Denise Graves, co-founder of the Minneapolis-based Graves Foundation, has long served Hennepin County as a guardian ad litem, a court-appointed legal representative for children in court proceedings that often involve abuse or neglect. Throughout her years of service, she continually saw youth aging out of the foster care system when they turned 18 with little to no support. Often, she was the only unpaid person in their lives.
Graves began looking around the country for solutions to this issue, which impacts over 23,000 youth each year in the U.S., 36% of whom — disproportionately Black and Latino youth — end up homeless as a result. Graves found that there are almost no housing programs tailored to young people who have been in the foster system. So, in 2014 she and her husband set out to change that, launching their namesake foundation and what would eventually become Minneapolis’ PERIS Project was born.
In November 2021, the PERIS Hill apartment building, home to 45 affordable units, opened its doors. Thirty of those units are reserved for working adults who make 50-60% AMI, or between roughly $36,000 and $44,000 annually. The other 15 units are for youth between the ages of 18 and 21 who are exiting the foster care system, but qualify for the federal extended foster care program that Hennepin County participates in. So far eight of the 15 units are filled and James Lewis, the housing and services division director for The Link — the project’s youth service provider — expects the rest to be filled in the next month or so.
The goal of mixing youth and adult housing was two-fold, explains Courtney Kiernat, executive director of the PERIS Foundation, which manages PERIS Hill. “The mix of tenants not only ensures that the building isn’t just filled with young people who have experienced a lot of trauma, but that it mimics more traditional rental settings,” she says. “We wanted to be intentional about creating a community and having good neighbors who can also be potential mentors and role models who get up, get ready, and go to work every day.”
Both the location and affordability elements are critical, too. PERIS Hill is situated in Minneapolis’ Lowry Hill neighborhood, a desirable and centrally located area of the city. “There’s a reason that Lowry Hill is one of the most sought-after and expensive neighborhoods. It’s because of the amenities from public transportation to grocery stores and libraries that our residents deserve just as much,” Kiernat says.
Rent for the youth units range from $350-$425 a month for a one bedroom and the other 30 units go for roughly $1,000 a month for a one bedroom. “If you have to pay all of your income on housing, how do you save? You can’t,” she adds. “We want the youth to be able to make their own decisions about how they budget, spend their money, and save.”
It’s this youth-focused and youth-led approach that makes PERIS Hill what it is. Throughout the development process, the PERIS Foundation and its partners held focus groups with youth in foster care to ensure the building offered them the support and structure they need while preserving their independence and ability to self-direct.
Rather than furnishing the youth units as Kiernat and company assumed they would to take the burden of finding furniture off the youth, they opted for purchasing mattresses, bed frames, futons, pots, pans, and basic dishes instead. Youth can choose to use those resources if they’d like, but they’re not required to. “Our youth advisory committee told us that they didn’t want the units to be furnished because this was the first time that most of the youth coming out of foster care have had the chance to decorate their own space,” Kiernat explains.
A model room in the PERIS Hill apartment building (Credit: Graves Foundation)
The building has 24-hour staffing and an on-site case manager. All youth residents go through a needs assessment and co-create a personalized goal plan that can include everything from going to mental health appointments every week to financial literacy.
“We try to keep it really dry on our end because we want it to be youth-led,” Lewis explains. “If there’s something that they’re not interested in, we’re not going to tell them to do that.” The Link works to ensure that each lease starts with at least a one-year term, but Lewis says that they hope they can get people in at 18 and have them stay until they’re 21. “The longer we have them and the more we get to know them and the more they trust us, then we can make suggestions,” he says.
Naturally, there have been challenges, too. Because there aren’t previous examples to draw from, Lewis and company have had to adapt their expertise in supportive housing to the needs of youth who have been fostered.
Ultimately, what can make more projects like this happen is more foundations, companies, and the like willing to take the risks that the Graves Foundation did in funding a new type of supportive housing. The 10-year, $3 million funding commitment that the foundation made to the project starting when the PERIS residents moved in late last year has been critical. While the funds don’t cover the entirety of the cost, it has allowed The Link to focus more on programming and less on fundraising.
One variable that Kiernat was responsible for was getting PERIS’s new Lowry Hill neighbors on board. “I grew up in that neighborhood. One of the reasons I was hired was because I knew a lot of those neighbors and could speak to the benefits of this,” she says. “Not only will the neighborhood be great for those at PERIS, but the neighborhood will benefit too because our residents will contribute to it and see it as home.”
Cinnamon Janzer is a freelance journalist based in Minneapolis. Her work has appeared National Geographic, U.S. News & World Report, Rewire.news, and more. She holds an MA in Social Design, with a specialization in intervention design, from the Maryland Institute College of Art and a BA in Cultural Anthropology and Fine Art from the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities.