No one really knows how many of California’s young people are homeless at any given time. But on one day in the middle of the winter last year, a PIT count (a flash census — PIT stands for “point in time”) estimated the number to be about 15,000. That’s 15,000 youngsters aged 12 to 24 sleeping under bridges and over heating grates, in cars, in shelters, in the woods or on someone’s couch.
I’ve known for some time that there are a lot of homeless young people, but I found this number to be truly appalling. And that’s just for one state!
Many of these “throwaways” were abandoned at a young age or fled to escape homes marred by physical abuse, drinking and drugs. On the street, they are frequently victims of sexual exploitation and encounter a downward spiral due to a life to day-to-day survival that prevents completion of high school and renders them unemployable. They may find themselves with early and unplanned pregnancies, AIDS or malnutrition.
Among the greatest risks of homelessness among the young is aging out of the foster care system. It has been estimated that about one out of every four foster children will become homeless upon turning 18. The reasons for this are complex, and include such factors as a lack of family support, immaturity and the reluctance or inability of foster parents to continue to house their foster children after compensation from the state stops.
Drawing a bright line at the age of 18 makes no sense. I fail to see the logic of stating “yesterday you were a foster child under the protection of the state, but happy birthday, today you’re on your own, go fend for yourself.” Even the children of intact families are rarely in a position to support themselves the hot moment they turn 18. So it’s really not a surprise that, after a childhood and adolescence of being bounced around from one placement to another, at the age of 18 foster kids fall off the edge of the earth.
I think of my late sister-in-law’s three children. I didn’t know them when they were young, but they were removed from their drug addicted mother early in life. This was fortunate, as my wife tells me stories of going to their apartment, only to find the kids without food and their mother gone. One of my nephews was adopted as a baby, while my other nephew and his sister went into foster care. They were fortunate to enter a stable foster home with committed parents and never had to go anywhere else. All three are in their twenties and thirties now, and I am pleased to report that they turned out very well. One is finishing up college and still living with his mom. Another just celebrated the birth of his first daughter. And the third has settled into her career and lives close enough to us that we are able to see her often. What all of them have in common is that they never had to deal with homelessness.
Shouldn’t the story turn out that way for all of California’s foster children?
Visit the California Homeless Youth Project blog and read the touching stories of their struggles.