Laura Mustari and Richard. “In 1990 we at YMCA had to provide services for every young person in the county who was targeted."
Leaving home is one of the defining events of growing up. The first taste of freedom from parental boundaries can be exhilarating. But for teens in San Diego County’s foster care system who have lost contact with their parents and who can no longer expect support from their foster parents, leaving home may be the ultimate disconnect.
Laura Mustari and Dana Allen. "We had a young woman who had been in the program with us from 16 to 18. About six months later she was homeless again, living with an abusive boyfriend."
Emancipate means literally to set free. For foster kids it means court jurisdiction is terminated and they no longer have a foster home. Some teens are emancipated on their 18th birthday, others after graduating from high school. In rare cases, 16-year-olds petition the court for emancipation, usually because they are already living on their own. Last year in San Diego County, approximately 200 foster kids were emancipated. Some went to college, some found work, and some ended up on the street.
Sheila at Turning Point. “They have an eleven o’clock curfew at night. If it’s broken there is a $10 fine and loss of the next weekend pass."
Between 1990 and 1998, three studies — the Barth study of 1990, the Westat study of 1992, and the Courtney and Piliavin study of 1998 — looked at foster kids 18 months to four years after they’d emancipated. A glance at the results is troubling. Among some of the grimmer statistics:
• 53 percent reported serious financial hardships
• 35 percent were homeless or moved frequently
• 46 percent had not completed high school
• 42 percent had borne or fathered a child
• 44 percent reported problems with acquiring needed medical care
• 27 percent of males and 10 percent of females were incarcerated at least once
Jennifer Paulito: "I share with them my experiences: How to open a bank account, how to look for a rent space, roommates, go grocery shopping."
In San Diego, foster kids facing emancipation have three safety nets. When they turn 16, they can enter a program called Independent Living Skills that teaches budgeting, apartment hunting, and other skills they will need when they leave the system. After emancipation, former foster kids under 21 can tap into After Care, which offers assistance with housing, job search, and education, as well as access to some of the Independent Living Skills programs. The third net, Transitional Living, provides housing to those with nowhere else to turn.
Stephanie Beazley: "We feel it takes about 18 months to establish a good savings account."
The County of San Diego oversees the Independent Living Skills and After Care programs, which are run by various contractors. In his Linda Vista office, Assistant Deputy Director for Health and Human Services Ed Cadena and Section Chief Heather Shorack discuss the problem of preparing foster kids to live on their own.
Group meeting at Turning Point. Tonya Hall: "My parents were using drugs, but two years down the line, they got clean and we went back home."
“When they turn 16,” Cadena says, “we’re required to provide — offer — Independent Living Skills services to them. But Independent Living Skills is a voluntary program, so the youth can opt not to participate in the services.”
Teenagers have a natural tendency to scorn help from adults, and the program becomes available to them at the rebellious age of 16. “That’s what we’re struggling with,” Cadena says. “We’d like to see all of them participate in these services.”
Of the 1236 eligible — including foster kids 16 to 18, wards of the county from youth on probation, and former foster kids under 21 — fewer than half participate. “They all think they already know this stuff,” Shorack says. “That’s the most common excuse. The other thing is, they have other activities.
“From day one, we try to engage them in the services, and the contracted service providers, as part of their contract, continue to do outreach with them using phone calls and flyers — trying to get them involved not only in the core curriculum that they offer but also in the special events and programs that they have throughout the year.”
“We are making a special effort this year,” Shorack says. “We want to encourage these kids to participate because we see the benefits. The youth who’ve gone through the program say it’s very beneficial, and some who missed out said that they really wish that they knew about the program a little bit more. So when we assess these kids, we explain what’s offered. The social workers and probation officers make phone calls now to those who are not participating, and that’s in addition to what the contractors are doing.”
Cadena explains what After Care Services provides to young adults who have left foster care. “In California, every foster youth is eligible for MediCal coverage until they’re 21 — that’s relatively new. They’re also eligible for case-management services through the contracted service providers in each of the regions of the county. That means someone will be assigned to work with the youth one-on-one to address their employment, housing, and educational needs. They’ll work with them as long as it takes to stabilize them and develop an ongoing plan.”
