Local foster youth often become homeless adults. Can anyone stop the cycle?
Christopher Ento entered foster care in Sacramento County as a 10-year-old. On his 18th birthday, after graduation from Sacramento’s Sierra School, his foster father and a “transitional independent living plan” worker helped to place him in a job. But things didn’t work out.
So, like many foster youth who have “timed out” to receive foster services, Ento quickly became homeless. Though California law mandates that child welfare agencies develop transition plans for foster youth to prevent this from happening, teenagers like Ento often slip through the cracks.
“Sometimes I have to sleep outside, under a bridge, or just walk around all night,” the 19-year-old told SN&R at the Wind Youth Services in Del Paso Heights. “When I can find somewhere to go, it is to a friend’s or my uncle’s homes.”
Elizabeth Calvin authored a recent 70-page Human Rights Watch report: “My So-Called Emancipation: From Foster Care to Homelessness for California Youth.” In it, she reports that the tendency for foster teens to become homeless is near chronic in the state, and existing programs don’t always make the problem go away.
“California is essentially choosing to create homeless adults by failing to give youth leaving foster care the basic tools they need to survive,” she said.
Children enter foster care when the state removes them from their home due to abuse or neglect of a parent or guardian. The state assumes responsibility for their food, shelter and educational access. But when foster youth reach the age of 18, their state aid ends. Ento was just one of 438 foster youth who aged out of care in Sacramento County in 2009, according to Laurie Slothower, a spokeswoman for Child Protective Services. In 2008, 4,653 California youth aged out of the system.
Affordable housing for former foster youth is their biggest need after aging out, said Slothower. The demand for such housing far exceeds the supply of it. To this end, the county refers youth leaving the system to apply for transitional shelter through Lutheran Social Services or the Volunteers of America, which have wait lists of six months.
Lailah Muwwakkil, 37, now a state employee in Sacramento, was in foster care for four years. After graduating from Valley High School and turning 18, she aged out.
“In foster care, I wasn’t provided with the adequate knowledge … to make that transition to the next level in my adulthood to look for an apartment and handle my finances,” Muwwakkil said. “As a result, I became homeless.”
She spent the next three years sleeping in her car, staying with friends and visiting Loaves & Fishes.
Kathleen Jones, 31, currently a special-education teacher’s aide for a local school district, aged out of foster care in San Francisco County. A steady paycheck eased her transition to adulthood.
“I had a full-time job at the Oakland Army Base doing data entry, and when the base closed, I received unemployment and ended up staying at different people’s houses for a while until I was able to get stable here in Sacramento,” she said.
“No one helped me with rent, furniture or skills on knowing how to pay bills, budget a bank account or anything,” according to Jones.
According to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s spokeswoman Rachel Arrezola, despite savage spending cuts to the safety net, her boss’ May budget revision maintains last year’s spending of $35.9 million from the general fund for the transitional foster youth program.
The state-funded Transitional Housing Placement for Emancipated Foster/Probation Youth Program, which state law established in 2001, serves foster youth who are aging out. But the Legislature is still reviewing Schwarzenegger’s budget, so anything could happen. Calvin is one who urges lawmakers not to balance the budget on the backs of teenagers like Ento and California’s 65,000 other kids who will eventually time out of foster care.
“Plenty of studies show that without preparation for and support during early adulthood, former foster youth will be less likely to continue their education, more likely to have lower-paying jobs, early pregnancies and criminal involvement,” Calvin said. “When California fails these children, it pays a big price.”