On the Edge: Struggling young adults find hope, help at Opportunity House

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This story originally appeared in the May 19 edition of the weekly LINK Reader. To get these stories first, subscribe at linknky.com/subscribe.

Editor’s note: On the Edge is a regular feature that explores the challenges of the rising cost of living in Northern Kentucky.

In middle school, Logan Fulmer won a theater award for best costume design for his portrayal of a rich boy. The irony was that the Newport native was the opposite of rich.

Hailing from a lower-income family, Fulmer left his mother’s house after graduating from high school and was looking for a place to live. That was when he met with Kim Mullins-Ward, who was the property manager of Opportunity House, a residence hall and support center for struggling young adults.

Fulmer is part of the population called “opportunity youth,” a term coined by the Brighton Center, a Northern Kentucky-based organization that seeks to help individuals and families in need reach self-sufficiency through support services. They are young people between the ages of 16 and 24 who are not connected to a school or the formal workforce. They might have graduated from high school or tried out a semester at a local community college, but they generally are not engaged in postsecondary education, professional training or a career path. Northern Kentucky has around 7,000 opportunity youth, according to Brighton Center Vice President Ellen Bates.

They might have a lower-income background like Fulmer, or they might have aged out of foster care and lack a support system. Kate Kassis, youth services director for Brighton Center, said all of the young adults the center works with have come from foster families or traumatic domestic situations. Their personal experiences vary. Some were displaced, staying with friends or living in cars, doing what it takes to survive; others were placed in the juvenile justice system. But they face a common challenge in a lack of adequate support networks as they enter adulthood.

As such, they struggle with access to food, job security, transportation, education and housing. Housing is a particularly thorny issue and the greatest barrier to their ability to pursue an educational or vocational path.

“When you come from crisis and survival mode, you’re just worrying about the next day, making sure you’ve got a place to live,” Kassis said.

These young adults do not have the rental history and credit history that are needed to obtain stable housing, which can be further complicated by unemployment, a lack of steady income or a criminal record. They are, however, only one of the groups impacted by the affordable housing crisis that has gripped the region.

In data compiled by the National Low Income Housing Coalition, the commonwealth of Kentucky is contending with a shortage of 89,375 affordable rental homes for extremely low-income earners. In Northern Kentucky, some apartments are renting for  $1,600 to $1,800 and higher per month, as evidenced by price listings on sites like Apartments.com and Zillow. Following a surge of real estate investment and economic development, low-income housing is being primed for upscaling and renovation to attract higher-income residents, an issue LINK nky explored last year in coverage of the region’s affordable housing challenges.

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Residents at City Heights, owned and maintained by the Housing Authority of Covington, were informed that the public housing community would be closed in 2020. The infrastructure had become too outdated and dangerous, according to the housing authority, and the cost of renovation to bring it up to standards was too high to be tenable for the city. The organization has been distributing Tenant Protection Vouchers, which are issued by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, to help residents relocate to other eligible housing in Kenton County or any location within the United States. The relocation effort is scheduled to be completed this year.

Across the Licking River, tenants of the Victoria Square apartment community in Newport were evicted from their affordable housing units following last summer’s sale of the property to Cincinnati-based development firm Sunset Property Solutions. As of early April this year, about 18 families were still living in Victoria Square with no clear option of where to go, Bates said.

“I remember talking with one resident who’s lived there for over 30 years, and all of a sudden, as a senior she finds herself having to find a new place to live,” Bates said. “And there’s a good chunk of residents that were living in that community that were seniors.”

On the other end of the demographic spectrum, the struggle to find affordable housing affects young adults in a profound way: the time spent searching for and worrying about housing leaves them little time to think about the future. That is where the Brighton Center and Opportunity House come in.

Developed in partnership with Northern Kentucky University and the city of Highland Heights and opened last August, Opportunity House provides housing, accommodation, resources and a supportive environment for young adults ages 18 to 24 who have transitioned out of foster care.

Located at 3530 Alexandria Pike next to NKU’s Callahan Hall, the building houses 16 one-bedroom units with individual kitchenettes and bathrooms. All units have been occupied since the August opening. A common area features a group room, classroom, full kitchen, small meeting rooms and patio.

Some residents are NKU students, while others hope to attend NKU or other local institutions like Gateway Community College. But they all benefit from having the NKU All-Card, which allows them to ride the Transit Authority of Northern Kentucky (TANK) bus free of charge and pick up groceries and personal items from FUEL NKU, the university’s food pantry.

