Broken Foster System Leaves L.A. Youth Unprepared For Adulthood
It’s a search that began early in life for the 21-year-old. After living in an abusive home for 11 years, Almendarez bounced around foster homes until leaving the system at age 18.
“I do feel alone in this world because I don’t have a family to go home to,” he said. “There is nobody who cares or even asks me how I’m doing.”
But before he can find a family, Almendarez needs to find a place to live. He's been homeless off and on since leaving foster care.
Almendarez, who lives in Granada Hills, had been sleeping in his red 1994 GMC Sierra up until two weeks ago when it broke down in Camarillo, about 40 miles away.
A mechanic told him it wasn’t worth repairing, so he abandoned the truck and now sleeps on top of bags of his clothing on the garage floor of a friend’s family home. He didn't want to burden them by asking for a mattress or even a blanket.
Almendarez’s story is not unique.
Children’s rights experts estimate that somewhere between 25 and 40 percent of foster youth become homeless within 18 months of aging out of the system.
Elizabeth Calvin, a researcher with Human Rights Watch, criticized the foster care model for failing to prepare children for adulthood.
“The level of responsibility at the state is huge,” Calvin said. “When the state decides to remove a child or a young person from his or her home and place that child in foster care—it’s as if the state becomes that child’s parent."
Calvin noted that in the United States, parents and families on average don’t stop assisting their children financially until they reach the age of 26.
“If the state determines that it should take the place of a child’s parents then it shouldn’t [cut off financial aid either] either,” she said. She also pointed out the fact that most foster youth are on their own by the age of 19 is a large factor in why many of them become homeless.
Lacking crucial life skills
After interviewing hundreds of former foster youth across the state, Calvin found foster parents weren't teaching them the most basic life skills—how to cook, clean or apply for a job.
Almendarez said he doesn’t remember being taught any of that. He said his foster parents and social workers rarely discussed building a better future for him. Instead, they mostly lectured him.
“The thing I hated the most was the drug (lecture), all the damn time,” he said. “Sometimes they had the financial stuff and some good stuff for us to learn, but every single week we had to go to (drug or sex education) as if we were all bad kids and nothing else mattered.”
According to Los Angeles County's Department of Children and Family Services, skills training and life coaching are available to foster youth ages 14 to 21.
Social workers meet with kids in this age group every six months to discuss a transition plan—things like college, job training and where they want to live, according to Harvey Kawasaki, who works in youth development services at the department.
“The problem is that our funding stipulates that additional programs all have to be voluntary,” he said about the department’s six-week life skills classroom where kids learn how to balance a checkbook, shop for food and prevent identity theft.
He said that about 1,500 youth participate in the program—about 10 percent of children in foster care according to the department’s February report.
Additionally, Kawasaki said, the department offers assistance after youth leave the system with things like finding housing or paying for college. But a lot of the kids don’t take them up on it.
“For most of them who have been in the system all their lives, leaving it means freedom,” Kawasaki said. “So they turn down help in favor of independence without realizing how hard it actually is in the real world.”
He said he believes that need for independence is a major reason a lot of youth end up homeless.
Almendarez said he tried to take advantage of those programs but often didn’t know they existed until it was too late.
“I just found out two years later that I could have been getting grants to go to school,” he said. “But now I can’t because I’ve been out of the program for too long.”
The emotional toll
Almendarez describes days where he is depressed beyond reason—days where all he wants is someone to show him sympathy or support.
“I need someone to give me a hug so bad, but because I don’t have that, instead I go and I get drunk,” he said. “I’m starting to lose my will to even fight to accomplish anything if I don’t have anybody to acknowledge it.”
The lack of support is one of the biggest reasons young people struggle, Calvin said.
“Generally people think of teenagers and young adults as uninterested in what their elders have to say," she said, "but the truth of the matter is that most young people do look for and crave input from adults."
She said that almost all of the young people she talked to said they had no one they could call to take them to the hospital in case of an emergency.
Shimia Gray knows no other way of life than foster care. She was placed in the system when she was born because both of her parents were habitual drug abusers.
For her entire life, Gray said, she has felt like she's had to do everything on her own, without the support of a mentor or family.
She lived in a transitional housing project after leaving foster care but never felt like the people there cared about her future.
“To me, I always felt like it was just funding,” Gray said. “I was another kid to get funding.”
The 22-year-old said living without a support system has been one of the hardest parts of being homeless because she doesn’t know who to ask for help or advice.
Calvin said while it’s hard to mandate relationships or friendships, the state should make it so these long-lasting supportive roles are built into the role of a foster parent or social worker.
“They need to know that it’s a part of their job to create ongoing relationships,” she said.
An uphill battle
For most foster kids, once they leave the system and become homeless, it becomes increasingly difficult for them to get back on their feet.
“When you don’t have a place to live, it kind of makes it hard for you to want to go to school and look for a job,” Gray said. “It’s like, ‘How do I pick up and start these things without a place to live?’”
Gray currently lives on the streets, taking comfort in the days few and far between when she can crash on a friend’s couch.
When she was 19 and living in transitional housing, one of the requirements was to go to school and work full-time. She hadn’t graduated high school before leaving foster care.
But she couldn’t keep up with both and had to leave the program. She credits not getting enough support to finish high school as the main reason she is currently homeless.
“Honestly for me, (going to school and working) was too much," Gray said. "Some people can do that, but basically I was working more than going to school so I never got the chance to finish—which obviously (made it) hard to become employed.”
Once she got kicked out of transitional housing for failing to graduate high school, she couldn’t make enough money to support her own housing. And because she didn’t have a high school degree, she couldn’t find a better paying job.
“And once you don’t have a place to live, it’s hard to make sure you can get to work or save for an apartment,” Gray said of the downward spiral that followed.
In 2008, California lawmakers passed legislation that aims to keep youth in foster care past age 18 in the hopes that more time in the system will better prepare them for adulthood.
But Calvin said simply keeping a child in foster care longer is not the answer. There needs to be a fundamental change in how children are treated during that period.
“One of the things that I am very hopeful about is that people are really looking at how we make that time period something different from the 15 to 18 time period,” she said, adding the focus needs to be on education and preparing for adulthood.
Gray isn't so optimistic.
She said people like her who are in the system for the majority of their lives start to treat it as a crutch. Before they turn 18, the state is legally obligated to take care of them no matter what they do. Gray said extending care would only further enable that type of behavior.
“A lot of the people I know who became homeless did it after 20 anyway,” she said. “I do hope it gets better for future kids, but I honestly don’t see any change.”
As for Gray, who's been begging for money since December, she said her own prospects look equally dire.
“Nothing really phases me or keeps me happy or really makes me smile anymore. I can’t laugh with my friend’s anymore or even care what’s going on in their lives,” Gray said. “It’s very depressing.”
Reach Contributor Molly Gray here.