Fatherless and homeless
Too many kids in the foster system end up on the streets once they reach adulthood
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When Keanakay Scott moved into her first apartment after aging out of foster care, nobody had taught her that she needed to pay rent every month. She assumed her first check would cover that expense. Less than two months later, she received an eviction notice.
Scott could have paid her rent. She worked two jobs, cleaning rooms at a Holiday Inn during the day and working nights in a Target stockroom. But nobody had ever taught her how to manage her finances. She didn’t save money and had stacked utility and credit card bills in a pile because she didn’t know what they were. “I know that sounds so ridiculous, but I was 18, and I just didn’t know,” Scott recalled.
In the eyes of the court, she was a full-grown, independent adult. But practically speaking, she was still a kid, alone and unprepared for the real world—and her ignorant mistake led to severe consequences: With an eviction and bad credit record (she thought credit cards were “free money”), she couldn’t find a landlord willing to take a chance on her. For the next 11 years, she was homeless.
Scott is just one of thousands of foster kids who fall into homelessness each year. According to the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System, more than 20,000 youths age out of foster care each year, losing access to the support they’ve relied on through the child welfare system. Studies show that within a year of emancipation, about a quarter of these youths will experience homelessness. Within about four years, around half will become homeless.
Other statistics help explain why: Only half of aged-out foster youth find some kind of stable employment by the age of 24, and only half graduate from high school by age 18. Less than 10 percent of former foster youth earn a college degree. Young women who experience foster care are twice as likely to become pregnant by age 19. Foster kids are highly susceptible to predators: About 60 percent of child sex trafficking victims have been in the child welfare system. Many others fall into substance abuse, crime, or imprisonment.
Scott’s story intersects with most of these statistics. She was 4 years old when social workers removed her and her younger sibling from an abusive, drug-addicted mother and placed them in foster care. For the next 14 years, she bounced from home to home, getting kicked out repeatedly for behavioral outbursts that she later linked to her trauma from past abuse, abandonment, and sexual assault. At one point at age 11, she returned to her mother, who, Scott said, continued to physically abuse her.
One day, Scott said, she couldn’t take it anymore. She hit her mother back. She says her mother called the police and later told the court she never wanted her daughter back again.
The county sent Scott to a group home, where she stayed for five years until she aged out. That institutionalized setting didn’t prepare her for adulthood, Scott said: “I call it baby jail. It’s like mentally preparing you to be homeless. They tell you what to do, when to do it. It’s like jail!” She found a staff member she liked, but when Scott called that woman for help one evening, she said, the staffer told her not to call her after hours again.
At age 13, Scott began drinking. She was still drinking at 18 when she aged out of foster care. At work, she carried around a water bottle filled with gin that she sipped all day. For several years, she survived as a functioning alcoholic. One morning, she was too drunk to get up for work. The next morning, she was hungover again … then again, and again. One day, she just stopped going to work.
As tough and steely as she appeared to others, Scott ached for love. When a man first paid attention to her, she thought she’d found it: This man gave her physical touch and paid for her alcohol. After him came others: Whenever a man hit her or cheated on her, she thought, “Even my mom hit me. This man gives me something my mom can’t, so I’ll just deal with this.”
At 19, she gave birth to her first daughter. Scott promised her baby, “You will never go through anything I had to go through. … I will protect you from bad things in life.”
It was easier said than done. The baby’s father was out of the picture, and six months after her daughter’s birth—and after getting kicked out of her mother’s house for the third time—Scott landed on Skid Row in Los Angeles.
For the next several years, Scott did everything she could to keep afloat: She panhandled while living on the streets. She worked in various restaurants and drove cabs, sometimes up to 100 hours a week. She begged people for child care. She lived in a van. She crashed on strangers’ couches. She knocked on the doors of shelters. She flew to Washington, D.C., to look for jobs, then to Alabama, to Texas, and back to California again. Meanwhile, she fell in love with the wrong man again and again, giving birth to another daughter.
THE LIFE STORY of a homeless individual is messy and complicated. For foster youth, it always starts with an unstable family and lack of support when they make wrong choices, meet a crisis, or simply need a guiding hand.
In most families, a teenager has someone who helps him apply for college, provides moral support, and teaches life skills. Even after graduation, many young adults still rely on their parents or community to stay housed, find a job, and weather the unpredictable moments of life.
Most aged-out foster youths like Scott don’t have that “someone.” Many have been in the system for years and have no healthy, trusting relationship with any adult.
“Foster care is supposed to be a temporary, safe place for children,” said Wende Nichols-Julien, a foster parent and CEO of the Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) of Los Angeles. “We’re not using it as a temporary system. … We as a community have a moral responsibility to make sure they have safe families to live with. That’s how we avoid homelessness.” Yet even as the number of children in foster care increases each year to more than 440,000 today, between 30 percent to 50 percent of foster parents drop out of fostering each year.
At Covenant House California (CHC), a nonprofit in Los Angeles and Oakland that serves homeless and trafficked youth ages 18 to 24, about half of the young adults it serves are former foster youth. Every weekday, an outreach team from CHC visits with homeless youth on the streets.
