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Many Youths Become Homeless When The Age Out of Foster care. It Almost Happened to Me

Many Youths Become Homeless When The Age Out of Foster care It Almost Happened to Me
Date Posted: Wednesday, November 2nd, 2022

The day after I graduated from high school, my foster mom inexplicably asked me to move out — even though I had nowhere to go.

Every year tens of thousands of youths age out of the U.S. foster care system. In 1995, I became one of them on my 18th birthday.

I was just two months into my freshman year at the University of Pennsylvania. I was focused on navigating a new learning environment in a new city I had just moved to, sight unseen, where I knew no one. I recall no pomp and circumstance around my birthday that year. All I remember was the clock striking midnight and suddenly I was 18, vacillating between tears and pure happiness. It was the age I’d been looking forward to for years, but one I wasn’t sure I’d reach.

I had been placed in foster care as a teenager after experiencing abuse in the home of a biological parent. Even after gaining a safer environment, it was difficult for me to imagine turning 18. That started to change the year beforehand; after I was accepted to UPenn, I very naively thought I was in the clear. After a rocky childhood filled with uncertainty and insecurity, it felt like my life was finally beginning to smooth out and take shape: I just had to make it through the spring and summer, when I would defeat the odds by not only graduating from high school but heading off to an Ivy League university. (According to the National Foster Youth Institute, only 50% of foster kids graduate high school, and just 3% to 4% graduate from a four-year college.)

But my hopes of a seamless transition were dashed the day after my high school graduation in California. As I was loading my laundry into the washer, my foster mother came out of her room to inform me that she wanted me to leave. She gave little explanation other than that, in her view, I had to go. It was the only foster home I’d ever been in and suddenly I felt as though all my fears were coming true and all my dreams were ruined.

Part of being a foster kid means permanence is always out of reach; you can be removed from your foster home at any moment through no fault of your own. I was a good kid, with good grades, but I worried about this possibility almost obsessively. I made sure I never amassed too many belongings so packing would be fast and easy. And I’d sometimes pick up neighborhood circulars on my way to school to look at how much studio apartments cost, just in case I had nowhere to go. I’d do the math in my head to determine whether I’d be able to afford a studio on the money I made from my after-school job, combined with the small allowance one of my biological grandparents gave me each week. I had nowhere near enough to afford to live on my own, a sobering reality that was difficult to process.

I knew what independent living would look like because I worked after school for an independent-living skills program in San Diego that was meant to prepare foster youths like me to live on our own. It took an active role in our lives, teaching us everything from how to do our laundry to how to find an apartment. Caseworkers took us to get our birth certificates, Social Security cards, and state IDs. They also took us clothes shopping for job interviews and shuttled military hopefuls to expectant recruiters.

The goal was to make sure that by the time each foster teen reached the still fragile but technically adult age of 18, they had a robust plan that detailed how they would survive on their own after leaving the system. (California youths now are able to stay in the foster care system until they turn 21.) Before facing the possibility I’d end up homeless instead of starting my freshman year of college, I’d already been exposed to what happened when those plans fell through.

Many teens the program worked with were told by foster parents and friends that they could stay beyond their 18th birthdays, only to be informed on or shortly after those milestones that they were no longer welcome. The teens would call us hoping we could provide some of the same services we did before they turned 18. They’d hope we could help them with a new place to stay, a new job, or a ride to a recruiter so they could quickly transition into military service where they’d be guaranteed food, housing, and a job in one fell swoop. But since they had legally aged out, all we could provide were the names and numbers of homeless shelters and other services available to adults who had no place to stay, little to no money, and nowhere else to turn.

Some of the teens opted to stay with friends temporarily to give them enough time to join the military. Others ended up couch surfing from place to place, often creating waves with friends that landed them back out on the street. (Between 40% and 50% of foster youth face homelessness within the first 18 months after leaving the foster care system, according to a report in Foster Focus magazine.)

I was able to stay with a high school administrator for the summer who ensured I kept on track and made it to college in the fall. Even though I had received no direct services since leaving my foster home, on my 18th birthday I felt the loss of a safety net that had provided at least a modicum of security for several years during my teens. Finally, I was really and truly independent and responsible for myself in every way and no longer at the mercy of a system set up only to provide temporary support. Now that I had been handed the keys to adulthood, I was scared but hopeful that I would continue to thrive.

Every year since then, I approach my birthday as my personal New Year. I try to take some time away from the world to reflect on the entirety of my life and show gratitude for the life I’ve been so fortunate to live. Part of this yearly reflection includes appreciation for the many people who stepped up and made sure I didn’t fall through the cracks like so many of my peers in the system did. Their harrowing stories and the precariousness of that transition from youth to adulthood are never far from my mind or my heart.

According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation, more than 20,000 youths age out of the U.S. foster care system each year. Whenever I blow out the candles on my birthday cake, I imagine blowing out 20,000 — one for each foster youth who, for the first time, will feel the bittersweet taste of independence.

Source: Nicole A. Childers/Today.com

Date Posted: Wednesday, November 2nd, 2022 , Total Page Views: 1733

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