On the edge

rebeccab@sfbg.com

It’s a strange and daunting time for anyone just starting out, but youth who age out of foster care are up against particularly harsh challenges.

In July, the national unemployment rate for 16- to 24-year-olds reached a staggering 51 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. A recent article in The New York Times Magazine described how, in the face of a bleak job market, 20-somethings today are far more likely than those in past generations to go back to school, travel, volunteer, or complete unpaid internships — extending a phase of impermanence and financial dependency for years beyond what used to be considered the norm. Studies show that nearly half of youth between ages 18 and 25 move back home with their parents at least once.

But young people aging out of the foster care system typically have to face this world of churning uncertainty without the benefit of a safety net. Many post-foster care youth don’t have the luxury of “failing to launch,” embarking on an early career path without pay, or landing back home if nothing else pans out. Foster youth lose their support base at 18, when the state ceases to be their legal guardian. For these young people, who are often the least equipped to achieve financial self-sufficiency, becoming emancipated as a legal adult is no cause for celebration; rather, it’s a source of anxiety.

Most foster youth lack the skills, connections, and resources they would need to transition to independence at age 18 — a prospect that would be difficult even for youth with greater access to resources and no major family history problems. Studies measuring the outcomes for this population paint a grim picture: many wind up homeless, incarcerated, or at risk of losing children of their own by the time they reach their early 20s.

There’s a growing awareness that many of the approximately 5,000 youth who age out of foster care in California every year are slipping through the cracks. Local and state programs have been initiated to improve their chances of achieving independence, but efforts on both fronts have run up against obstacles.

In Sacramento, Assembly Bill 12 — which extends key services for foster youth to age 21 — was signed into law several weeks ago, but the intentions behind it were undermined when Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger issued a line-item veto of $80 million in funding for child welfare programs. In San Francisco, a housing facility designed for youth at risk of homelessness seems to hold promise as an effective model, yet it has encountered resistance from local neighborhood organizations.

The plight of these young people is both a measure of our compassion and potentially a harbinger of larger societal problems to come.

HIGH STAKES

Kirsten Johnson-Bell is an emancipated youth who turned 18 in January. She has six siblings still in foster care in the East Bay, and she says she has been in more than 20 foster care placements since 2007.

Johnson-Bell told the Guardian that she has housing assistance that will last for 18 months — but she’s already beginning to wonder what will happen after that. “Where am I supposed to go?” Johnson-Bell wondered. If the experience of her peers who’ve exited the system is any indication, her concern is well founded.

Nationwide, nearly 40 percent of post-foster-care youth have been homeless at some point by the time they turn 24, according to survey results released by the University of Chicago and Partners for Our Children at the University of Washington. Just 6 percent had completed college degrees by that age, and only 48 percent were working — mostly in low-wage jobs. More than half of the young men had been convicted of crimes, and roughly three-quarters of the young women had received government benefits to meet basic needs. Teen pregnancy is statistically higher among young women exiting foster care.

Most youth in foster care aren’t housed continuously with a single caregiver, but bounce from place to place, making it tough to form long-lasting relationships. “It’s a fairly rare experience that youth stay in one home, and that means moving schools and moving friends,” notes Rachel Antrobus, executive director of Transitional Age Youth San Francisco (TAY SF), a city-funded nonprofit. Many foster kids take medication for behavioral problems, and it’s common for them to experience emotional upheaval.

“It’s practically inevitable that they’re going to have long-term emotional impacts,” Antrobus said, noting many bear the long-term scars of abuse, neglect, or forced separation from their families for some other reason. “It’s a much longer road, and they have to do it with deeper wounds. Even the kids that are the most together … will likely experience some really dark places in their 20s.”

In San Francisco, there are 1,400 young people in the foster care system, and all but about 500 are in placements outside the city. Lynette Davis, who turned 18 this year, moved from San Francisco to Oakland when she first entered foster care in the eighth grade. Davis acknowledges that she was one of the lucky ones. Rather than move in with a stranger, she went to live with her godmother and remained there until her 18th birthday.

Davis is now living with her boyfriend and his family in Oakland — and the household was in the process of moving when the Guardian spoke with her. Her godmother offered to continue housing her after she turned 18, Davis noted. “But she’s got her own kids. I felt like I should be able to go off and do my own thing.” The requirement in either housing situation is that she must work, go to school, or both, Davis said. She’s attending classes at Oakland’s Merritt College. In the meantime, she’s mired in the frustrating exercise of applying for job after job.

“It’s been pretty ridiculous,” Davis said of her fruitless job hunt. “Sometimes it makes me want to stop and give up. But as long as you’ve got people around you who care about you, it’s okay.”

Many foster kids who didn’t have the support network that Davis did are up against alarmingly high stakes as they age out. “Some people are mothers and they have to pay rent and are looking for more than two jobs,” she said. Asked what she thought were the greatest challenges facing foster youth in San Francisco, she mentioned poverty, gangs, and a lack of job opportunities.

