Happy 18th Birthday! You’re Now Homeless!
Disproportionately affecting hundreds of LGBTs, out-of-date government policies are placing young adults out on the streets when they turn legal
by James Lopata
Note: This story first appeared in the Jan/Feb 2014 issue of Boston Spirit magazine.
When Jeremy turned 18, his foster parents had to kick him out.
They didn’t want to.
But the government assistance that the foster family relied on to provide for him ceased to arrive. There was a mortgage to pay. And, much as Jeremy wanted to pay rent, he could only cover so much.
So Jeremy found himself “couch-surfing”—the colloquial term for young adults who have no permanent roofs over their heads.
Jeremy is not alone. There are an estimated 700 children who “age out” of the system in Massachusetts each year—not to mention approximately 40 who age out nationally every day.
It’s a disturbing national trend that is getting worse. Job opportunities for young adults are disappearing and young people who grow up in traditional homes are having to remain under their parents’ roofs for many years past the formerly ubiquitous maturation age of 21. Consider that the average age that children stay in their childhood homes is estimated to be anywhere between 22 and 30 years old.
In official parlance, it’s known as “aging out.” The word “out” in the label, aptly describes a problem that includes an estimated 20 to 40 percent who identify as LGBT, compared to just 6 to 8 percent estimated LGBT youth in the mainstream population.
Jeremy, who preferred to keep his last name off the record, was put into the care of the Massachusetts Department of Children and Family (D.C.F.) when he was three, due to his mother’s drug use and her inability to care for him. At age five, he was moved to his grandmother’s to be raised—only to be kicked out at 15 when his devoutly Christian grandma took issue with his newly declared homosexual orientation.
Jeremy bounced from foster home to foster home during his High School years, until he turned 18, when he was forced to find his own home.
Foster parents are considered employees of The Home For Little Wanderers. They are paid through special funding to care for children like Jeremy until they are 18. When the child turns that legal age, the foster parents are no longer employed unless they take on a new child.
Many foster parents are working poor. They rely on the income to pay mortgages in addition to assisting the young people they care for. Without that money, many of these foster parents are unable to help. Young adults end up without housing. It’s heartbreaking to all parties.
Jeremy eventually found footing with section 8 housing. But that’s a rare solution for young people, says Rene Yourk, who works on housing issues for the Home for Little Wanderers (HFLW). There is a waiting list of eight years for this kind of government assisted housing. The state reserves just 18 vouchers for young people state-wide. What about the over 600 other children in the Bay State?
One of them is Jeremy’s friend Ashley. The two met at the Young Adult Resource Network, or YARN, a drop-in facility for 18-to-22 year-olds in Dorchester. Opened a couple of years ago, YARN offers activities, meals, life coaches and counselors to a select number of individuals.
Ashley, who also declined to have her last name on the record, was referred to YARN after she was asked to leave Simmons College and had nowhere else to turn.
Ashley’s story is similar to Jeremy’s in that she made her way into the care of the state at a young age when her mother acquired a drug habit. Ashley too bounced around from her grandmother’s place to a foster family. She also spent time in a residential treatment facility when she was being treated for severe depression. Ashley moved into independent living with an older Christian lady. “When I told her I was gay, it freaked her out,” Ashley said. One morning, the lady came after her with a knife. When the police arrived, the woman told them that “If she didn’t move so much I would have killed the bitch.”
Ashley also ended up in a group home, which she said is a “nice way of saying orphanage. It changed my life,” she said. “Some of my saddest, loneliest nights were spent in the group home.”
Throughout it all, she says she never missed a day of school. School was my safe place to feel welcome and wanted,” she said.
Ashley’s efforts in high school attracted the attention of Simmons College, which saw potential in her. But, says Ashley, “I wasn’t prepared academically for Simmons.” After a year-and-a-half of struggling, she eventually was asked to leave the prestigious women’s school. So Ashley considered checking back with her foster family for assistance.
But she and her former foster mother had left on bad terms. After Ashley had come out as a lesbian, her foster mother made it clear that she did not approve of gay sexual orientations. Ashley says that her foster mother made attempts to reconcile, but that trust was never fully restored.
“I need to feel comfortable in a place I’m living. It’s not like I chose to be gay,” Ashley said. Ashley began couch-surfing and finding whatever living situations she could. It’s only recently that she’s found a relatively stable apartment with her long-term girlfriend in Brighton. Ashley graduated from Roxbury Community College with honors. And this fall, she’s taking four classes at UMass Boston. Her tuition is covered by the state. To cover additional costs, she is working weekends at City Sports, babysitting four days a week and teaching basketball to children with special needs. “Rent is not cheap,” she said.
At 23, Ashley exudes confidence and a hope for her future. But it is a battle-worn self-esteem. To get to her 8 a.m. class on time each day, she needs to leave home at 6 a.m. Studying psychology, she says she is able to get a lot of homework reading done on the bus. She and her girlfriend used HFLW’s New Start to help furnish her apartment. New Start provides young adults like Ashley with a place to get free, “gently used” furniture donated from well-off people who are redesigning their living spaces. Young people have their pick of some pretty gorgeous stuff!
Through YARN Ashley was also able to find employment and assistance with budgeting. She also has been assigned a life coach, who, she says, has been invaluable in getting her to focus on the important things.
Thank goodness for YARN, she said, it “opened a ton of doors.”
YARN is one of the ways that HFLW is seeking to address the needs of the aging out population, but it can’t help with the biggest problem of all: housing.
For that, the HFLW is piloting a new solution. Jeremy and Ashley are also friends with Gwen, who was fortunate to be one of the first participant residents at what is called Roxbury Village.
