Finding housing can be tough even when you have a reliable job and a good credit score. It can be an even bigger challenge for a portion of the population that lacks rental and credit histories and stable income — young adults. Add the rising cost of rent to that list, and the deck can be stacked high against 18- to 24-year-olds trying to find a safe and secure place to live.
That’s where The Relatives comes in. The Charlotte nonprofit specifically works with young adults struggling to obtain sustainable housing.
Step inside Zhane Roberts’ apartment in east Charlotte and she’s beaming with pride. One of the first things the 19-year-old did when she moved in was paint the walls a soft gray. She describes the decorating aesthetics of her one-bedroom apartment as and warm, clean and homey.
She points to the little knickknacks she picked from Target and the couch she scored from the Habitat for Humanity ReStore. Roberts knows she’s on a budget and wants to stay on top of her finances. That’s because she knows all too well the stress of not having a place to call home.
"I was staying with my mom, who lives in a three-bedroom that is full of 13 other people – all of my family, but just they're all kind of in one place," Roberts said.
Roberts says she moved out with plans to take classes at UNC Charlotte. When that didn't work out, she was left with an option familiar to many young adults without stable housing: house hopping and couch surfing.
"If it doesn’t feel like home, you just don’t want to be there, I think that’s the hardest part," Roberts said.
The other hard part was asking for help and knowing where to find it. Even though Roberts had a place to put her head at night, couch surfing wasn’t a sustainable solution. And that’s something The Relatives sees a lot.
"Usually youth who are homeless aren’t visible like you see on the streets," said Tom Montaglione, who manages The Relatives' Scattered Site Housing program for 18- to 24-year-olds. "That’s not where they reside. That’s not where they are at. They will do whatever they can to be to be invisible when they are homeless."
His job is to work with young adults like Zhane Roberts to set goals on budgeting, finding work, and most importantly, finding home.
"They just want to fit in just like anybody else," Montaglione said. "They still have the stigma of being homeless. They have the struggles of being 18 and 19 years old with that type of pressure on them as well."
As part of the yearlong program, The Relatives puts up a portion of the client’s rent with the goal that as the year draws closer to an end, the client will be paying more and more of the rent on their own.
"The first three months, we might pay 75% of the rent," Montaglione said. "The next three months, the client might pay 50 and we pay 50, and the next three months, it might be they pay 75 and we pay 25."
The program started in 2016 and housed seven clients that year. Now, in 2019, it has already housed 20 clients with the goal of housing six more before the year's end.
The type of funding has also grown from government funds to money from foundations like NASCAR driver Joey Logano’s foundation, The Duke Endowment and the city of Charlotte.
All clients are different, Montaglione says. Some already have housing but have lost their jobs and need the extra help. Others have never signed a lease or have criminal records or bad credit.
It’s Montaglione's job to work with local landlords to sell this age group that may seem unreliable. Landlords, he says, are like any other businessperson: They love money. And part of his pitch is to let landlords know The Relatives will be a finical support throughout the year.
"I tug on the heartstrings a little bit," Montaglione said. "If I have a specific client in mind for that apartment, I talk about their story or struggle … 'Remember when you were 18 and you had all these supports in place, and I am that support,' and make them feel that they're doing good but also that they are going to get paid at the end of the day."
Montaglione has regular landlords he works with, but he’s always looking to build new relationships with property owners. And it’s getting to be more of a challenge to do that in Charlotte.
"The existing affordable housing stock goes down each year, so then there’s more people applying for the space, there’s more competition for different service providers who want to keep that apartment," he said. "A landlord definitely wants a client to remain there, but it’s hard."
It’s hard work, but it’s also necessary work Montaglione says. Young adults struggling to find home are an underserved population, he says. The city is starting to understand that, but it’s a case that needs to be made again and again.
"If you get them housed and stable at the age of 18, it’s a lot less expensive than trying to deal with 30 to 40 years of homelessness in the community," Montaglione said.
Advocating for the youth is a little like advocating for preventative care: Treat the problem now before it’s a bigger wound later. By housing people when they’re young, The Relatives hope it will be cutting down the overall problem of chronic homelessness.
And the program is seeing results. Eighty-one percent of clients have not return to homelessness after 18 months.
And it’s working for Zhane Roberts. She says she actually found out about the Relatives and the Scattered Site Housing program through her current employer, which is actually the company that runs her apartment complex. She says her new job is to help people find their home.
"I'm that face when you first come in that welcomes you, gets to know you and know what you're looking to do, what you've come in for, what size apartment you're looking for, what feels like home to you," Roberts said.
And she knows better than most how hard that search is. She remembers looking for apartments not long ago and the wait lists.
"People are like, 'Oh, yeah, we may have something for you in two years from now,' and I'm like, 'Yeah, but I don't have nowhere to go today – what do you mean two years?'" Roberts said. "Even for someone to say that, I think it's ignorant, and I don't think they understand what people are going through out here for sure."
Right now, her rent is $800 a month. The Relatives is contributing half of the monthly rent for the first six months. She hopes this year will give her time to save up for a washer and dryer and put more money into savings.
"Anyone my age: Don’t be afraid to ask for help," Roberts said. "There are so many people out here who are going through it. It's worth it for sure."
Roberts has many goals. She want to buy a piece of property by the time she turns 21, and she’s interested in getting more involved in the real estate business. Roberts says she owes a lot to The Relatives, from the new goals she’s been able to set for herself to the quiet and calm she’s found in her new home.