What kind of challenges do foster kids face when suddenly left on their own? According to Shorack, housing poses the worst problem. “I always remember this one youth. She was really articulate. She said, ‘I had a great 18th birthday, but within 24 hours I was on the street.’ That really touched me. If you do not have stable housing, you cannot find a job and you can’t really go to school.”
Cadena has no statistics for how pervasive homelessness is locally among former foster kids. “It doesn’t come to our attention frequently, except on a case-by-case basis. We know from studies about the percentages, and it can vary, depending on how you define homelessness. They can have episodes where there’s a short period of time without a home. We’re seeing that housing is a tremendous issue across the board in San Diego. Southern California is expensive and the vacancy rate is so low.”
“The University of Wisconsin did a nationwide study in 1998,” Shorack says, “and found that 40 to 55 percent of the [emancipated] kids — I don’t remember the exact number, but it was very high — were homeless, sometimes for just one night, sometimes longer.
“We had to assist a youth who became homeless the other night,” Shorack says. “He was living with one aunt after he was emancipated. He was going to a university out of state, but the first year was so tough for him. He couldn’t make it. When he returned on his break, he didn’t go back. So he was living with this aunt in an overcrowded place. That family had a lot of problems, so he had to move to another aunt, but he could not stay there either because of other problems, so he became homeless. My social worker heard about it, so we made an arrangement with a hotel in South Bay and we paid one week’s hotel fees and gave him some food money and bus tokens, so he’s looking for a more permanent place at this point. He wants to go back to school, but these kids have gone through a lot of difficult times and have psychological problems in addition to the schoolwork itself and dealing with their own emotions. It’s really difficult.”
“They come into foster care for abuse or neglect issues,” Cadena says, “and some of these youth have lost contact with their family or have no sense of connection with their family. There’s a sense of isolation. It’s really touching to me when you hear their background and the stories and issues about why they came into out-of-home care and everything they’ve had to go through — it’s always heart-wrenching.”
Despite the many heart-wrenching cases, there are also success stories. “Last year,” Shorack says, “we had 69 kids who went to community college in San Diego and 15 went to a four-year college last year after being emancipated. Still, lots of kids have psychological difficulties adjusting to school life, so some schools offer special programs targeted at emancipated foster kids, like the Guardian Scholar program at Cal State Fullerton.”
“They focus on foster youth,” Cadena says. “They have ten slots that are specifically for foster youth that have exited care, and it’s an all-inclusive scholarship. It even covers their break time, so that they’re not homeless during the Christmas break and other times. A lot of kids are eligible. They’re really eligible for quite a bit when they exit the foster care system, so we try to maximize that.”
“We provide financial aid program information,” Shorack says, “and we have a college-bound workshop that includes taking the kids on a college tour.”
Without the normal family support during the transitional period that follows high school, foster alumni not in a college dorm may find support in Transitional Living. “San Diego has several transitional housing resource programs in place,” Cadena says. “In the North Central region and here, San Diego Youth and Community Services has the Take Wing program, which is not exclusively for former foster youth, but they do emphasize them as the population they target. That program provides housing and an array of on-site services. The YMCA offers the Turning Point program in the Central region — near San Diego State. That’s a really good program. They use a big apartment complex so that the youth actually live in units dispersed in this apartment complex. Then there’s Trolley Trestles, who also have a transitional housing program for former foster youth. If youth are struggling, we want to assist them, and these programs are there for them.”
Independent Living Skills programs are provided by various independent contractors. Each contractor serves a specific area of the county, which is broken into six regions: Central, South Bay, North Inland, North Central, North Coast, and East. In the Central region, the program is offered by the YMCA.
Located on Centre Street in Hillcrest, the YMCA Youth and Family Services Center is a three-story, gray, ultramodern concrete structure. It stands out among the older houses of the neighborhood, most of which were built in the 1920s. Inside, warmly lit hallways lead to offices and meeting rooms. Dana Allen is in charge of the living-skills program for the Central region. Laura Mustari, her boss, is the executive director of Youth and Family Services. Serving 300 youths a year, the YMCA is the largest and was the first Independent Living Skills contractor in San Diego County.
