Monday, January 01, 2007

Foster care alumni might be able to win homeless foster youth's trust

Now what?
Officials struggle to stem the growing number of kids living on the streets of LA County

Piasecki, Joe. Pasadena Weekly, July 20, 2006.

Born into foster care 23 years ago to a drug-addicted mother and a father he’s never met, Sqoll, as he prefers to be called, has lived on the streets of Los Angeles County for the past three years. Shuffled between more than 30 placements during his childhood in county care, homelessness is the most stable situation he’s ever been in.

David, who is about the same age as Sqoll, left juvenile hall with a history of drug abuse and mental health issues before living on the streets of Hollywood. Though he tries to avoid contact with police, he prides himself on the tattoos he has received in jail and looks forward to occasional stays at mental health hospitals as an opportunity to meet potential girlfriends.

JJ, a 21-year-old former foster youth who was featured in earlier portions of this series, has left a temporary housing facility in the area to once again sleep in Pasadena parks and alleys. Just two weeks ago, she and a friend were panhandling near the corner of Colorado Boulevard and Fair Oaks Avenue.

Like thousands of young adults who grew up in the foster care and juvenile justice systems, Sqoll, David and JJ have no idea what the coming weeks will bring and have few, if any, realistic plans for how to get themselves out of homelessness and poverty.

Statistics compiled by Home at Last, an advocacy partnership between the Children’s Law Center of Los Angeles and Occidental College, tell the story in numbers: After they turn 18, one in five foster kids will be homeless, one in three will not have a high school diploma or GED, another third will struggle with mental health or substance abuse issues, one in four will wind up in jail and fewer than half will find a job.

Nationally, that’s tens of thousands of kids who have no home, no hope and virtually no help getting through a world that seems intent on seeing them fail. And that’s not even counting the kids with criminal records who, despite suffering broken homes, aren’t considered foster youth and therefore are not entitled to receive most government benefits.

“When we’re panhandling, some people are always screaming, ‘Get a job.’ It’s not that fuckin’ simple when you’re on the streets,” said Sqoll, who sleeps near Hollywood’s Walk of Fame and goes by that name within the homeless community.

The belief there is no quick or easy way to help homeless youth off the streets is something — and maybe the only thing — that Sqoll and area public officials, who have essentially failed him since birth, share.

‘Tried everything’
Numerous task forces, committees, commissions and studies have found no magic bullet for providing every homeless youth with mental health services, education, job training and a roof over his or her head.

Yet public calls for answers to this scourge of homelessness are building. In April, a blue ribbon panel of experts released recommendations related to the county supervisors’ $100 million plan for ending homelessness in the next decade, and according to the document a specific youth plan is due out later this month.

An incomplete draft copy of that report obtained by the Weekly states that county officials should better integrate services for youth while increasing the amount of housing available to them. Not that much of this is new, however, as similar recommendations came out of a June 2002 report by the California Department of Social Services.

In fact, aside from recent innovations by LA’s outgoing head of foster care and an increase of funding in this year’s state budget, nothing actually that new has happened for kids who have no one but the state to depend on for care.

Despite a historic lack of effective government response and a continued public desire for solutions, some say there is little more that officials can do for street youth, who carry with them a general distrust of government programs and the psychological damage incurred from broken homes.

“There really isn’t anything in public policy that can be done,” said Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina, who believes government is unequipped to deal with the problem and unable to find enough nonprofit service providers that the county could fund to attack it.

“It’s a tough job, and we don’t do it well. For those children that want to be helped, we can create a solid pathway — not the best, but solid — so they not have as many obstacles for housing and support for school. We can do things, we have the resources; but it’s really tough to become a surrogate mom, and we can’t be relying on government to do that,” said Molina.

“I’d be happy to turn over all of our resources to someone who could produce better outcomes than us. We’ve tried everything, so I can’t totally blame us,” Molina said.

In the meantime, she said, homeless youth “can get in line for the services we provide them, but, tragically, that’s it.”

Can’t start too early
Some say the best way to end youth homelessness is by providing better care for kids so they don’t become homeless young adults. To some, this means keeping kids out of foster care altogether.

An analysis of conditions for California foster youth published by the National Center for Youth Law found that most county foster care agencies are failing to meet federal caps on abuse committed against kids in foster care, limits on the amount of time children are spending in care and restrictions on the number of times that foster children are moved around to different homes.

If things don’t improve, the report warned, federal officials will likely withhold from the state as much as $60 million in foster care funding as soon as next year.

“Improving the quality of care for a 13-year-old is going to have a much bigger impact than trying to solve his homelessness when he’s 18,” said Berkeley Professor Jill Duerr Berrick, a member of the state’s advisory Blue Ribbon Commission on Foster Care.

