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My First Place works to help Hamilton youth beat the odds when they leave foster care

'We wrap them with a lot more supports'
Hannah Carrington poses outside her apartment. She has dark, wavy, chin-length hair and is smiling. She's wearing a tie-dye hooded sweatshirt.
Posted at 6:00 AM, Jan 07, 2022
and last updated 2022-01-10 18:47:22-05

NORWOOD, Ohio — When it was time for Hannah Carrington to tell her story to a news reporter, she began with a sad, straightforward statement.

“Well,” she said, “practically my entire childhood was filled with neglect and abuse from my parents.”

Still, Hannah considers herself fortunate.

She and her three siblings went to live with their grandma when Hamilton County Children’s Services removed the kids from their parents’ care, she said, so they didn’t have to live with strangers or bounce from place to place. That arrangement lasted for Hannah for several years until she went to live at the Lighthouse Mecum House because her grandma couldn’t care for her any longer.

Soon after Hannah turned 18, her circumstances got even better when she was invited to be part of a program called My First Place.

“I was like, ‘this is going to be a huge turning point in my life,’” Hannah recalled thinking. “And it has.”

The goal of My First Place is to teach young adults who are aging out of the foster care system how to become self-sufficient. GreenLight Fund Cincinnati and Hamilton County Job & Family Services brought the program to town in 2019. NewPath Child & Family Solutions, the nonprofit formerly known as St. Joseph Orphanage, operates the program in Hamilton County.

Esther Urick has long, wavy, brown hair. She is smiling and is wearing a periwinkle sweater with a striped blouse underneath.
Ester Urick

My First Place is different from traditional programs that are meant to give young adults their first chance to live on their own, said Esther Urick, NewPath’s director of foster care and independent living services.

“What My First Place brought to Hamilton County youth is a data-driven and promising practice modality to help young people be successful,” Urick said. “And when they age out, go to safe, stable and secure housing.”

The program does that, she said, by surrounding young people like Hannah with adults who can offer the support, guidance and instruction youths need to complete high school, further their education and get jobs that pay well enough to cover their expenses.

“We wrap them with a lot more supports than a traditional independent living program,” she said.

Improving the trajectory

That support is crucial because youth who exit foster care are more likely than their peers outside the child welfare system to experience homelessness, become the victims of crime, become parents at an early age or end up behind bars.

In fact, 40% of all foster youth nationwide become homeless by the time they’re 24, according to data from First Place for Youth, the California-based nonprofit that started the My First Place program. The My First Place program has reduced that result in other locations over the past 23 years, with more than 93% of program participants stably housed when they leave the program.

“Nobody likes to see kids exit and become homeless,” Urick said. “So we really wanted to change that statistic.”

Finding apartments for young people in the program has been one of NewPath’s biggest challenges, she said. That’s because the rental market has become so difficult since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Urick said, and because many landlords are wary to rent to young people who don’t have a track record as tenants.

NewPath has 15 young adults taking part in the program. So far, 67% of Hamilton County’s My First Place youth are stably housed, she said, and 56% are employed.

The goal is to double the number of Hamilton County youth in the program and to ensure that 90% of participants are stably housed. Urick said the pandemic has made it more difficult to increase the number of participants in the program, too.

Even so, the way My First Place is helping young people has been impressive, said Clare Zlatic Blankemeyer, executive director of GreenLight Fund Cincinnati.

“I don’t know about you, but when I was 18, I still had to raise my hand to go to the bathroom,” she said. “And here we are expecting young people at age 18 to leave the foster care system and figure out their lives.”

New Path needs more landlords to rent out apartments like this for youth in the My First Place program. The multi-family rental property is tan brick with a dark brown front door.
New Path needs more landlords to rent out apartments like this for youth in the My First Place program.

The number of young adults enrolled in the program is important to GreenLight Cincinnati as a funder, she said, but that’s not what is most important.

“The impact that the young people are experiencing in terms of self-sufficiency is the kind of impact we want to see,” Blankemeyer said. “The life that’s impacted and the trajectory for a young person is what matters most.”

Hannah, who has a condition called Fragile X Syndrome, said she feels good about her own trajectory since becoming part of My First Place in October 2021.

She lives with a roommate in an apartment in Norwood where she said she feels safe.

She’s on track to graduate from high school this year and looks forward to taking part in a workforce training program after graduation. And, in addition to the help she is getting from My First Place, she has other case workers at Hamilton County Job & Family Services who are helping connect her with other supports and services.

‘I love you guys already’

“Right now while I’m in high school, my goal, my main goal, is to get my high school education,” Hannah said. “What I see for myself is working as a grocery clerk or a bagger or a stocker at a grocery store. Or at a department store. Something like that.”

As Hannah charts her course for the future, she said she knows she can count on the adults on her My First Place team: Peter Baako, the program manager; Shannon Nixon, the youth advocate and social worker; and Brittany Smith, the education and employment specialist.

“If Mr. Peter was here with Miss Brittany and Miss Shannon, I would say, ‘Thank you very much. You’re doing an excellent job,’” Hannah said. “’I love you guys already. I thank you for helping me with this program and getting me started.’”

Hannah said she knows the My First Place team is there for her, and Urick said that’s critically important for foster youth.

“Unfortunately a lot of our young people who age out of foster care, one of the reasons they’re aging out is that they don’t have a natural support system,” Urick said. “So they don’t have parents or extended family members or even a community member that they can rely on to go to for help that most of us had growing up.”

My First Place provides that, she said, and helps young people like Hannah get on their feet by the time they leave the program when they’re 21.

And that’s why Hannah feels fortunate.

Hannah Carrington poses for a photo sitting on her bed in her apartment.
Hannah Carrington in her bedroom in her apartment.

“It’s great,” she said of her apartment. “I have great neighbors. I have a really great roommate that I can talk to if I need somebody to talk to. Or if I just like want to spend some girl time with her. I can like ask her if she wants to do something fun like listen to music or sing along.”

Hannah said she knows many kids in the foster care system don’t have what she does.

“You might be really lost, and you’re probably blaming yourself and asking yourself, ‘What did I do wrong?’ I get that. I used to blame myself a lot,” she said.

Hannah said she hopes many more young people like her will get to be part of My First Place.

“With a scale of 1 to 10 to recommend this to other kids, I would do a 10,” she said. “Because this program does everything that they can for the kids that’s just new on their own. They didn’t have a childhood like they wanted. And the program will do everything they can to meet the child’s needs.”

More information about First Place for Youth, the California nonprofit that started the My First Place program, is available online. Information about My First Place in Hamilton County is available online or by calling NewPath at (855) 577-PATH (7284).

Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and shine a spotlight on issues we need to address. To reach Lucy, email lucy.may@wcpo.com. Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.