Mustari recalls when the program started. “We had to provide services for every young person in the county who was targeted to the program. That was in 1990. In 1999 the county regionalized the program and broke it up into six districts — including this region.”
Allen explains the program. “What happens is, at 16 they’re referred to our program. We start working with them on all of the things that the program focuses on, such as education, employment, housing, health care, social skills, communications skills, almost any area you would need to be successful and live on your own.
“Each youth is assigned a case manager. We have classes in three areas of this region each week that cover all the skills. We have a youth center that is open here 35 hours per week. Once a month we have a workshop or special event where we focus on a topic — January was scholarship and financial-aid information, in February we took the youth on a tour of City College, and in March we did a tax-information workshop. Every Friday, we do a peer group at the youth center, and Papa John’s provides pizza for that, and we are also starting a movie night on Fridays following peer group. At the peer group, we have a facilitator from our staff, and a member from Teen Link Community Project comes over, and together they work the youth through a ten-week session.”
Allen notes that most of the kids in the program are working at a disadvantage they hope not to pass on to their own children. “Probably nine out of ten youth who attend are not parents, but they realize that they didn’t have good role models in parenting, so they’re excited to learn how they could be a good parent when that time in their life comes.”
Case managers are the critical link in the program, and among the many roles they take on for teens, Allen finds mentoring to be the most important. “Typically a teen in [the Independent Living Skills program] from foster care has been in a lot of different places — sometimes 14, 15, 16 different placements. Different homes, different foster parents, different schools. When you’re a teenager, you’re not very likely to get adopted. You’re going to be in foster care for the long haul so [your social worker needs] to get you stabilized in foster care. The social worker’s role is to make sure that the housing and living situation is stabilized and that legally everything is stabilized. We emphasize to our youth that the case manager is not another social worker. We’re not here to tell you what to do; we’re here to sit across the table from you and ask you what you want to do with your life. Because there is going to come a time when somebody is not going to be telling you where to move next or what school to go to or to get out of bed and do all these things. A time will come when you’re going to have to make some tough choices — adult choices. There are studies that show most youth leave home now at the average age of 26. Foster youth are leaving home at 18. And they tend to be even less equipped than youth growing up in a typical home. We’re asking them to do something quite incredible. What 16- or 17-year-old wants to start saving all of their money for an apartment, really planning and being very, very responsible for every area of their life? They want to be teenagers. They don’t want to have to think about when they’re 18 and 19. And, emotionally, many of them are much younger than that.
“So the case manager helps that youth establish a goal. Maybe it’s ‘I want to be the first person in my family to graduate from high school’ or ‘I want to get my own apartment’ or ‘I want to go to City College’ or ‘I want to go to Berkeley’ or ‘I want to be a mechanic’ — whatever it is. They help them coordinate and organize everything in their life so they can work toward that goal.”
“Below the surface,” Mustari says, “the case manager is almost like a substitute parent.”
Another problem Allen finds is that the survival skills that foster kids have acquired aren’t always conducive to a stable adult life. “These youth are very resilient, and they’ve learned how to survive day to day. In their experiences growing up, they didn’t know what next week was going to be like. They get in a mind-set that ‘I just can’t plan long term. Am I going to have a place to live tomorrow night? Will I have food on my table tonight?’ That’s the mentality of most of the foster youth. The case manager tries to empower the youth by getting them to plan long term and see that if you say you want to be, say, a football star — there’s a certain way to get there. And along the way you might find that it really isn’t what you want to do, and there’s a lot of other options.”
Like Cadena and Shorack, Mustari says the biggest threat emancipated foster kids face is homelessness. ymca Youth and Family Services has had some success in reducing that prospect. “A couple of years ago, we opened a pilot project called Transitional Living. We had a young woman who had been in the program with us from 16 to 18, and her case manager worked with her and placed her in City College. About six months later she was homeless again, living with an abusive boyfriend. So we saw the need, but there wasn’t a lot of funding out there at the time. The local Family Foundation provided us with some seed money, and we opened up a 4-bed transitional living program for young people aging out of foster care called Turning Point. It’s now a 20-bed facility, and we’ve gotten some additional operating money.”
