Saturday, May 05, 2007

At least 37% of YEAH residents lived in foster care

Foster care ends, survival begins
Bills propose alternative to life on streets
Steffens, Sara. Contra Costa Times, April 22, 2007.

Editor's note: The youths profiled in this story allowed a reporter and photographer to observe their lives at a shelter and on the streets of Berkeley during several weeks. Details of their stories were verified through court records and others' accounts. The Times agreed not to publish their last names.

Jose Cuervo unzips his tattered backpack and pulls out a crushed box of toasted honey crunch.

Months of staying in a shelter for homeless youths have taught him to provide for himself, carry what he might need. So alongside his toothbrush, razor and cigarettes, he totes his preferred brand of sugary cereal.

Shaking some in a bowl, he offers the box to his fellow diners at Berkeley's Youth Emergency Assistance Hostel, most of whom are engrossed in a videotaped Goofy cartoon.

"I like my diabetes in the morning," jokes Jose, 18, who has left behind his real last name and now insists on a tequila-inspired alter ego. "Anyone want to get diabetes with me?"

His girlfriend wanders into the room, hair still damp, makeup already fully applied.

"Hi, honey, something's, like, on fire," says Christina, who has scribbled her nickname, Creepy, across the toe of her Converse.

"These people are trying to cook pancakes," Jose tells her.

He gestures to the volunteers busily preparing breakfast for the residents of the makeshift church shelter, where 40 to 50 young adults spend rainy winter nights.

Despite the burning flapjacks, most of the residents already are eating hungrily, laughing at the cartoons as they clean their plates. At 8 a.m., they groan when a staff member switches off the TV.

Time to go.

But where?

On her way out the door, Christina grabs a bunch of helium balloons left over from someone's celebration. "You've got to have some kind of sunshine in your life," she explains. "And it's raining."

At YEAH, as the shelter is fondly known, most personal attributes are fair game for teasing: Who snores. Who seems to have lost their short-term memory smoking marijuana. Who needs a shower.

But one topic remains off limits: Why they ended up here in the first place, sleeping on the floor of the Lutheran Church of the Cross.

Asked privately, most share the same answer. Born into homes plagued by poverty, abuse, addiction or mental illness, and not yet sure how to support themselves, they simply have nowhere else to go.

In surveys, 37 percent of YEAH residents report having lived in foster care. The actual number is probably higher, staff members say.

"Nobody really talks about what they've been through," says Christina, 18, who spent her teenage years bouncing through foster placements and group homes. "But you look at some of the people here, and you know."

A year or two after becoming legal adults, nearly half of former foster children lack high school diplomas or GEDs, national studies have found.

Sixty percent live in poverty.

More than half are unemployed.

And at least a third become homeless.

Middle-class parents provide years of financial and emotional support to help their teenagers complete college and enter the workforce. But foster children are supposed to provide for themselves at 18, or shortly thereafter.

"These are the kids who have the least, through no fault of their own, and we require the most of them," said Sharon Hawkins Leyden, executive director of YEAH.

"These are the poorest of the poor, the most thrown-away kids. They probably need four years like a college student. Instead, we tell them to go to school, get a job, set up a life, and when you don't there's something wrong with you."

Independent-living programs can help former foster youths find work, build life skills or pay college tuition. But the need for housing far outpaces the supply, so units usually go to those deemed most capable of succeeding.

"You've got to be one of the goody special kids," Christina says.

After being placed in foster care at age 12, she spent her teenage years bouncing through foster families and group homes in the Central Valley.

"I wasn't bad," she says. "It's just the situation. They (expletive) you over."

High school would have been easier if she could have stayed in one school, she said. Instead, she shuttled from campus to campus, trailing credits. For a few months last year, she wasn't enrolled anywhere as her group home tried to get records to satisfy the local school district.

On the cusp of adulthood but no closer to earning her diploma, Christina was sent to Berkeley in the summer to live with her mother, who she hadn't seen in several years and who had her own struggles.

"She really tries," said Christina, "but she's still doing so bad I don't really even want to be around it because it hurts me."

Before long, Christina was staying out all night, stashing her stuff at friends' homes.

"When I first became homeless, I was like, it's no big deal, party every night," she says. "But after awhile you get tired. It gets cold and there ain't a party every night. And even if there were, you couldn't stay up that long."

