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Foster care to the streets

Jeff Tyler Jun 28, 2006

TESS VIGELAND: Admit it. Sometime in your early 20s you moved back home for a week. Or maybe you borrowed some money from the folks to help pay the bills for a month or two. Sometimes parents are the only financial backstop available when you’re first striking out on your own. But young adults leaving the foster care system don’t have that option. And studies show they’re much more likely than the general population to end up unemployed, homeless or in jail.

Here in California we boast the sad statistic of the nation’s largest number of foster-care kids. But the state’s new budget doubles funding for transitional foster housing. As Marketplace’s Jeff Tyler tells us, it can’t come soon enough.

JEFF TYLER: When the courts take a child away from unfit parents, the state assumes financial responsibility. In California, it picks up the tab for room and board. When kids hit 18, they have to leave their foster homes.

Child-protection advocate Jacqueline Caster, president of the Every Child Foundation, says group homes can be particularly heartless toward the children:

JACQUELINE CASTER: And this is not an infrequent situation where on their 18th birthday they come home and the locks are changed on their door.

“Emancipated”— that’s the official euphemism. Caster might say it’s the state that gets “set free”from its financial obligations. Every year, roughly 4,000 young adults get aged out of the foster care system.

CASTER: In L.A. county alone, within six months, about half of them are homeless.

California does have a program that provides cheap rent and financial counseling. But as these kids explain, the challenge is getting in.

GIRL: I got on a waiting list for one program, but I wasn’t accepted because I didn’t have a mental illness. They said I was too normal.

LORRENA: I’ve already went to three different interviews and I haven’t got accepted.

Nineteen-year-old Lorrena is a good example of the problem. Caught in a Catch-22, she was evicted from her foster home, even though she is still legally a ward of the court. Ultimately, a different state agency paid for a motel room.

LORRENA: A motel is not a home. So yes, I am homeless.

Sometimes homeless means couch-hopping. Sometimes it means a shelter. For Lorrena, homeless comes with a TV, a mini-refrigerator, and a microwave.

LORRENA:“It’s not comfortable.”

TYLER: Is it home?

LORRENA: Hell no, it’s not home.

It’s basically clean, she says. Except for the bugs.

LORRENA: You know, at night, there’s like little creepy-crawlers and stuff like that. You got to make sure lights are on and stuff.

Still, it’s better than the alternative. The state had offered her a temporary bed in a halfway house. But it was over an hour away from her job. Lorrena doesn’t own a car.

Besides, she liked her job at Rite-Aid and didn’t want to lose it. She didn’t. But the store did cut back her hours as she battled to find a stable home.

Zaid Gayle, with the nonprofit organization Peace-4-Kids, has been working with Lorrena.

ZAID GAYLE: And the only reason why her hours have been cut back at her job is because of all the cases and meetings and all the things that have had to happen in her life. Which have impacted her ability to show up for work. So she’s gone from being a full-time employee, to having those 40 hours cut back to 12.

California’s new budget will double funding for transitional foster housing, to just over $8 million.

Foster-child advocate Amy Lemley with the John Burton Foundation says the new funds will triple the number of beds available. But that’s just a drop in the bucket, she says, and won’t solve the problem for most of those who need accommodation.

AMY LEMLEY: While we are very excited about that, it’s really only about 10 percent of the young people who require these types of services.

The private sector has offered some solutions. Hillsides is an apartment complex in Pasadena, Calif., that offers cheap transitional housing to aged-out foster kids. Other apartments in the development are rented to the general public. The market rentals subsidize the transitional foster units. They also pay for weekly personal finance and job-skills tutorials. Christina Green was once in foster care and is now a resident at Hillsides.

CHRISTINA GREEN: I know how to keep a job. That wasn’t the problem. My problem is, if I don’t have a stable place to live, everything else falls off.

It fell off for Lorrena, the foster kid who was working at Rite-Aid. The court dates and other meetings she had to attend to sort out her housing issues ate up too much time. She lost the job.

For now, she’s still got her place in the motel.

In Los Angeles, I’m Jeff Tyler for Marketplace.

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