“What literally happens to many of the youth,” Allen says, “is on their 18th birthday they are kicked out of foster care. The foster parent is not receiving payment for them anymore, so if that foster parent is only in it for the money, they’ll kick that kid out on his 18th birthday. Just to give you a visual, many youth don’t have many belongings, but they do have a few — you can imagine moving every few months, you’ll just keep what you need. A lot of them don’t even have luggage. So they will walk out with just a trash bag over their shoulder. Where are they going to go? They’ve been taken away from Mom or Dad — that’s not a safe place. They’ve moved around so much that a lot of them haven’t established a real solid, core support group in terms of friends, or they’ve chosen abusive partners because that’s kind of their mode of operating — getting attached to people who can’t meet their emotional needs — so they get themselves in a really dysfunctional relationship. Or they have parents that are really dysfunctional and the parents need the foster youth to take care of them. Finally, the youth don’t have credit, so they’ll say, ‘I’m going to go get my own apartment,’ but the reality is, you have to have a really good job. You can’t just make minimum wage and have your own apartment. So Turning Point is a really good alternative for them.”
Foster kids face some negative stereotypes. The most common, as Allen describes it, is “ ‘Oh, he’s in foster care? He must be a bad kid’ or ‘He must have done something wrong.’ When in fact, 99.9 percent of the time they are taken out of their home, not for something they have done but because they have been abused or neglected in some way. Many have not had positive role models in their formative years, which is why there is a higher rate of incarceration. They’re lacking a mentor or someone consistent in their life to engage with or be a leader and guide. Probably about 25 to 30 percent of the kids in [the Independent Living Skills program] are on some kind of probation, but they don’t cause us any problems. It’s a voluntary program. Juvenile court judges are starting to crack down on social workers, saying, ‘You need to be referring the youth to this program.’ We can’t take them out of the home, tell them it’s better for them to be here, then at 18 wish them good luck and hope everything works out for them. We don’t back away and go in a corner. We try to figure out some angle where we can reach the youth. The reality is, the youth have had numerous social workers at that point in their life, so the tendency is that they don’t want another one.
“Even though we have a smaller percentage of youth who are 18 or older,” Allen continues, “we service them until they turn 21. That’s a smaller percentage of our youth, but more of our time goes to that population. It’s because they’re the ones that are homeless, they’re the ones that need a job right away, have medical issues, and so forth. What we try to work with them on is basic stuff like getting interviewing attire for them, get donations of bags [luggage] for them. The case manager is always asking, ‘What’s the barrier in this youth’s life?’ He really wants to make things happen, and that case manager is going to do whatever he can. We’re trying not to create dependency, but independence.”
Allen describes a specialized need one of her caseworkers recently met. “We had a foster youth who wasn’t coming and participating in classes and activities, and we found out that he had a pretty serious case of diabetes. Besides the insulin, he had to do the testing by pricking himself daily. His case manager finally went to the home to find out what was going on and saw his hand with sores and bruises all over it. He didn’t want to go out in public and he wasn’t feeling well. So this case manager got on the phone and, within a day, contacted a company that has a system that can test blood sugar levels without pricking yourself. It was worth about $450, and she got the company to donate one to the youth. So now he was able to get work and get more involved with coming to classes. Again, it’s ‘What’s the barrier?’ They need someone to be their advocate.
“These youth don’t come in here looking for miracles and we can’t give that to them,” Allen says. “They have to be willing to do the footwork, but we hope to be that guidance for them. We will provide employment services and housing services to every youth that needs them. Whether they follow through is a whole different story. Some of the largest issues they are going to face is learning how to live on their own, and that’s really what our program is all about: helping them to become successful adults.”
Allen realizes that even good foster parents carry a burden that makes it difficult to meet all the needs of their charges. “Let’s face it. Some foster parents are really altruistic people that love children and want to make a difference. So, hopefully, when a teenager turns 18, they aren’t kicked out immediately. The problem is, there are really not enough foster parents. What’s happening is that someone agrees to become a foster parent and they have numerous children and teenagers placed with them, and they are trying to balance it. There are rules for being a foster parent — things you can and can’t do — so in trying to balance everyone’s schedule and all the rules, they get burned out. There just aren’t enough good foster parents. And a lot of young people haven’t learned how to bond or don’t want to bond. Some young people are fortunate in that they connect with the foster home and they can bond there. Jen’s a good example. She became part of a family.”