Christina, Jose and two friends trudge down University Avenue in the rain, balloons bouncing behind.

Like most days, they're headed for Shattuck Avenue, where city workers are still emptying the garbage cans and commuters have just begun their rush to work.

"Spare a dollar? Spare a dollar? Spare a dollar? Spare a dollar? Spare a dollar?"

Christina strikes out five times in a row.

Breaking the rules, Jose heads into the BART station to spare-change, or "spange." "Could anyone spare a dollar?" he asks, explaining he has a train ticket but that his girlfriend came up short.

In a few minutes, he panhandles $4, mostly in quarters. If people think you're homeless, he explains, you won't get a dime.

He leaves a few smokes behind for Christina, then heads off to catch the bus to his dog-walking job in Albany.

Still outside the BART station, Christina sits on a wall and fixes her eyeliner. Every few minutes another YEAH resident passes by, waving hello.

"That's the thing here, everybody knows everybody," says Jay, a friend of Christina's who spent his teenage years in foster care.

"Ever since 18, everything has been temporary," says Jay, now 21. "I've been doing couch tours and living on linoleum."

In June, he helped a boyfriend move to the Bay Area. When they broke up, he lived with a relative for a while. He then moved into a youth shelter in Oakland but couldn't meet the rules.

Finally, he ended up at YEAH, which takes young adults up to age 25. After spending the winter at the shelter, Jay was desperate to get out of Berkeley.

"It's time to go," he says. "It's so suffocating here, 'cause a lot of it is drugs."

Like others entering adulthood, street kids experiment with getting drunk or high. Some try hallucinogens and pills to cut the boredom. A few graduate to more addictive drugs, smoking crack or shooting methamphetamine.

After watching a string of friends and acquaintances get arrested for possession, Jay wants a break from the scene. A friend has promised to help him buy a bus ticket back to Southern California. He's exhausted, ready for a new start.

"The situation I'm in right now, I have to stay positive," Jay says. "This is my rock bottom."

Hoping to brighten their mood, Christina and Jay split a $4 dose of Ecstasy, sold to them by an older man on Shattuck Avenue. If the drug has any effect, it doesn't last long.

Bored, they head over to Telegraph Avenue, where a bedraggled man reaches up from the sidewalk to shake his cup at them.

"Dude, you can't spange us," Christina tells him. "We spange, too."

She starts poking into shops, looking for things to steal. Christina prides herself on not looking homeless, and clerks rarely seem to suspect her of shoplifting.

"I'm a booster, pretty much," she says, unashamed. "I steal things and I sell them. And if I don't sell them, I give them away."

For a time, she wore a hoodie with its plastic security tag still attached. "That's a hella fashion statement," a friend says, admiring the boldness.

Some of the other youths don't approve of Christina's stealing. But for homeless young adults, friends are survival. If Christina got in trouble, they would try to help.

"We're all street kids," Jay explains. "At the end of the day, I'm all you got. They're all I've got."

Born to an incarcerated teenage mother, Jose spent his first nine years bouncing through East Bay foster homes.

"I was always the baddest kid in the house," he says. "I was always doing stupid (stuff)," such as putting toothpaste in someone's shoes.

Then Jose's life took a dramatic turn: He was adopted by an Albany couple, along with his younger sister.

The couple, Martha and Lee, first met the siblings when they were toddlers and living in a friend's foster home.

Jose was 9 when he and his sister finally moved in, and 12 when he was adopted.

For a while, he thrived in his new home. He trained service dogs, joined the puppeteer team at the family's Pentecostal church and learned to play drums.

Jose has always been charming, eager for attention and love, Martha says. But all the moving had taken its toll on him and his sister, destroying their ability to trust adults.

"It was a bigger challenge than I had expected," Martha says. "Their expectation was that we would dump them just like everybody else. They got set up to fail -- I'm not saying they have failed, but those were like weights that were hanging on them emotionally when they were placed with us."

For years, Jose said, he was furious with his birth mother for abandoning him. He also grieved for the homes where he wanted to stay, the parents he once imagined would become permanent.

"My whole life in foster care, that's all I got," he says. "'We love you while you're here, but when you're gone, we're never going to talk to you again.'"

