From Foster Care to Homelessness
It’s someone’s 18th birthday today, but instead of cake and presents they might have to leave home with nowhere else to go. Every year foster youth ‘age out’ of the system, facing a high possibility of homelessness.
More than 500,000 kids are currently in foster care across the U.S. — with 100,000 in California alone, according to Kern County’s Department of Public Health and Human Services, which oversees the health care program for foster kids in the southern part of California’s Central Valley.
Approximately 10,000 homeless youth live in the Bay Area, according to Covenant House California, a nonprofit agency with shelters for homeless youth in Los Angeles and Oakland. In the last three years, 42 percent of the 303 homeless youth who frequented the Covenant House shelter in Oakland had a self-reported history of foster care.
“(Two years ago) 65 percent of foster youth in California left the system without a place to go. 50 percent became homeless within six months,” said Jim Beall, state assemblyman for Santa Clara County and head of several government committees on foster care. “It was an unworkable system that needed to be reformed."
For a female former foster youth at SJSU, who preferred not to be identified, these aren’t just numbers or facts — they’re a part of her story. “I was in the system until two weeks before my 17th birthday (when I ran away) and all I heard was that when you turn 18 you had to get out,” she said. “I had that in the back of my mind and thought 'well they’re going to kick me out in a year anyway.”
After growing up in a kinship placement, the recent transfer was put in a foster home at age 14 when the state declared her grandmother too old to care for the teen. “The first one I was in just for a couple of months, the second one was just shy of a year, the third one was four or five months, and the last one I was there for the remainder of the time,” she said.
For the 31-year-old, running away wasn’t intentional, but driven by her fear of the unknown and a strong desire to get back to San Mateo where she grew up. “I wasn’t in the best foster home,” she said. “She never physically abused me, but anything I did wrong she would hold going to San Mateo over my head.”
After ditching school for two days during her senior year, the social work major said she was afraid to go back to her foster home because she thought she might not be allowed to see her friends or boyfriend again. “Standing in front of those portables, I had this gut feeling that I shouldn’t be there (and) that was the final push. When I got back in that car I had no intention of going back to San Jose,” she said.
The former foster youth said she remembers thinking of everything on her way back to San Mateo, except where she would live, earn money, get clothes or take a shower. “I didn’t think of those things until later that night, (and) all I remember thinking was ‘f—, what have I done?’” she said. “The ride home, the adrenaline of it, the excitement of it. It wasn’t until the first night that it really hit me.”
While foster children's stories are different, something many of them have in common is a very limited family and support system, said Leslie Griffith, a mentor to several former foster youth and an adult supporter of the Santa Clara County chapter of California Youth Connection, a former-foster-youth-led organization aimed at changing the system legislatively.
“We have a lot (of foster youth) that may not be homeless when they first leave, but will be at some point in their adult life,” Griffith said. “There’s a lack of resources for housing and emotional support. A lot of them don’t have that one person to go to for help.”
In 2010, 5,400 foster youth turned 18 and aged out of the foster system in America — 3,500 of whom became homeless soon afterward, Beall said.
“For a lot of foster kids, they aren’t (counted as being) homeless but they couch surf, or go from home to home,” Beall said. After running away, the former foster youth said that she couch surfed on and off until she turned 18.
“I stayed with friends," she said. "We bounced around a lot, sleeping on their couches, staying as long as their parents would let me stay. When they would ask when I was going home, I’d just move on.”
Referring to her peers in foster care, she said, “With all of us it’s really similar. Being emancipated at 18 was hard, finding a job was hard, really the first couple of years on our own was hard.”
Carolyn Glogoski, associate professor of occupational therapy at SJSU and an expert on the topic of homelessness, said that homelessness among former foster youth “is an ongoing problem.” As an attempt to remedy the situation, legislation was passed two years ago that extends foster care to age 21 with conditional stipends for pursuing a higher education, working a full-time job or going through a job-training program.
According to Beall, AB 12, written by himself, gives foster youth “a little more time.” “Most people realize that 18 is too young to be out on your own,” Beall said. “If you don’t have programs for these kids, there are just going to be more problems.”
Adrian Randall, a first semester transfer student majoring in business marketing, heard about the hardships of foster care firsthand from his father and grandmother who were both in the system when they were younger. While he didn’t want to get into specifics, Randall said that he thinks releasing foster kids into the world at 18 “is a big problem that doesn’t really have a lot of answers.”
At SJSU there is a scholarship program called Guardian Scholars that is specifically designed to help former foster youth through college with access to free tutoring, emotional and academic support as well as emergency funding for food or housing should the need arise.
Rhonda Leiva, interim assistant director of Guardian Scholars, named housing as the biggest issue the students in Guardian Scholars face because “it’s now their sole responsibility.”
College is scary for any student, and then when you’re a foster youth you don’t always have that emotional support of people telling you that, you can do it. "You can go to college." Leiva said.
Griffith said that losing a job can pose a bigger problem. “Everyday experiences are exacerbated for these youth,” Griffith said. “It’s not uncommon for a young person to lose a job, but when former foster youth lose a job they don’t have a lot of options.”
While none of the 50 Guardian Scholars are homeless at this time, many have been homeless previously, according to Leiva. “They’re a general population,” said Leiva, “They face the same struggles as all college students, sometimes they just face a few more because of what they’re dealing with.”