“To be successful, you have to be financially stable,” she said. “With some youth, that’s hard. They don’t have jobs, or they can’t get jobs. They want to find an easy way out.” That’s when they become more susceptible to gangs or drugs, she said. Davis says she was a “rebellious youth” at a younger age, but now she’s focused on her goal of obtaining a degree in psychology so that one day she can go into counseling. When she became a member of California Youth Connections, which aids youth with transitional support, she met other foster youth and realized she could really have an impact.

HELP OR HARM?

The difference between ages 18 and 21 can be critical, so foster youth advocates throughout the state cheered Sept. 30 when AB12, California’s Fostering Connections to Success Act, was signed into law. It allows California to make use of federal matching funds to provide transitional support for qualifying foster youth until age 21. It also authorizes the state to take advantage of a federal subsidy for an existing guardianship program for relatives of foster youth who want to become caregivers. Many foster youth advocates have thrown support behind the kin caregiver model — it can be less traumatic for youth to move in with a grandparent than being suddenly dropped into a strange place.

A major sponsor of A 12 was the John Burton Foundation for Children Without Homes, and policy director Amy Lemley hailed its passage as “the biggest child-welfare improvement in 20 years.” Studies show that youth who receive support beyond 18 are 200 percent more likely to be working toward completion of a high school diploma, 65 percent less likely to have been arrested, and 54 percent less likely to have been incarcerated than those who exit with no support. The benefits could also generate savings by reducing the number of people in prison, on welfare, or in need of publicly funded health and human services. The law will be implemented in 2012.

The law also will provide new housing options. The federal government will chip in to cover more placements in the Transitional Housing Program Plus — nearly axed during the last budget cycle — which offers supervised transitional housing for emancipated youth. Youth may also receive a rent subsidy that could apply in a dorm, a shared-living situation, or another arrangement that fits the youth’s needs. This flexibility is a positive change, Lemley noted. “We’re not telling young people ‘it’s our way or the highway,'<0x2009>” she said.

“If a state like California can do this in the context of its current fiscal deficit, it sends a strong signal to other states,” Lemley said. However, an unexpected line-item veto put a damper on the landmark achievement. Schwarzenegger dealt a blow to the child-welfare system by cutting $80 million in funding for programs the California Legislature had restored, which actually amounts to more like $133 million due to the loss of federal matching funds.

“It’s really just a schizophrenic policy on the governor’s part,” Lemley said. “We were hoping he would have a legacy of the foster care governor, but now it doesn’t seem as if he will have that legacy at all.”

While the deep budget cut isn’t aimed at AB12 directly, Lemley said, it erodes funding for child-welfare workers and forces counties to make painful funding cuts. The overarching effect is that abuse and neglect may go undetected more often, and youth in the system will have fewer available resources once they’re placed.

ANOTHER CHANCE

Of all the challenges facing foster youth who age out of the system, housing is among the most critical, particularly in San Francisco. A partnership between the city, Larkin Street Youth Services, and nonprofit developer Community Housing Partnership (CHP) aims to address this by providing a space for transitional-age youth who wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford housing in the city. Located at the King Edward II Inn near Cow Hollow and the Marina district, the facility would house 24 young people, ages 18 to 24, who are at risk of homelessness.

“By definition, that includes youth aging out of foster care,” explains David Schnur of CHP. The nonprofits are working in tandem with the city’s Human Services Agency and Mayor’s Office of Housing.

Youth housed at Edward II would have access to physical and mental health care, substance abuse and HIV-related services, education and job training, coaching in basic life skills such as budgeting and personal hygiene, and case management, Schnur said. They would be required to contribute a portion of their income, whatever the amount, toward rent.

However, an organized force of opposition has already surfaced from the surrounding community, which comprises one of San Francisco’s wealthiest neighborhoods. “I think people are just nervous about what it means to have a building of this type in the neighborhood,” Schnur noted. To assuage neighborhood concerns, the nonprofits have set up a project advisory committee in hopes of talking it out and bringing everyone on board.

Patricia Vaughey, with the Marina-Cow Hollow Neighbors, is actively opposed to the project but insists that it isn’t out of NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) concerns. “We are not NIMBYs,” she told the Guardian. “We want to find a location that’s suitable. We want to make sure those kids are safe.” She said that criminal activity in the neighborhood made the inn a poor choice. Yet advocates insist that for the youth, the program could mean the difference between a lifetime of hardship and a chance to get their lives on track at a crucial age. “The safety net for these young people is so thin,” Lemley noted. “You might have one person, you might have another. But then the winds of change blow and suddenly the bloom falls off the rose.”

Our 44th Anniversary Issue also includes stories by Sarah Phelan on SF’s disadvantaged youth, Caitlin Donohue’s account of the Haight street kids, and Tim Redmond’s editorial on the issues facing our rising generation