Until recently, Antonnette Okunola was couch surfing with friends or sleeping in her car. She had lost her job and left her mother's home because of their strained relationship.
She quickly became one of the hundreds of young adults in Baltimore who do not have a regular place to live.
The 24-year-old woman works two part-time jobs now and last week moved into her own furnished apartment in Park Heights at Restoration Gardens, the first housing project in Maryland dedicated to homeless youths. She will pay 30 percent of her income in rent while she puts her life back together.
"This is a blessing," Okunola said. "Now it is up to me to do what I need."
The city provides foster care and housing for needy young children and shelters for homeless adults, but there are few options for young adults who are struggling to make their own way with limited means.
The $6 million apartment building will be a home to many who have never known a stable living environment. It also offers a broad range of services designed to help residents get an education and train for jobs so they can build a life on their own.
"A lot of homeless kids don't know how to get help," Okunola said. "This is the place to get help."
More than 100 applicants between the ages of 18 and 24 sought an apartment in the 43-unit building. Selection was based on income eligibility and personal interviews.
"These residents came here from all backgrounds," said F.T. Burden, president of AIRS/Empire Homes, a nonprofit that built and manages the facility. "Some aged out of foster care. Some lived with grandparents who had to go into assisted living and some were living in abandoned buildings or cars. This is a place where they can be engaged in school work or job training without worrying where they will sleep at night. Here they can focus on what will be the next level in their lives."
After years of planning and tours of similar facilities across the nation, AIRS/Empire Homes broke ground on the Cottage Avenue facility a year ago. Construction, funded primarily with federal stimulus dollars, included the renovation of what was once the Talmudic Academy, built in the 1930s, and later became a public elementary school. Crews carved apartments out of classrooms and built an 11,000-square-foot addition that includes community rooms, offices and a library.
The residents will have access to counselors, computers and classes in everything from cooking to managing their finances. Plans call for an urban garden on the two-acre parcel behind the building. The average stay will be three to five years, but many will move on sooner, Burden said.
"The idea is to empower these kids so that they can go out on their own and be self-sufficient," he said.
The first-floor lobby opens onto a community room, furnished with comfortable chairs, ottomans and a wide-screen TV. Large windows fill the space with natural light. On Friday, volunteers from Art with a Heart, a nonprofit that offers art classes in the city's needy neighborhoods, installed a 20-foot-high, hand-tiled mural on one wall of the community area. More than 250 volunteers, including Okunola and Tadesa Brinkley, who both work the front desk at Restoration Gardens, put the mural together. They filled the piece with soothing blues and greens, and images of a coral reef, swimming fish and bubbles.
"We know that water can be therapeutic and the fish look like a family," said Randi Pupkin, director of Art with a Heart. "We have made an aquarium for your family home."
Okunola found the mural most appropriate to the surroundings.
"It says so much about where we live and how all our own pieces [are] coming together and making this our home," she said.
Okunola and Brinkley, 23, who moved last week into one of three one-bedroom units set aside for resident assistants, are already building a friendship. Brinkley is offering decorating tips and showing off the personal touches she has added to the furnishings.
"I want the other residents to see what you can do to make it feel like home," she said. "I have done all this for under $100."
She is putting together a resources list, everything from area grocery stores and thrift shops to public transportation routes, for the new residents.
"I am looking at this as one big family," she said.
Brinkley could not have afforded her own apartment. She has completed two years of college and has hefty student loans to repay as she works toward a degree in criminal justice. She had been living with her grandmother, who recently moved into senior housing.
"This means I can pay off my student loans and go to college, while working and living on my own," she said.
Okunola loves to show off her third-floor efficiency. The young woman, who once had to roll up all her clothes tightly into one bag, gushes over her spacious closet. She is already testing recipes on her electric stove and filling her pantry with staples. And the bathroom!
"I love it so much that I could live in there," she said. "People who have never had to share a bathroom with many other people just don't understand that."
As the resident assistant for her floor, Okunola could also have requested a one-bedroom apartment. She preferred the smaller space.
"It is just enough for what I have," she said.
She hopes to finish her schooling and plans a career in social work.
"This place is giving me purpose," she said. "I won't let homelessness be the end of my story."