As a teenager, Jose chafed under his adoptive parents' rules and expectations. He started staying at other people's houses, hanging out on Shattuck and Telegraph. He left high school with 180 of the 250 credits needed for his diploma.

"After I finished my junior year, my summer just lasted and lasted and lasted," he says.

When Jose turned 18, his adoptive parents kicked him out. His sister was already gone, having gotten into legal trouble.

"We told him, these are the rules. If you don't want to follow them, you're on your own," Martha explains.

When Jose asked to return home, Martha says, it wasn't easy to say no. But she said she believes he needs to learn to follow rules, and her faith assures her no harm will come to him.

"I'm a Christian," she says. "I do believe God's hand is on him. He knows the Lord's voice, and God's given me his promise."

Jose started sleeping out -- camping with other street kids in Berkeley's Ohlone Park, squatting in the storage units of an apartment building, and finally taking up residence inside a vacant print shop, where he and Christina were later arrested for trespassing.

At first, he liked being homeless, he says. He made friends, spent his days loaded or high, dabbling in drugs until he began to scare even himself.

"My moment was when my best friend looked me in the eye and said 'Jose, you're becoming a drug addict.' It almost made me cry."

The urge is still there

"I really like to drink, I just don't let myself do it anymore," he says. "Nicotine and caffeine, that's what I'm trying to stick to. And a little bit of weed."

Now, he has Christina to look after.

They met on the UC Berkeley campus one afternoon last year. She was sitting on the grass, scribbling poems in her notebook. Jose didn't know Christina but had heard she was "crazy," full of energy and mischief.

"Now that I know her, I see her differently," Jose says. "Now I know her background."

Soon, they were inseparable.

"He's perfect," Christina says of Jose.

"She's one of the very few people I can talk to for hours and I don't get bored," Jose says.

"He gives me everything I want," Christina says.

"I wear the pants," Jose corrects. "You wear the skirt."

One day he wrote something on her hand.

"Will you marry me, yes or no?"

She paused, then penned, "Of course."

Jose worries about Christina. If she breaks a shelter rule and gets kicked out of YEAH for a night, Jose sleeps out with her. She's not safe alone, he says.

Jose and Christina talk about starting over in a new town. They'll catch a ride with some other street kids, go somewhere with new possibilities and fewer bad memories.

"I want to get a job," Jose says. "I want to be able to support Christina.

"That's my main goal, is to get off the street, take her with me."

Although he is homeless, Jose remains connected to Albany.

He stores a few belongings at his former house, earns a little cash helping his adoptive dad mow lawns. Nearly every day, Jose takes a bus from Berkeley to walk Kyleigh, the energetic yellow lab that belongs to a woman in the neighborhood.

Kerstin Feist pays Jose in cash, every day. He doesn't trust himself with a week's wages.

She watched Jose growing up and always liked talking to him. When he got sick this winter and ran a high fever, she took him in, tucked him into bed and bought him medicine.

"I just really care for him," Feist says. "I would do anything I could to help. He knows he can always come here."

In the afternoon, after Jose finishes work, he and Christina ride the bus somewhere -- to San Francisco, to the ocean, to Jack London Square in Oakland.

If it rains, they head to Dead Rat Beach to stay dry.

DRB, as it's known to the street kids, isn't a beach at all, but a run-down, 16-room Victorian in a marginal West Oakland neighborhood. It's not a squat, exactly -- a lease bears the names of a few tenants, and others who stay for any length of time chip in for the rent.

Dogs run in and out of the home. Broken eggs and empty food packages pile up on the kitchen floor. Amid the graffiti tags and obscenities that cover nearly every inch of plaster, someone has scribbled the number for a local lawyer who represents the homeless in civil rights cases. Except the number is out of date, someone explains, and no help in an emergency.

A letter from the landlady has been taped to the wall, threatening eviction for overdue rent and neighborhood complaints.

"Don't touch the fridge," warns Christina. "The power's been out for a while."

They may seem to be having a good time, joking around on the sidewalks of Berkeley.

But many of the homeless young people who stay at YEAH say they would rather have somewhere safe and warm to go, something to do each day from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. when the shelter is closed.

"Do you know how slow the days go by?" Jay asks.

They tire of wandering around, getting hassled by merchants and ticketed for smoking, loitering or trespassing. No one wants them around, and some are eager to let them know that.