A financial wellness team visits Opportunity House every week to work with residents  on budgeting and managing expenses, skills that might not have been passed down from their legal guardians. The Brighton Center also partners with NKU’s Career Services and Kentucky Career Center – a collaboration of 16 workforce groups – to connect residents to employment opportunities. The goal is to prepare them for economic, career and overall life success despite the hurdles in their past.

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Another pillar of the project is establishing and expanding social networks. Lauren Copeland, development director at Brighton Center, said community volunteers visit regularly to foster connections. They may mentor Opportunity House residents in STEM initiatives, build bikes, cook a meal or simply hang out. Having these networks is crucial to the young adults’ social development, Copeland said.

Logan Fulmer is appreciative of the resources he has found at Opportunity House, from fulfilling physical needs like food to having case managers offer him guidance. One reason he was accepted into the house, he said, was his active engagement during his high school years, including acting in six or seven plays and participating in a national competition of user experience (UX) design. When Mullins-Ward approached him about Opportunity House, he jumped at the chance to stay there.

He is now taking general education courses at NKU and considering furthering his studies in UX design. Outside of the classroom, he works from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. three days a week at Blair Tech, a local company authorized by Microsoft to refurbish and resell used computer equipment. He is part of the Valorant team for NKU Esports and writes music in his free time. Fulmer is considering a career in the IT field and hopes to be able to make money doing what he enjoys.

It’s a great sign when struggling young adults like Fulmer start thinking about their goals and future, Kassis said, because it means their lives have stabilized enough for them to do so. 

“Even getting them to think about goals and the ability that they have to seek a postsecondary education – because a lot of their family history hasn’t had that, they don’t have role models to show that – that’s the first step,” she said.

Juggling schoolwork with work and daily life can be a challenge for any young adult. For Opportunity House residents, having housing stability – instead of  having to move to a new apartment in the middle of the year or experiencing bouts of homelessness – allows them to fully engage in their academics, Bates said. The Brighton Center team is looking forward to seeing them complete their academic years or work toward a degree, she said.

“Our programming has allowed people to feel safe and stable, and they can start believing in themselves,” said Copeland. “They can really start thinking about, ‘What is the next step for me?’ And to be able to do so in an environment that’s supported by other youth and young adults, and other adults that are working in this program, I think, is pretty remarkable.”

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Fulmer said communicating their needs may be the hardest thing for young adults from low-income backgrounds. 

“People don’t ask for help,” he said. “I’ve never been one to ask for help. A lot of people at Opportunity House are suffering because they don’t ask for help. Coming (from a) lower income, you don’t really ask for help as much as you should.”

Young adults shoulder a lot of stress and expectations, particularly struggling young adults who are of college age but not in college or of working age but not gainfully employed, Bates said. Ultimately, there is only so much guidance and connection Brighton Center can offer, Kassis said. It is up to the individual to take the initiative to learn self-sufficiency skills, follow through on appointments and reach out about services.

To ask for help, in other words.

“While we want to guide them and provide them with education, we don’t want to completely handle them, because we want them to be successful when they’re done here,” Kassis said.

Addressing their mental health needs is critical, she said, because many of the Opportunity House residents have been affected by negative family interactions, leading them to feel unsuccessful or wrangle with self-doubt.

While the Brighton Center does not have a counselor on site, the staff connects the residents to as many resources as they can, knowing that motivation might suffer when individuals are placed on monthslong waitlists. The COVID-19 global pandemic – with its lockdowns, long periods of isolation and layoffs – compounded access challenges, Kassis said.

As for how Opportunity House residents are regarded by those outside the program, Fulmer hopes people are kind, understanding and keep an open mind. Things that seem like a given to many people – such as being able to drive a car, and how much easier that makes dating – may create big hurdles for people like Fulmer, for whom affording a car was never feasible.

“People get cars at 16. It’s like this social norm that people (are able to) get around – and I’m stuck,” he said. “People look at me like I’m a child because I can’t drive. It’s crazy to me, because I didn’t have the opportunity.”

At the end of the day, that’s what it’s all about for Fulmer and the other young adults learning and growing through their experience at the residence hall and support center – being given an opportunity through the Opportunity House.

To learn about ways to assist opportunity youth, call the Brighton Center on 859-491-8303 or visit www.brightoncenter.com.

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