By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
The corner of Hollywood and Western is the epicenter of an underground world: a community outside the collective vision of club-hoppers and restaurant-goers rushing by, and one forgotten by public policy. Homeless youth, many cast off at 18 by the foster-care system, root out lives in a dim, moldy labyrinth of “abandos” — abandoned buildings hidden behind storefronts and the busy boulevard.
They “cop a squat” — sit on the hard concrete benches at the Metro station across from City Council President Eric Garcetti’s field office, and climb onto roofs to get above the cops and the sometimes-unsafe world below.
For most foster children, turning 18 means their case will be terminated — although the euphemism long used by the government for what happens to these young adults is “emancipation.”
Social workers and other experts say that, with that sudden loss of any temporary parent they may have known, often comes too much responsibility. A large number of the 1,200 foster youth who “age out” of the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) every year can’t cope any more than a teenager suddenly kicked out by parents at 18. The Children’s Law Center says that within two years of losing foster care, half will be unemployed, a quarter will have been imprisoned, and one-fifth will be homeless.
Rico, 21, and Starr, 20, are walking in front of the Starbucks at the northeast corner of Hollywood and Western. Rico is slightly smaller than Starr, who is two months pregnant. A few hundred feet north of Hollywood Boulevard they cut into a parking lot.
“You gotta move kinda quick,” Rico says, wary of police who troll these areas. Rico crouches and moves through a hole cut in a chainlink fence, and wades into high weeds in the forgotten backyard of a slumping apartment building. Nearby stands the skeleton of a burned-out house.
He dashes through an alley and hops through a window, into another abandoned building. Standing inside the black, moldy honeycomb of rotted walls, he hears a sound. “Who’s there?” he calls into the darkness. The noises stop. The air is cold, damp and filled with the pungent odor of rot.
Starr reaches inside a large handbag in which she hoards potato chips and chicken, which, she admits, she steals from Ralph’s. She pulls out a key and opens a locked door on one corridor. Light spills in, just enough to illuminate a sodden floor that’s spongy underfoot. There is a gaping hole in the ceiling’s Sheetrock. The windows are boarded shut, sunlight sketching the gaps along the window edges. Rico lights a candle, shedding faint light on the young couple’s twin bed.
The thumping that Rico had heard appears — a human shadow crosses the doorway. “Just trying to spook you, man,” says Jason, a young man who sleeps on a mattress nearby.
Rico and Starr laugh nervously, but it’s not that funny. In these abandos everything is spooky. Rico hates seeing his breath when it’s cold. It reminds him of ghosts.
Starr reaches for a can of disinfectant and sprays it wildly. “The mildew smell is too much,” she says. “We just come in here to sleep.”
“Yeah, let’s go get some air,” Rico says. The two leave Jason in the depths and re-enter the world outside.
Rico, like two of his four siblings, grew up in L.A.’s foster-care system. At 17 he was involved in a robbery and went to juvenile hall. When he came out at 18, he was already too old. His foster care had been terminated. The best thing that’s happened in the three years since was finding Starr in a shelter for homeless youth.
Rico is one of 25,000 foster youth nationally who grow too old for foster care each year, and his story is not uncommon.
Major changes could be on the way, because national child welfare–policy leaders no longer believe the notion that 18-year-olds can fend for themselves. Last week, a top researcher on the failures of foster youth programs released the first cost-benefit analysis that delved into the idea of keeping youth in foster care past 18, invigorating a drive to change the law.
Former President George W. Bush signed the Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act of 2008, which includes a new law offering federal funding to states that extend the age to 21 for foster youths who choose to stay. But to get that money, states must pass enabling legislation and match those funds, which in rough economic times makes it a daunting effort.
California Speaker of the Assembly Karen Bass is pushing enabling legislation to fund a $70 million program, targeted at 18- to 21-year-olds, for the roughly 4,500 California foster youth who lose their safety nets every year. “At 18, kids with families can’t survive on their own in this economy,” Bass says. “What do you think it’s like when you have nobody?”