Jennifer Paulito, 24, sits in the youth center quietly working on a computer. She is short, shy, and blushes as if she would like to disappear. Even so, she speaks articulately and shows remarkable ambition. “I was a foster youth from age 12 until I was 18. I was already out of the system looking for work and had no job. I didn’t really have any experience. I was also an [Independent Living Skills] participant, and one of the case managers contacted me when I was looking for employment. I was interviewed and they ended up telling me that there was a youth worker position for the Independent Living Skills program. I was hired on as part-time and worked part-time for about two years, then I was hired on as the program assistant. From there I was offered a full-time position as a peer educator.”
Working as a peer educator allows Paulito to help others succeed at experiences she has been through. “I do a lot of outreach calls, telling them about our program. I share with them my experiences: How to open a bank account, how to look for a rent space, roommates, go grocery shopping, how to write a simple résumé, how to fill out job applications — things like that.”
Her background as a foster youth gives her credibility. “Emancipating was kind of hard. I didn’t want to go back home because things were still unstable and I didn’t want to fall back on them. I’d said that I was doing great in the system. My foster parents, who I still keep in contact with, were able to keep me until I was able to get on my own. I was emancipated right when I turned 18 — I had left high school [Montgomery High], but I went back to get my diploma at adult school. I can really, really relate to the youth and they relate to me. They sort of attach to me, and I can get at their level and tell them what I’ve gone through. When they say how hard it is to find a job or get through school, I understand the kind of stress they’re going through, because I’ve been there before. I give them hope and encourage them. I really like what I’m doing.”
Paulito’s foster parents kept her beyond emancipation and she recently got her own place. She hopes that more foster parents will show the same concern for their charges. “Take the time to talk to your foster youth. Tell them that you’ve heard about the program. If they’re not too into it, offer to help. Say to them, ‘Let’s go call them, make an appointment, and see what they have to offer.’ That’s what my foster parent did for me. I wasn’t the kind of youth that wanted to get involved. I was, like, ‘I’m on my own!’ I found out that I knew nothing, and when I joined the program I learned so much. If it wasn’t for my foster parents telling me to at least go and check it out, I wouldn’t be here today.”
William Rigby sits across the room on a cushy sofa, watching cartoons on the big-screen TV. Rigby gets up when his caseworker, Eva Perrine, enters the room and they join me to discuss his situation. Rigby is 18 and newly emancipated. “I graduated from Garfield High School, and now I’m living in a board-and-care. I wanted to be on my own sooner. I want to get on with my life and not stay in a board-and-care, because I’m an adult now.” (Rigby did not disclose his disability.)
Rigby talks calmly as he discusses his plans. “I’ve already applied for school at City College, then I’ll transfer to a four-year university and get my degree in biology and zoology. I want to help animals with their illnesses and maintain their health.”
Perrine describes her job as helping Rigby with whatever is going on in his life. “On Monday, we went to City College and applied for financial aid. Billy’s also trying to get his own apartment, and some of us working with him want to make sure he can live on his own and do everything he needs to do. We’re working on budgeting, shopping, and learning how to cook. We want to make sure everything is set for when he goes out on his own. So far, everything has gone smoothly. William follows through with everything, and he’s a great person to work with.”
Rigby looks right at home at the youth center. “I hang out here a lot. I would consider these people like a family to me. All the resources I’m able to get — just the fact that I was able to enroll in college — all started because they took me there on a workshop for a tour of the college. I liked what I saw and what they talked about and told them I wanted to go there.
“I really like the peer group and parenting classes here,” Rigby continues. “That’s something I feel I want to learn. If I ever have kids, I don’t want to say, ‘Oh, my God! What am I gonna do?’ The information and resources they’re giving me are things I can use for my everyday life. It can be very frustrating to be in the system as a foster youth because there are a lot of things that you sometimes can’t do. But it is also a place for you to be safe and you won’t go out on your own feeling miserable or getting in trouble. There’s a lot of resources like the YMCA and your foster parents — people for you to talk to so you don’t feel that you’re alone and to help you get all your resources. Even though it might be hard, it’s very helpful. If it wasn’t for me being in the system I could have been homeless when I left my family. I feel very safe here.”
