Monday, February 11, 2008

Mi Casa is a wonderful aftercare program - there should be more of them!

For former foster care youth, Mi Casa is their home
Steffens, Sara. Contra Costa Times, Feb. 5, 2008.

Walnut Creek, CA - Chanel Finley, 18, shows off her new bedroom Jan. 28 at Mi Casa, a home for former foster youth...

For many young adults, turning 18 proves a rather lackluster rite of passage, bearing few changes of real consequence.

But for Chanel Finley, like other teens in foster care, the landmark birthday meant losing her home.

"It came out of nowhere," said Finley, who had to move from her transitional program not long after she graduated from Mt. Diablo High School. "I thought I was going to be able to stay another year. That was scary, not having a place to go."

Then a social worker pointed her toward Mi Casa, a new program in Concord for young adults who have outgrown their foster care placements.

"I was like, 'Wow, this is nice,'" Finley said of her first visit to the newly renovated home, which features an updated kitchen, a spacious great room and an outdoor patio with a fire pit.

The main house has six bedrooms, each just large enough for a twin bed and a chest of drawers. Four more bedrooms are planned for an adjacent home, tentatively scheduled to open in March.

Young men and women can stay up to two years at Mi Casa, where they are matched with case workers, pay a third of their income in rent and receive a $100 monthly stipend to help with groceries.

In other ways, the home will operate like a college dorm, right down to a resident manager who's also a young adult.

"The most critical things these young adults don't have are positive, supportive relationships," said program manager Amy Lawrence, who works for Lutheran Social Services. "And the most important part of the work we do is being those relationships for people, and helping them build more of their own.

"So if they're having a bad day, they have someone to call, or they know someone who can help them get a job."

"So if they're having a bad day, they have someone to call, or they know someone who can help them get a job."

Young adults typically rely on family support as they build financial independence -- with the average person not becoming completely self-sufficient until age 28, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

But each year, thousands of California teens who turn 18 in foster care must instantly fend for themselves, often with disastrous results.

Within a year or two of leaving care, more than half are unemployed, and as many as one in four become homeless, studies have shown.

Mi Casa is part of a growing effort to avert such problems by better supporting former foster youth as they struggle to enter adult life.

Nearly two years in the works, building renovations cost $1.3 million and were paid from grants from the state and the city of Concord.

Operated by Lutheran Social Services of Northern California, with funding from the county and state, the home is open to youth who aged out of care at 18 and are younger than 25.

Young adults find the program through social workers or independent living programs and must interview for a spot.

Today, Mi Casa welcomes its two new residents: Finley and Jerisha Davis, 19, who grew up in kinship care, a type of foster care that places children with relatives -- in her case, her grandmother in Pittsburg.

Both young women visited the house last week to choose bedrooms and plan their first grocery lists.

They admired Mi Casa's large kitchen, equipped with double refrigerators and a series of deep locking drawers, one for each resident to stash special food items.

"We both like cooking," Finley said. "Everything from chicken to macaroni and cheese."

"Enchiladas," Davis added.

"Fish," Finley said, adding, "There's a lot of room in here."

Settling in on the comfy new couch, they were already, they agreed, becoming friends.

Davis, who aims to enroll soon in Diablo Valley College, hopes to use Mi Casa as the launching point her extended family isn't able to provide.

"I don't plan on staying here two years," she said. "I just really plan on focusing on my school and working and trying to save for my own place."

Finley also plans to continue her college studies, which she hopes will eventually lead to a career as a registered nurse.

"I'm just looking forward to moving in and being settled somewhere stable," she said, "so we can have our heads together and just go to school and work and save money."

Sara Steffens covers poverty and social services. Reach her at 925-943-8048 or


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