Gwen was raised during her teenage years in a residential living facility called Roxbury House. Gwen ended up in the House, in part, because of issues that her family and foster providers had with her sexual orientation. When Gwen turned 18, she was forced to leave Roxbury House. Many children who are aged out of the House find themselves on the street without proper assistance.
Roxbury House staff frequently find themselves in a very uncomfortable position. Children who have left frequently return because they have nowhere else to turn when they have unmet needs.
“The kids come back to Roxbury House for toiletries and dinners and such, just like most kids would return home to get basics and assistance,” said HFLW CEO Joan Wallace-Benjamin. “But the House staff are forbidden to let the young adults in. It’s a violation of HIPPA laws.”
Yes, there are shelters, like Pine Street Inn, but the needs of adult shelter dwellers differ vastly from the needs of young adults, said Wallace-Benjamin. The two populations do not mingle well. And shelter staff are not equipped to deal with the issues that arise.
Gwen, who also preferred to keep her last name off the record, was fortunate enough to be let into the inaugural class of the experimental housing program Roxbury Village. The Home for Little Wanderers created Roxbury Village with special assistant from an altruistic real estate developer, who donated much of his own time and resources.
It’s not as easy as it sounds to create this special housing, even when the resources are available. The Fair Housing Act (FHA), and other policies meant to help many underserved populations has made creating special housing for these young adults difficult. The FHA makes it illegal to deny anyone housing based on age. But HFLW and other experts understand that it is important to keep these young adults together, to help service their different needs. Many of the issues have not been fully resolved, but Roxbury Village is the start of something that may have legs.
Roxbury Village houses many young adults who have aged out of Roxbury House. But HFLW cannot merely act as a landlord. These young adults need the continuing assistance that most late-teenagers and 20-somethings would get from their biological or adoptive parents. They need life coaches and counselors and mentors. So the Home has worked through various channels, through the state and city and with other providers, to piece together as much of the needs through existing channels. Even with all the resources, Roxbury Village barely makes a dent in the problem.
“Policy has not kept pace with reality,” said Wallace-Benjamin. She and her team are no strangers to pioneering social policy and solutions. HFLW traces its roots back to the creation of the nation’s oldest welfare agency, founded in 1799, the Boston Female Asylum (Abigail Adams was a founding contributor), which, through a series of mergers grew into what is now known as the Home For Little Wanderers.
In addition to YARN and Roxbury Village, HFLW is innovating in other areas in an attempt to assist these young people. HFLW is in the initial phases of working to find a way to connect older adults with young adults who have aged out. One of the issues to be solved is how to match the two parties. It’s not as easy as with a foster parent system, which has a prescribed method. One of the young adult matching ideas proposed is a variant of the speed dating process, so that each party gets a chance to see if there is an appropriate fit.
HFLW is also helping aging out kids who do find a home to help get furniture, through the New Start: Furnishings from the Heart program where Ashley got her home equipment. The program enlists some of Boston’s most prestigious designers. Whenever the designer re-designs one of their high-end clients’ homes, they need someplace to dump the high-end furnishings from the last design. Young adults have their pick of some of the best “gently used” home decor items around. According to Wallace-Benjamin some of the youth have incredible taste, with little flats that look like they could be featured in Architectural Digest.
But adult mentoring, youth drop facilities like YARN, and small-scale housing like Roxbury Village are not a long-term solution.
For substantive change, policies need to change. For that purpose, HFLW has joined with other agencies to create a special task force addressing the issues of aging out.
They have the support of numerous politicians, including Gov.Deval Patrick, who emphasized the issue in his 2012 state of the state address when he called on citizens “to work to end homelessness for good.”
And that would be good for a whole lot of LGBT young adults like Jeremy, Ashley, and Gwen. [x]
How You Can Help
Here’s a list of ways to assist Home For Little Wanderers, both with its underage and aging out populations:
Foster Care, Adoption, Mentoring
Become a Foster Parent. The Home’s Intensive Foster Care (IFC) program is committed to providing loving and stable homes to children currently in the care of the Massachusetts Department of Children & Families (DCF) who are residing in hospitals, residential programs, temporary foster care homes, or with their birth parents who are unable to care for them. www.thehome.org/fostercare
Adopt a Child. The Home is a full-service adoption program placing infants, children identified internationally, and waiting children from foster care.
Become a Mentor. Our greatest volunteer need continues to be adult mentors for adolescents and teens. A mentor is an interested and committed adult who spends 2-4 hours of quality time per week with a mentee over the course of a year of more. www.thehome.org/volunteer
Show your support of Waltham House. Waltham House is the first residential group home designed specifically for GLBTQ youth in New England, and one of only three of its kind in the nation. Each year, a group of dedicated group of volunteers plans a fundraiser for the program. Become a sponsor, attend the event, or volunteer your time and talents. www.thehome.org/volunteer
Make a tribute gift. Ask your family members or friends to make a donation to The Home for Little Wanderers in lieu of or in addition to their gift for you.
Host a fundraiser. Turn your next party into a way to help your favorite cause. Ask guests to bring a pledged wish list item through our Big Wishes Gift Drive website or bring a gift card or cash donation instead of a traditional hostess gift.
More details at: www.thehome.org/holiday
Shop or Donate
Shop, Donate, or Volunteer. The Thrift Shop of Boston is a non-profit organization dedicated to helping the children and families served by The Home for Little Wanderers. One of the oldest of its kind in the city, the Thrift Shop has been in business for over 80 years. The Thrift Shop of Boston is a great place to find furniture, artwork, books, vintage designer clothing, jewelry, dishes, and more. www.thehome.org/thriftshop
Donate to New Start: Furnishings from the Heart. Contact is Renee Yourk, firstname.lastname@example.org or 888-HOME-321.
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