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Helping 'the invisible population': Fargo's Butler House offers stability for homeless young adults

FARGO - For Jasmine Watkins, the three-story yellow brick building on Fargo's South University Drive and the cozy two-bedroom apartment she and her children share on the top floor represent a fresh start.In the first-floor common room of Butler H...

Jasmine Watkins plays with her children Tae'yonnah and Jay'Cion Peterson at the Fraser transition shelter in south Fargo.David Samson / The Forum
Jasmine Watkins plays with her children Tae'yonnah and Jay'Cion Peterson at the Fraser transition shelter in south Fargo. David Samson / The Forum
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FARGO - For Jasmine Watkins, the three-story yellow brick building on Fargo's South University Drive and the cozy two-bedroom apartment she and her children share on the top floor represent a fresh start.

In the first-floor common room of Butler House, the 25-year-old Minneapolis native watches her 1-year-old son, Jay'Cion, toddle about, all smiles as he plays with toys and her cellphone. Her 4-year-old daughter, Tae'yonnah plays with Monopoly game pieces and draws pictures.

Watkins grew up in the Twin Cities, but said it was hard for her to cobble together the resources to have her own place, so she relied on family and friends.

"I just got tired of moving from place to place, living with different people," she said.

"It's harder to get a place in the Cities," Watkins said. "It requires a lot (of money). If you don't have the right kind of support system, you're not going to get anywhere."

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She said her godsister directed her to the Fraser Ltd. program and she moved into her apartment at 711 S. University Drive in July.

"I'm still in some ways struggling ... but they're helping me," Watkins said of the Fraser staff. "They've been more helpful than people I've known my whole life."

Fraser is helping with day care while she works on her high-school equivalency degree, she said.

After that, she's considering either going after a cosmetology degree or heading to college.

"I'm just pretty much trying to get everything in order before I step out there on my own for good," Watkins said.

Butler House is a permanent supportive housing facility for young people ages 18 to 26 who are homeless. The building was originally the Florence Crittenton Home. From 1893 until the early 1970s, it was housing for unwed mothers.

Single residents started moving into Butler House's first-floor apartments two years ago. There were some delays in the design and renovation process, but in July, four single-parent families moved into the top floor. By early October, the second floor will be filled. And that means 21 single young adults and four families will have housing.

The problem of youth homelessness is "massive. It's a lot bigger than people think it is," said Jen Smart, program administrator for Fraser's Transitional Youth Services program.

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There are at least 40 people on Fraser's waiting list for housing, she said.

"The number of people that call me that say, 'I need housing.' ... It's something that, unless you're in this world, you don't know how big it is," Smart said.

More than a quarter of those now homeless grew up in a family that experienced homelessness, Smart said.

She said the idea is to stabilize people's lives, then help them reach their goals. For most, this takes one to two years, she said.

Sandra Leyland, president and CEO of Fraser, said renovating the facility cost just under $2 million, all done through donations, so there is no mortgage to worry about.

Getting housing is key to helping people who are homeless tackle other problems in their lives.

If you want to get an apartment, you need a job to make money," Leyland said. "If you apply for a job, you need an address. And there's the conundrum.

"It's much easier for them (clients) to find employment" and get needed services, such as health care and schooling, she said. "We get a roof over their heads and find out what they can handle."

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The young homeless are "the invisible population," Leyland and Smart said.

Statistics shared by Fraser show that 500,000 unaccompanied young people experience homelessness in the United States in any given year. About 70 percent of those youths left their homes to escape violence. About one-third of foster children will be homeless before they turn 18.

On average, youths become homeless for the first time before age 15.

Because of that, they are preyed upon. Three out of four young adults who are homeless have been victims of a crime in the last year, and nearly half of young woman who are homeless were sexually assaulted in the last year.

Leyland said homelessness can become a generational problem.

The kids "see what mom and dad are doing and they mimic those behaviors," she said.

Leyland hopes Butler House can help break that cycle.

So far, the success rate of the program is promising. About 83 percent of those coming in over the first two-plus years have moved into their own places, Smart said.

Ashley Reaves, 26, hopes to be one of those success stories.

Reaves also has two children, 1-year-old Mariah and 4-year-old Makenzie.

She's been moving back and forth from North Dakota and Virginia (where she has family) since 2014, she said.

Reaves got back to Fargo in May "to get back on my feet," and moved into Butler House this summer.

She works a night shift at a local business. Her fiance works during the day, she said.

Reaves wants to become a certified nursing assistant, and hopes to go back to school for that.

For now, she's focused on stability and she plans to get married in December.

Reaves said that in the past, when she hasn't liked how things were going in her life, she'd move on.

"It's better for me to stay and do what I have to do for my kids," she said. "I can't keep going back and forth."

Butler House is named in honor of the Butler Family Foundation, one of the key players in the project. Other major participants include David and Jan McNair and the Sammons Financial Group.

The grand opening for the facility will be from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday, Sept. 26. There will be a brief program and ribbon-cutting ceremony at 11:15 a.m., followed by an open house, luncheon and tours.

Helmut Schmidt is a reporter for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead's business news team. Readers can reach him by email at hschmidt@forumcomm.com, or by calling (701) 241-5583.
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