In most families, a teenager has someone who helps him apply for college, provides moral support, and teaches life skills. Even after graduation, many young adults still rely on their parents or community to stay housed, find a job, and weather the unpredictable moments of life.
Most aged-out foster youths like Scott don’t have that “someone.” Many have been in the system for years and have no healthy, trusting relationship with any adult.
“Foster care is supposed to be a temporary, safe place for children,” said Wende Nichols-Julien, a foster parent and CEO of the Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) of Los Angeles. “We’re not using it as a temporary system. … We as a community have a moral responsibility to make sure they have safe families to live with. That’s how we avoid homelessness.” Yet even as the number of children in foster care increases each year to more than 440,000 today, between 30 percent to 50 percent of foster parents drop out of fostering each year.
At Covenant House California (CHC), a nonprofit in Los Angeles and Oakland that serves homeless and trafficked youth ages 18 to 24, about half of the young adults it serves are former foster youth. Every weekday, an outreach team from CHC visits with homeless youth on the streets.
I followed one team to Hollywood one evening. We stocked a van full of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, turkey sandwiches, bags of chips, bottled water, blankets, donated clothes, and hygiene kits, then drove out to a small homeless encampment minutes away from the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
As our van pulled up to the curb, young faces popped out of tents with eager smiles. “We missed you!” cheered one 18-year-old woman named Destiny. A few minutes later, more young adults appeared on their skateboards and bikes. They grabbed sandwiches, pulled out clothes, and tried on sunglasses, chatting away like gossipy teenagers. Out of the six people I talked to, three told me they were former foster kids. One woman suffers from epilepsy, and another told me she sees and hears things and struggles with thoughts of suicide.
But they also have talents and dreams and something else rare among homeless adults: hope and optimism. One 27-year-old man from Minnesota showed me his sketchbook filled with drawings and paintings, telling me he was going to be an artist one day. Another guy told me he makes music, mostly R&B, and believes his talent will gain him eventual fame and success. Another boasted that he was a dancer. Another said he built an online business that earns him $880 a month.
Bill Bedrossian, CEO of Covenant House California, said he and his team use these young adults’ dreams as leverage to motivate them into independence. The longer they work with these youths, the more likelihood of success: Ninety percent of youths who go through CHC’s two-year transitional living programs are able to maintain their independence permanently. That’s why the outreach teams continue to hit the streets and talk to the same kids every day: It’s a way to show them that someone consistently cares for them, day after day, even if they might not be ready for a change yet.
‘Even if everything in my life happened just to bring me to knowledge of who He is, it’s worth it.’ —Keanakay Scott
The child welfare system has improved over the years: The number of kids staying in care for more than five years has dropped. More foster kids end up in adoption. Today, many states allow foster youth to continue in foster care until age 21, giving young adults more time to prepare for emancipation. Many child welfare agencies are also required to develop transition plans and provide “Independent Living Skills” classes that teach skills such as riding the bus, conflict resolution, and cooking.