Some homeless youths spend their days in Berkeley's downtown library. Others lounge in People's Park near UC Berkeley. One enjoys sitting quietly in bookstores, reading the novels she can't afford, a chapter at a time.

Dinner at YEAH is served at 8 p.m.

Most nights, residents gather outdoors a half-hour earlier, smoking cigarettes, petting each others' dogs, rehashing their days or just silently listening to headphones, resting against the side of the wall.

A police car sometimes idles outside, watching for someone with warrants.

When dinner finally begins, the plain church dining room fills with energy and warmth.

Residents chat, goof around, play movies on a tiny old TV. Most plow through the hot meal, but some bring their own food -- fast food takeout, bottles of Mountain Dew. Once, when Christina grew tired of the shelter meals, she stole a roasted chicken from the grocery store and carved it with Jose's pocket knife.

Staff members and volunteers stay busy during dinner, chatting with residents, getting to know them.

That's the point, says Hawkins Leyden, the director: "To help them feel reconnected to an adult, which a lot of these kids have not been able to do because they were severely abused and neglected."

When someone accepts them as they are, Hawkins Leyden says, the youths can begin to imagine new possibilities, find new directions for their lives.

Other East Bay programs for former foster youths have rigorous structure, milestones with rewards and penalties. YEAH exists for those who haven't succeeded in that environment, who can't arrive sober every night or adhere to lots of regulations.

"We're not doing 'three strikes you're out' because there wouldn't be a kid in the room," says Hawkins Leyden. "We try to give them a way to earn their way back."

Rules remain minimal:
"For everyone's safety, please give your weapons to the supervisors," one item on the posted list reads. "They will be returned in the morning."

"Youth are responsible for their pets at all times," says another. "Supervisors may require a pet to be confined."

And finally: "PLEASE do not tag anywhere on premises."

People stereotype homeless youths as "bad kids." But what Hawkins Leyden sees is the good -- how they help each other out, how they always notice when she's having a hard day, how grateful they seem for the smallest kindness.

One evening at dinner, she celebrated a resident's birthday by setting a candle in a slice of cake. Quietly, he asked for her help. What comes next?

She talked him through it: Make a wish. Blow out the flame. Lick the frosting off the candle.
Sometimes at YEAH, a young person too exhausted to wait for bedtime pulls out a mat to doze on the dining room floor.

But most wait for church activities and 12-step meetings to clear out of their sleeping quarters, a large hall divided by mismatched sheets providing a small corner of privacy for the young women.

Residents lay out their mats and pillows early to reserve their spots, but most linger afterward in an adjacent supply room, fixing their hair, trading artful insults and waiting for the shared shower.

One night, when it's her turn, Christina grabs two clean towels and gives Jose a kiss.

Jose sits at the staff desk, spinning his chair and leafing through an outdated issue of US Weekly.
"Why are all these stars anorexic and sick?" he asks no one in particular.

"Because they're junkies," a friend answers succinctly.

As the clock pushes toward midnight, the group's conversation ebbs and wanes, losing participants now and then to the lure of sleep.

Christina emerges in her pajamas, hair wet.

"Come here, you," Jose says.

By way of response, she offers him a bottle of lotion.

"You want me to lotion your legs?" he asks. "It's not going to happen."

But a few minutes later, he is cheerfully rubbing in the moisturizer. Taking the polish she holds out, he paints her toenails blue, then gently brushes her hair.

"My sister taught me how to do all this (stuff)," he says. "I'm always pampering her."

"Always," Christina confirms.

She pulls on her slippers and proposes one last smoke before bed.

In the parking lots, Christina and Jose lean together, staring into the dark.

"I love you, my Creepy," Jose says, kissing her head.

She answers quietly. She loves him, too.

EPILOGUE: In April, a few days before Berkeley's Youth Emergency Assistance Hostel closed for the year, Hawkins Leyden helped several YEAH residents find housing; others resumed couch-surfing or camping out. Jose and Christina boarded a Greyhound bus and headed south.

How to help
Berkeley's Youth Emergency Assistance Hostel always needs money, volunteers, supplies, skills and ideas. Find out more by visiting or calling 510-704-9867. Monetary donations are tax-deductible; checks may be made out to YEAH and sent care of Lutheran Church of the Cross, 1744 University Ave., Berkeley, CA 94703.