Although this year’s state budget has allotted millions in new funding for foster care, state supervision of foster homes is limited to one scheduled inspection every five years — not enough to guarantee safety for kids who have only one already overworked social worker looking out for them, visiting once a month, she said.

David Sanders, a foster care reformer who last week announced plans to take another job after quitting as head of the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services, has sought to change the system by delivering services to families before abuse and neglect occurs in an effort to keep their children out of county care.

Since the announcement that he would take a new job in Seattle, Sanders, who as part of his strategy has helped 11,000 county foster children find refuge in relatives’ homes, has not returned phone calls. But his biggest fan, Los Angeles County Supervisor Mike Antonovich, said Sanders’ philosophy is not leaving town with him.

“Where families can be kept together, you work with them, and when extended family members can get involved, you work with them. And when you can’t, then you do adoption,” said Antonovich. “Parents need to pay attention to their children and devote time to their children. Leaving them without love and direction, they end up dysfunctional.”

All Sqoll ever needed, he said, was a family.

“I knew what I wanted: a regular home with, you know, brothers and sisters and all that, but they would not give that to me. And the more I didn’t get that, and with the medication and all, it just got worse,” said Sqoll, who said he made several attempts at suicide during his years at the McLaren Shelter, a county group home for troubled youth that was shut down in 2003 due to allegations of widespread violence and abuse being committed by staff members.

Time to pay the rent
But what about youth like Sqoll, who lived through the horrors of McLaren, or David or JJ, who was once sent to live with foster parents who used drugs? For them, recent improvements in care have come way too late.

What homeless youth need first and foremost, said Los Angeles County Supervisor Yvonne Braithwaite Burke, is a home.

“Obviously we need more transitional housing. There have been some really excellent facilities that have been built, but they don’t provide for everyone,” she said. “Absolutely we need more. First of all is that you have to have communities that are willing to take them, and you have to identify the funds for housing, and there’s just not a lot of money for low-income housing, period.”

With housing costs at record highs around the county, many see expanding government aid to private, nonprofit agencies as the only feasible way to get anything done.

“I think it has to be a public-private partnership. The most successful programs have been. You’re seldom going to be able to find enough money to build anything today unless you go into some private funding source,” said Burke.

For the fiscally conservative Antonovich, who has been a vocal advocate for foster youth for more than a decade and also supports greater public-private partnerships, homeless kids should be a county spending priority.

“There are different means of spending money, and the government should be doing what the people can’t do for themselves,” he said. “The next stage is, for those who have left foster care and have emancipated and have no support system in place, trying to reach them.”

The soon-to-be-released Bring LA Home youth recommendations are, however, critical of the county’s job so far in actually brining private partners to the table.

“Currently, there is inadequate coordination between public and private agencies that provide services to runaway and homeless youth,” reads the document, which also finds that the county fails to maintain accurate public records of available housing.

Molina, however, has found that any problems with public-private coordination are likely not rooted in a failure of govern ment, but in an alarming dearth of nonprofits actually willing to accept public money for helping homeless kids.

Both she and Burke explained that a large sum of money paid to the county by the City of Industry in lieu of providing low-income housing remains available for youth housing, but no single nonprofit youth housing provider has asked for it.

In fact, one in her East LA district recently refused a county offer of more money to build a second facility, said Molina.

“If there were a nonprofit that said, ‘Give me all the money,’ I guarantee we would,” she said.

A services triumvirate
It isn’t clear why JJ, a survivor of sexual abuse and crack addiction, left whatever housing she had obtained. It also isn’t clear why she appeared reluctant to then accept a bed at Hollywood’s Covenant House that this reporter had worked to obtain for her.

Apparently, housing alone is not enough to keep often psychologically traumatized youth who distrust authority off the streets.

The majority of homeless youth in and around Pasadena have serious mental health issues, according to records kept by the nonprofit Pacific Clinics Healthy Transitions Program. Of the 289 youth served by the agency in 2004 and 2005 — a group that included JJ — more than a third had been on psychiatric medication and almost 40 percent had considered or attempted suicide. All suffered from learning disabilities or depression, anxiety, and other psychiatric disorders.

Also, more than 70 percent used alcohol and marijuana and more than 35 percent used amphetamines, according to agency reports. When pressed about his plans for helping now-homeless former foster youth, Antonovich admitted he was behind on dealing with the issue, having been almost entirely focused on foster parenting and adoption issues for the past several years.

“What we can do, and you raise a good point — let’s see what we can do with developing a protocol with the Department of Public Social Services and Mental Health for those children, the ones that are emancipated, in their early 20s, the runaway, throwaway children who are on the streets,” he said.

Los Angeles City Council President Eric Garcetti, who along with Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is pushing for a $1 billion affordable housing bond that would bring in millions for the homeless, is already thinking along these lines.

