Monday, January 01, 2007

Services to homeless deny help to youth without families

A long way from home
Despite legislative and policy gains, 2006 was another tough year for foster youth who leave state care with nothing
Piasecki, Joe. Pasadena Weekly, Citybeat, 12/28/06.

Brian Chytka
There has been no word from Brian Chytka.

A child of heroin addicts, Chytka blamed himself for his father's suicide then faced even more abuse, neglect and instability growing up in the state's foster care system before finally picking up a drug habit of his own at 22. The self-described Hollywood gutter punk has faded back into anonymity despite efforts to reach him since his story began a series on homeless youth that appeared in this newspaper in June and July.

JJ, who was also profiled in that series and had spent her 19th and 20th birthdays on the streets of Pasadena after leaving foster care, has lost touch with local social services workers and has also disappeared since that time.

Though each is uniquely heartbreaking, such stories are also tragically common, the Weekly learned during its investigation.

As many as one third of LA County's more than 20,000 foster youth are expected to become homeless soon after leaving the system, and half struggle to find employment, according to the Children's Law Center of Los Angeles. Also, reports the youth advocate group Casey Family Programs, only about 46 percent of all American foster children complete high school.

There were, however, hopeful developments over the past six months that some believe are the beginnings of a new commitment to keep kids like Brian and JJ (who asked to be identified only by her first name) away from such desperation.

In fact, Ebony — an area homeless youth who, like JJ, sought help from Pasadena's Pacific Clinics and appeared in the series — has since reconnected with relatives who took her into their home. Pacific Clinics has also received a grant to begin construction on a drop-in resource center for homeless youth in the San Gabriel Valley, said outreach worker Saul Zepeda.

At the state level, lawmakers have reversed previous cuts by increasing funding to county foster care programs by $84 million through next June. While most of the money is going toward lowering the caseloads of social workers so they can better track at-risk youth, millions are also helping to increase the amount of transitional housing for foster kids who must leave state care at 18.

Los Angeles County foster youth may benefit the most from the state's sudden change of heart, as $35 million in state and federal funds are now dedicated to continue a major overhaul of foster care here — progress that almost came to a screeching halt in July with the departure of then-LA County Department of Children and Family Services Director David Sanders.

Sanders, who left to join Casey Family Programs, was in the process of retooling the agency as a major provider of child welfare services aimed at keeping families together. The idea was to keep children out of foster care altogether if possible or at least limit their stays so that, someday, no one would ever again grow up parented by the state. That kind of life, he said at the time, is “one of the worst things that can happen” to a child.

In September, the LA County Board of Supervisors found a permanent replacement for Sanders in Trish Ploehn, who had served as his deputy director and aims only to expand his reforms.
Under Ploehn's watch the number of children in LA foster homes — once more than 30,000 — has continued to decline and is now fewer than 20,500, with nearly half of those children living in a relative's home, according to county statistics.

“In the past we would keep children in care for years, sometimes growing them up and emancipating them out at 18. In my opinion, that's just simply another form of abuse,” she said, decrying the department's legacy of raising children into homelessness.

Because counties receive federal funding only for the children they take out of homes, Sanders sought a waiver of these restrictions in order to pay social workers to fix families rather than separate them. Approved in concept, that waiver begins the final approval process next month, said Ploehn, and will involve cooperation with social services, mental health and juvenile justice officials when it comes to foster care.

Meanwhile, the Board of Supervisors in October funded the creation of a special Homeless and Runaway Section within Ploehn's department that will specifically target young people who are at risk of becoming homeless when they turn 18.

Part of a package initially designed to target poverty in downtown's Skid Row, the section will manage a $5.7 million contract with the nonprofit group Beyond Shelter, which, according to newly appointed Homeless and Runaway Section head Theresa Rupel, will begin housing homeless families there next month.

Yet with all the good news, it's more than likely that many kids like Chytka and JJ will still be out in the cold for awhile — ironically for the same reason they became homeless in the first place, which is not having a family.

While Rupel is working to expand the Beyond Shelter contract from Skid Row to East Hollywood, where most of the county's homeless youth seek services, the program at the moment is targeting families, not individuals, for free housing vouchers and other services.
“Unaccompanied youth,” as homeless people under 25 years old are coming to be classified by social services workers, won't be denied help but aren't yet the primary target of this program, said Rupel.

The street kids of East Hollywood, however, were dealt a serious blow two months ago when social services agencies there were denied state mental health services funding that would have pulled 50 kids off the streets.

The project, which would have combined housing with other services, was not approved because it lacked a parental component, even though the youth it targeted often have no parents to speak of, said Susan Rabinovitz, associate director of adolescent medicine for Children's Hospital of Los Angeles.

An architect of April's Bring LA Home plan to end homelessness in the county, Rabinovitz gave a frank assessment of what the past six months have meant for homeless youth.

“There hasn't been any real substantive improvement at all in their conditions and the services available to them,” she said.

In fact, she pointed out, no one really knows how many there are. For only the first time in its history, the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority will seek out unaccompanied youth for their annual Homeless Census when they begin work next month.

As the county begins to fully acknowledge those whose lives have been damaged in its care, Rupel understands that many don't want to give those who once took them from their homes a second chance.

“My job in the new year is to do outreach to bring a new reputation so people have a sense on the street that we're here to help, not harm,” she said.


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