to make it easy to get in and hard to get out” of the program, Bolinger says.

With increasing emphasis on homeless prevention projects and youth being a targeted population by federal and other government officials, she says the program could become a model for other areas.

“We really think that’s possible,” Biggs says. “I really think this is going to be a meaningful project for (government funders) and all the people who have ending homelessness as their priority

“And the short answer is, ‘Yeah, I would love to help.’ ”

rsalter@jg.net

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