“For a lot of these youth, they’ve never really had basic life-skills education,” said Garcetti, who represents the section of Hollywood where most of the county’s homeless youth are believed to gather.

So a solution, he said, “has to be a combination of providing services, permanent housing and education. If we’re serious about not writing off young people — not throwing them away — we’ve got to do all three things.”

On July 27, Garcetti and other members of the council’s Ad Hoc Committee on Homelessness will meet at the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center to discuss the plight of homeless youth and shape new policy efforts.

“Not a lot of people understand the particular needs of homeless youth. They often get lost in the shuffle,” said Garcetti, who pointed out that official homeless counts don’t even keep track of youth homeless numbers, something the Bring LA Home recommendations seek to change.

Forming a bond
Despite a perceived lack of interest in youth housing production, two major bonds that promise some hope for street kids may come to a vote as early as November.

Of the $2.85 billion state infrastructure bond destined for the ballot, $245 million will go toward homelessness issues, and $50 million of that specifically toward youth housing.

If that bond passes, all $50 million will fund transitional housing for foster youth emancipating out of care, said Richard Stapler, spokesman for state Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez, a Los Angeles Democrat.

“The speaker is committed to making a difference for these kids,” said Stapler, who pointed out that the bond investment will draw additional federal funds to state foster care efforts.

But for those young people who are ineligible for post-foster care transitional housing, the Garcetti-Villaraigosa $1 billion affordable housing bond could be a big help.

“What’s different about ours from the state one is we do put in the language that 25 percent is for housing for formerly homeless people. That means homeless youth, homeless families — youth would certainly be component of it, though they are not called out,” said Garcetti. “Senior housing is a very well-known and protected category, multifamily housing is one too, but we don’t do much for youth. I hope that’s a big policy prescription that comes out of this.”

Last week, Los Angeles City Council members voted 13-0 to support the bond, which comes back for a final vote next month. If it is approved, money raised through the bond would be invested into the city’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund, which Villaraigosa funds annually at $50 million.

While Villaraigosa spokeswoman Elizabeth Kivowitz would say only that the bond was in its “development stage,” she described the mayor as committed to solving youth homelessness.

“The mayor is looking closely at this homeless population, essentially kids who have no place to live and no one to support them financially or emotionally, and working to use some of the $50 million that he has set aside … for housing these kids,” she said.

‘Start listening’
In Pasadena, where affordable housing issues top public discussion and city officials have adopted their own 10-year plan to end homelessness, Mayor Bill Bogaard is not optimistic that city policymakers will be able to make significant gains in helping homeless youth anytime soon.
With the city already struggling to ensure that fees raised through its affordable housing ordinance translate into new low-income housing, it’s unlikely that city money alone will be enough to do the job.

“In my observation, the needs of emancipated former foster youth are not widely recognized or frequently addressed. It’s a need of our society that is simply ignored or not understood,” said Bogaard. “But something can be done. I’m prepared to call attention to the council and staff the special needs of former foster youth … so we can build awareness of that special need and respond to it while at the same time respond to the special needs of seniors, the disabilities community and people with very low incomes.”

For Molina, who believes many homeless youth aren’t interested in tapping the limited services that are already available to them, it’s up to those in need to come into the system to obtain services.

As in any other parent-child situation, “It has to work both ways. The kid has duties and responsibilities as well.”

Garcetti, however, would like to see policymakers and community and business leaders make the first move.

For Alex, who is 24 and living on the streets of Hollywood, that would mean first showing a little understanding. Along the mile-long stretch east of the opulent Hollywood and Highland mall, only the nearby homeless youth resource center My Friend’s Place would refill the water bottle he carried Sunday in the oppressive heat.

Some of the worst listeners, said David, are security guards and police officers. Just a few weeks ago, he was arrested while panhandling near the mall and has received numerous tickets for riding the Metro without a ticket. Sqoll is also battling numerous tickets and fines.

Garcetti said he hopes the council’s homelessness task force will result in new protocol for police officers in their dealings with homeless youth. For one thing, law enforcement could be a point of contact in directing youth to services, he said.

“They’re not hardcore criminals. They flirt, some of them, with law enforcement issues, but I think the officers can be more of a help in turning their lives around than in just suppressing crime,” said Garcetti.

Overall, helping already marginalized homeless youth or foster kids at risk of homelessness lead more productive lives is going to require those in power to pay better attention, said Sqoll.

“I’d say what they need to do is to start listening to the kids. That’s the thing — when I was in foster care, I didn’t have a voice. It’s like that old saying: The customer’s always right.”

Do you have an idea about how to change the lives of homeless youth? S
end a letter to the paper care of


Post a Comment

<< Home