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Rooftop Foster Kids 

At 18, they lose their foster parents and become homeless. A law may help them

Wednesday, Mar 18 2009
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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.”

click to enlarge DANIEL HEIMPEL - Starr and Rico
  • Daniel Heimpel
  • Starr and Rico

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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?”

The nationwide study released March 9 makes the first fiscal argument for what is claimed by advocates anecdotally — that the long-term costs of abandoning young adults is much more expensive than helping them. The study, which focuses on the increased earnings these youth earn if they manage to get a college education, concludes that keeping young adults in foster care could mean a $2.40 return on every dollar spent.

The report did not include the price of maintaining a population of former foster kids who hang out on the rooftops of tough urban areas for safety and sleep in abandoned buildings: the increased medical, prison, rehab, welfare and teen-pregnancy costs.

The study’s lead researcher, Mark Courtney, director of Partners for Our Children at the University of Washington, says foster youth are cut off at 18 because, historically, the foster-care apparatus did not want to take on extended caseloads. “If you talk to someone in the [children’s services] department, off the record they will probably tell you it is shameful that we do this,” he says.

In Los Angeles County, juvenile courts are charged with ensuring these youths have ID cards, Social Security cards and some idea where they are going to live, work or go to school — the basics that a parent would normally shepherd. Rhelda Shabazz, head of the Youth Services Department for DCFS, admits that some young people get pushed out of foster care when they are clearly not ready. “Although we know it does happen,” she says, “we trust the juvenile courts to fill their role as partner and gatekeeper.”

Some 400 “transitional housing” beds are available for the 1,200 youth fresh out of foster care each year in Los Angeles, as well as the roughly 2,000 who are still under 21 and, under the rules, can jostle for the same few beds.

Rico leads Starr to a “luxury” apartment building just off Hollywood Boulevard. He hops a gate, unlocks it for her, and in the elevator presses “R.”

The doors open. The air is fresh. The roof commands a view from downtown to the Hollywood sign. Rico takes off his shoes and dips his feet in the rooftop pool. The sun is pulling low and there’s a chill in the air.

Rico used to live up here, before the security guards caught on. Like other kids who try to get up off the streets, sometimes he would sleep under the sky and stare out at illuminated Griffith Observatory. When it got cold, he would climb into the crawlspace under the pool.

Although Starr never stayed up here with him, she immediately sees the appeal. “It’s a funny way to see the city,” she says. “I am always seeing places where I can sleep.”

“It’s really just us two,” Rico says. “If you got a girlfriend, that’s your best friend.” Starr looks at him and smiles. “I don’t know what I’d do without him,” she says. “Now I can understand why those older homeless people talk to themselves.”

In the growing gloom, Rico and Starr descend and head back to their room in an “abando,” hidden from the traffic coursing along Hollywood Boulevard.

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