Extended foster care aims to reduce homelessness

June 7, 2012

By Hannah Guzik
California Health Report

For Dominique Martinez, turning 18 meant facing the possibility of homelessness.

The Ventura resident grew up in the state’s foster care system, and when she aged out in 2010, she didn’t know the first thing about finding an apartment, signing a lease or paying rent. She didn’t even know how to go grocery shopping.

Martinez, now 20, says she might have ended up on the streets were it not for Alice’s House, a Ventura cooperative-living home for former foster children.

“I was pretty terrified that when I left the system, I would become homeless,” she said. “I didn’t want to become another statistic.”

For the first time, California foster children who turn 18 this year have an option Martinez could only dream of — they can stay in the system for three more years, giving them a chance to learn life skills before setting out on their own.

State foster-care providers are working to implement a 2010 California law that extends foster care to age 21 and may help thousands of foster teens find their way to transitional-living homes such as Alice’s House. Lawmakers hope the California Fostering Connections to Success Act, or AB 12, will help curb the high rates of homelessness and incarceration among former foster children.

“This gives them a chance to figure out how to get a job or get their GED and learn life skills while they have a place to sleep,” said Sharon Cromartie, resident adviser at Alice’s House and executive director for Kids & Families Together, the nonprofit that runs the house.

About 65 percent of those emancipated from foster care in 2001 faced homelessness, according to a 2002 report by the California Department of Social Services. And over 70 percent of state penitentiary inmates have spent time in the foster care system, according to a 2006 California Legislature hearing.

AB 12 calls for the state to offer housing and support services for young adults in foster care between the ages of 18 and 21, as long as they are enrolled in school, working or making progress toward those goals, or are disabled.

Foster care youth who turn 18 this year, the first group under the new law, have the option so far to stay with their foster families, live with relatives or be placed in a Supervised Independent Living Program.

Counties statewide are working with the California Department of Social Services to implement a fourth housing option, a Transitional Housing Program designed specifically for former foster children. THP-Plus Foster Care would operate similarly to Alice’s House and provide young adults with guidance while they begin to take steps toward independent living.

At Alice’s House, Martinez has learned to stretch $25 at the grocery store to make multiple meals, buy produce by the pound and cook dinner. She’s also gotten help signing up for car insurance and getting medical coverage.
Cromartie, who lives in a cottage behind the main house, has helped other residents learn how to drive, pay traffic tickets, get bank accounts and dress for job interviews.

“Most young adults, even those who didn’t grow up in foster care, aren’t ready to be completely on their own at 18,” she said. “But whereas other kids might ask mom or dad for advice, foster kids oftentimes don’t have a support system. So we try to create that for them.”

Cromartie encourages the three young women living at the house to learn from each other as well. They have meetings to create their own house policies — the only firm rules are no weapons, no drugs or alcohol and no violence. And, although they are usually responsible for their own meals, the women help prepare occasional communal dinners.

The residents typically work or attend community college during the day and spend evenings and days off getting to know one another and learning skills.

Residents pay $25 rent and utilities each month, a nominal amount designed to get them accustomed to paying rent regularly and on time.

Section 8 low-income housing vouchers cover part of the housing costs, and Kids & Families subsidizes the rest. The nonprofit bought the home in Ventura’s Montalvo neighborhood in a short sale in May, using grants and loans. Before that, the program was in a rental home in midtown Ventura.

The program, which began in 2010, has generated so much interest that Kids & Families Together is considering expanding the three-bedroom bungalow or purchasing another house to start a duplicate program. Cromartie said she gets a half a dozen calls a month from people inquiring about staying at Alice’s House.

“This kind of housing is so needed in the state,” she said. “There just aren’t a lot of options for some of these young adults.”

THP-Plus Foster Care could especially benefit the 2,000 foster care youths living in group homes who will turn 18 this year, Cromartie said.

Ventura County aims to begin implementing THP-Plus Foster Care this summer and is supportive of Alice’s House’s plans to expand, said Elaine Martinez, senior program manger, with Ventura County Human Services Agency.

In addition to creating more rooms for young women, the nonprofit would also like to have a transitional living home for young men, said David Friedlander, executive director of the nonprofit Kids & Families.

“I’m desperately looking at ways we can replicate Alice’s House,” he said. “This year in Ventura County there’s going to be 40 to 50 young adults who turn 18 who are going to need a place to live.”

Martinez, who now attends Ventura College and works as a peer advocate for foster children, said she’s thankful to have found her way into a transitional-living program before AB 12 took effect, but she knows many other former foster youths haven’t been so lucky.

“I wasn’t ready to leave at 18 and I know most foster kids aren’t,” she said. “I’m doing well now, but it could have been a different story.”

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