Gaining Independence: Minot couples open doors for youth in transition

A desire to see young tenants get off to a good start motivated Dr. Kevin and Cherie Collins of Minot to become landlords and support the Transition Into Independence Program.

Mike and Angela Christianson of Minot were already in the property management business and witnessing the difficulties that young tenants faced when they learned about Transition Into Independence. Now they offer both affordable rental units and their expertise to the program.

For their involvement, Kevin and Cherie Collins recently received a Housing Production Award from the North Dakota Housing Finance Agency. The Christiansons received the agency’s North Dakota Housing Leadership Award.

Both couples were nominated by Bonnie Schriock, transition facilitator with the Transition Into Independence Program at North Central Human Service Center.

Schriock said that without people like the Collinses and Christiansons, the program would struggle and might do little more than set participants up to fail. Affordable housing is the key to making the program work, she said.

North Central was awarded the pilot project for the state’s Transition into Independence Program in January 2010. The program works intensively with at-risk youth and young adults, ages 14 to 24, to teach skills and offer community support as they move toward independent living.

Kevin and Cheri Collins purchased a house in Minot that they renovated into Grayce Manor to provide housing for clients in the program. An older home that formerly housed a gift shop called The Front Porch, Grayce Manor retains its historic character but now offers five single rooms, a two-bedroom apartment and an efficiency apartment.

Tenants, aged 18 to 24, pay rent based on their means while receiving instruction on budgeting, cooking, laundry and grocery shopping. Vocational rehabilitation assistance also is available. Participants may lag in these areas for reasons ranging from autism to addiction recovery. Some participants have been victims of domestic violence or simply didn’t have the support growing up to acquire independence skills. A number of the participants are single parents.

Knowing that a transitional home was necessary for her clients to succeed, Schriock approached Kevin and Cherie Collins about buying a house to rent to the program. At the time, the couple was contemplating an invitation from another friend, Dr. Maya Dillas of Minot, to participate in a mission project in Guatemala.

“We had a difficult time making contributions elsewhere when there was a great need in our backyard,” Kevin Collins said. After Dillas’ death from cancer in 2010, they purchased the Minot house for the transition program in her honor.

“Cherie and I love Minot,” Kevin Collins said. “We have derived so much personally and professionally. It was sort of a way for us to give back to our community.”

Grayce Manor took on its first tenant in March 2011 after renovation of the basement. Work was ready to start on the main floor when the flood of 2011 did its damage.

Cherie Collins recalled the discouragement they felt in starting over. Kevin Collins added that it was frustrating to face nearly a year’s delay at a time when people were waiting for the housing.

“These kids need a chance,” Kevin Collins said. “This isn’t just a homeless shelter. It’s not a revolving door. The goal is to take people who have inadequate, fundamental living skills and teach them responsibility.”

Tyler Well, a resident of Grayce Manor for the past several months, credits the program with giving him the confidence to now prepare to move out on his own.

“It pretty much saved me,” he said.

Well had completed a substance abuse recovery program but had no place to go except back where he came from. He knew he could not maintain his recovery and survive in his old environment. His counselor was able to connect him with Schriock, who equipped him with the clothing, supplies and housing that he needed to begin a new life and a new job.

“I come home to a huge house that I never would have thought I would live in ever in my life,” he said. “I am very grateful.”

The positive atmosphere at Grayce Manor has contrasted with the negative that was his previous experience, and it has shown him that he can have a better life, he said.

“With everything I have learned and done, I can actually survive now,” he said. “If they can help me and show me the right direction, I can see it as a program having longevity.”

Stories like Well’s convince Kevin and Cherie Collins that they made the right decision with Grace Manor, even with the flood and other hurdles. They said they would love to see more people and corporations get involved and hope to someday see an apartment building on a neighboring lot for their tenants to transition into.

Mike and Angela Christianson rent to youth who are making the transition, waiving credit and background checks and working with the program to establish affordable rent.

“These are awesome people,” Schriock said. “Mike and Angela could charge double for the places some of my clients are renting.”

The Christiansons also are members of the North Central’s Regional Transition Subcommittee, which meets quarterly to discuss local housing issues and resources for transition-aged youth. Like the Collinses, the Christiansons’ interest in the transition program developed after getting to know Schriock.

“What attracted us is knowing how hard Bonnie works to get this program to work for her clients. She puts her heart into this. She should be the one getting this award,” Angela Christianson said.

She said the partnership that she and her husband have with the transition program simply involves doing what they love.

“To get an award for it that’s absolutely crazy,” Mike Christianson added. He prefers to credit the program itself, saying his contribution “wasn’t a big deal.”

From Schriock’s viewpoint, though, it is a big deal to have the Christiansons’ insights on the advisory committee and to have affordable apartments. Typically, youth with no credit and no deposit money will find themselves homeless, she said.

She cited the case of one client, a single mother, who was receiving help in finding housing from a Minot State University intern with the program. The intern contacted 62 landlords in an effort to find one who would consider the client as a tenant.

Mike Christianson said that although the transition program isn’t risk-free, he’s had many good tenants through the program. He’s also hired some at his business, Pizza Ranch,

As an employer, he said, he knows the ripple effect on businesses when employees can’t find places to live or need wage increases to offset housing costs. As a landlord, he would rather be part of the solution than the problem.

“It’s great when you can help people,” he said.