I followed one team to Hollywood one evening. We stocked a van full of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, turkey sandwiches, bags of chips, bottled water, blankets, donated clothes, and hygiene kits, then drove out to a small homeless encampment minutes away from the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
As our van pulled up to the curb, young faces popped out of tents with eager smiles. “We missed you!” cheered one 18-year-old woman named Destiny. A few minutes later, more young adults appeared on their skateboards and bikes. They grabbed sandwiches, pulled out clothes, and tried on sunglasses, chatting away like gossipy teenagers. Out of the six people I talked to, three told me they were former foster kids. One woman suffers from epilepsy, and another told me she sees and hears things and struggles with thoughts of suicide.
But they also have talents and dreams and something else rare among homeless adults: hope and optimism. One 27-year-old man from Minnesota showed me his sketchbook filled with drawings and paintings, telling me he was going to be an artist one day. Another guy told me he makes music, mostly R&B, and believes his talent will gain him eventual fame and success. Another boasted that he was a dancer. Another said he built an online business that earns him $880 a month.
Bill Bedrossian, CEO of Covenant House California, said he and his team use these young adults’ dreams as leverage to motivate them into independence. The longer they work with these youths, the more likelihood of success: Ninety percent of youths who go through CHC’s two-year transitional living programs are able to maintain their independence permanently. That’s why the outreach teams continue to hit the streets and talk to the same kids every day: It’s a way to show them that someone consistently cares for them, day after day, even if they might not be ready for a change yet.
‘Even if everything in my life happened just to bring me to knowledge of who He is, it’s worth it.’ —Keanakay Scott
The child welfare system has improved over the years: The number of kids staying in care for more than five years has dropped. More foster kids end up in adoption. Today, many states allow foster youth to continue in foster care until age 21, giving young adults more time to prepare for emancipation. Many child welfare agencies are also required to develop transition plans and provide “Independent Living Skills” classes that teach skills such as riding the bus, conflict resolution, and cooking.
But foster youth workers tell me those steps are not enough, and foster youth are still falling into homelessness. In Los Angeles, there aren’t enough transitional living programs, and foster youths tell me the county-sponsored independent living skills classes aren’t very helpful. Instead of using the extended support to prepare them for independence, some programs merely prolong state custody. Perhaps that’s because no program or apartment can replace the role of a loving parental figure.
Roxana Cadenas, a 21-year-old woman who recently aged out of foster care, told me that when she turned 19 the county moved her from a group home to transitional housing. Ideally, that should have helped her save money for future housing and provided a less-restrictive environment for her to learn real-life skills. But when she turned 21 and had to leave foster care for good, she still didn’t know how to budget, build a credit score, or look for a job.
When Cadenas applied for various apartments, none of the landlords accepted her because she had no credit score. She crashed at a friend’s house for a few days, then landed at CHC. When I met her, she had been living at CHC for eight months. (She’ll have to move out by age 24.) Outside of CHC, Cadenas has no social support: Her mother and stepfather are dead, and her father has been deported to Mexico. Her other relatives are also in Mexico.
Cadenas entered foster care at age 15 because of medical neglect: While living with her now-deceased mother, she had been visiting the hospital for diabetes-related health issues often enough to catch the attention of social workers. When state officials intervened, Cadenas felt relieved: “I knew I needed help, but my mom wasn’t caring, and I wasn’t doing anything for myself. … My mom didn’t care, so I didn’t care.”
SCOTT, NOW 29, still fights a similar spirit of neglect and abandonment. When she lost her disability insurance and didn’t have money for food, she punished herself by refusing to wash her face, telling herself she didn’t deserve to have good skin. She stopped eating healthy food and stopped working out, knowing those things also made her feel good.
For a long time, she didn’t tell anyone her thoughts and feelings, thinking no one would care. At shelters, she locked herself up in her room with her daughters and refused to engage with other people. When someone gave her a pair of shoes that she needed for work, she became angry: The gift was another reminder that she was a human being with needs. She hated that she had so many needs.
With years of therapy and prayers, Scott gradually realized she had been trying to prove to herself and others that she was worthy of love: “I didn’t know that God already loves me, that He’s been showing me that He loves me, that I’m worth loving all along.” Once the gospel truly made sense to her—that Jesus Christ died on the cross out of self-sacrificial love for her—she began discovering God’s love and blessings everywhere: “It’s amazing. Even if everything in my life happened just to bring me to knowledge of who He is, it’s worth it.”
The last time I visited Scott at her one-bedroom apartment in Los Angeles, she had begun hitting the gym regularly again. A whiteboard hanging in her kitchen reminds her of the bills she needs to pay, her workout regimen, therapy sessions, and weekly Bible study meetings. “Be kind to yourself and the healing process,” she’d written on the whiteboard.
Just a day before, she’d finally confronted a friend who had hurt her eight months ago. Before, she would have bottled up her feelings and nursed a grudge. But a sermon about humility convicted her to call her friend.
When that friend immediately apologized, Scott burst into tears. She hadn’t expected such quick and genuine grace: “I’m learning to be receptive to the people God has already sent me. God is showing me, ‘Things are going to be different from what you’re used to. Because now you have Me.’”
—This story has been corrected to reflect that Keanakay Scott has two children, and to reflect that only one of Scott’s siblings entered foster care with her when she was 4.
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