The Turning Point transitional housing program is located in a large apartment complex in City Heights. Program director Stephanie Beazley keeps an office in a ground-floor apartment, just steps away from one of the six two-bedroom apartments in which Turning Point houses 24 young people who will stay for as long as 18 months. She sits on one of the sofas and explains how Turning Point came into being.
“It was originally targeted toward foster youth who were emancipating from the system. Laura Mustari, the YMCA executive director of Youth and Family Services, saw the need that foster youth had when emancipating and that they have no place to go. Foster parents often don’t prepare the person by encouraging them to have a savings account or whatever the case may be, so they can move out on their own once they’re 18. So when they leave the system, they have no place to live. So Laura found a need for housing. They had a collaborative grant from City College — who was finding the same need for many of their students who were former foster youth. They worked together, sought some private donations, and rented two apartments in Little Italy with four beds total — one for males and the other for females. That was in February of ’98. About two years ago the program moved here.”
Although Beazley is the program coordinator, she does not live at the site. “The previous program coordinator did. Nobody lives on-site now. But we have a case manager who’s here 40 hours a week and a part-time, on-site counselor. We also have a night staff that works from 9:00 p.m. to 5:00 a.m. for various crises.”
With a population as large as San Diego’s, there are a lot of people on Turning Point’s waiting list. “They are referred to us by social workers, case managers, probation officers, and even group homes. I outreach to the group homes and probation officers — everywhere it’s important to let them know that this program exists. We used to have an outreach coordinator who went out to the beaches to tell some of the teens out there. We reach out to anywhere teens hang out. All these different programs know about us and are continually faxing over completed applications after we’ve faxed them the applications so they can fill them out right where they are. They are placed on the waiting list and once we get an available bed opening in the male or female apartments, we conduct interviews. If they don’t have a social worker or P.O., they will often call here themselves and make an appointment to meet with our case manager. We like them to fill it out with an adult, because sometimes they don’t tell the truth on the application or it’s not completely filled out.”
Although developed with former foster kids in mind, Turning Point is not limited strictly to them. “Basically, any potentially homeless youth is eligible, between the ages of 16 and 21, who is emancipated. You can enter at 21 and turn 22 the next day and stay for 18 months, but once you turn 22, you’re no longer eligible. Seventeen-year-olds whose parents have always told them that when they turn 18 they have to move out will call us and say, ‘This is what my parents have said. They’re kicking me out,’ and we’ll start the process. If, after the interview, they’re an appropriate match, we’ll accept them.”
The program allows residents to stay for as long as 18 months and Beazley encourages them to stay the full term. “If they do become independent in 6 months, that’s wonderful, but we feel it takes about 18 months to establish a good savings account — one of the number-one things we work on. When they leave here, they’ll be able to live in San Diego, and it’s expensive.”
The funding for Turning Point comes primarily from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, but there are other sources who help. “Often private donors give money. They might say, ‘Here’s a couple thousand dollars for the next four people who move out of your program to use for security deposits,’ and that’s wonderful.”
As one might expect, placing young adults from varied but unstable backgrounds together as roommates is risky. Turning Point keeps a dormlike regimen for its residents to reduce the risk of failure. “They have an eleven o’clock curfew at night,” Beazley says. “If it’s broken there is a $10 fine and loss of the next weekend pass. The fines go into a pool, and those who don’t have any rules violations get to spend it. Another requirement is that they continue their education. We strongly encourage that they get their high school diploma or at least get their ged. We want them to be moving forward, not backwards, but in California you can enroll in a community college without finishing high school, so some look upon going back for their high school diploma as moving backwards. It’s their decision, as long as they continue with their education.
“If two roommates are not getting along, the roommates can bring it to the attention of the staff. The first thing we’d do is a mediation with all the roommates together. We set up guidelines — no profanity, no calling each other names — then we lay out what we hope to accomplish, which is a compromise. Then we type up an agreement and everyone signs it. Handling roommate conflicts is a daily activity for staff. Some of them have never lived with somebody before [most roommates share a bedroom], or they are used to living in foster care with a variety of people and they want their own privacy now that they’re 18, and they don’t necessarily get it.”
Beazley recognizes that most of the young adults she deals with have tremendous odds to overcome. “They’re afraid and fearful of living independently. When they are foster youth, they have guardians or foster parents to help them with their daily activities, but when they move into a transitional living program, they have to live independently all of a sudden. That’s a scary thing for anybody. Most people transition from their parents’ home to college, but they still have the support of their parents, where foster youth often don’t. Many times, they can’t call their former foster parents for help or advice because those foster parents are now busy with other children. Sometimes, once the 18-year-old is out, that’s it and they break their ties. So they don’t have supports — family, friends — that, in a typical situation, they could call or come visit them if they’re scared or just need someone to talk to.
“One of their biggest challenges is to save their money, and that’s one of the things this program requires of them. Saving is hard enough for most people, but these youth are required to save 20 percent of their monthly income, which is difficult. And since people were caring for them, they probably haven’t thought about what they’re going to do with their lives and, all of a sudden, they turn 18, they’re kicked out of the foster care system, and they’re suddenly in crisis mode: ‘What am I going to do with the rest of my life? Where am I going to live? What am I going to do? I don’t know anybody, and I don’t have family to take care of me. I don’t even have family to fall back on if something happens,’ and, oftentimes, something does happen.”
Among the other transitional living programs in San Diego, Beazley says perhaps the best known is the Take Wing program in Point Loma. “They own their own building and they have about 11 apartments. They definitely have different rules. They don’t have on-site counseling or a curfew. Some youth may choose to go there because they don’t have as many rules as we do. And we don’t have our own building yet, but that’s something we’re working on right now. We’re campaigning all over San Diego County, looking for private donors, and we’ve even gone to Sacramento and Washington, D.C., to raise money to buy a building — that’s our goal.”
If it were up to Beazley, the foster care system would have foster parents prepare their wards for life on their own. “Make them get a job and help them with their savings. Just really teach them independent living skills, so that when they turn 18, they’ll be ready to live on their own and have the money and the resources to rent an apartment. They need to be taught budgeting, cooking, and cleaning. This way they won’t be cut off with absolutely nothing. I think it would make the youth more independent and confident.”
As Beazley takes me to three of the apartments, it is surprising to see how optimistic these kids are. “We supply them with everything, from the silverware to the linens, towels, furniture, everything.” One living room has no furniture yet, but the two male occupants don’t seem to care. In another apartment, two girls who once roomed together at the Toussaint Teen Center [operated by St. Vincent de Paul Village] are excited as they are reunited as roommates at Turning Point. Beazley assures me this is a rare exception, as they usually don’t allow friends to room together.
Tonya Hall, 18, has been out of foster care for two years. She is standing amid a huge pile of cartons filled with her personal belongings. In spite of her difficulties, her eyes seem aglow with hope. As she moves back in with her old roommate from Toussaint, she describes what led her to Turning Point. “I was in foster care for about two and a half years. I was taken out of my home at 14 because my parents were homeless and we didn’t have anywhere to live. My parents were using drugs, but two years down the line, they got clean and we went back home. At 17, I left home and moved into the Toussaint Teen Center just to become more independent. I wanted to live on my own. I found out about Turning Point while I was at the Toussaint Center. I think it’s a good transition. It’s one step closer to being on my own, kind of like practice. Right now I’m just going to City College and studying child development. I just want to get an education so I can work with kids. I’m looking for a job right now, but I eventually want to teach preschool or own my own day care.” She laughs as she says, “I just gotta get all this stuff unpacked. I can’t wait to sleep tonight in my bedroom!”
Beazley’s job might drive most people to despair, but she seems to draw inspiration from the very difficulties she helps young people with. “These foster youth have survived through many things that I think lots of people will never face. To know about all of the abuse that these kids have lived through, the physical, sexual, and emotional — there’s definitely terrible, awful stories that I could share with you — but these are people who are still moving forward. Some of these kids have lived in as many as 25 homes. I can’t imagine what that would be like! But they are still ready and willing to start their life right now and move forward.” Former foster kids who need help can call this toll-free number: 866-ILS-INFO.