Editor’s note: The following essay was written by Brian Ferguson, Fostering Hope’s Youth Transitions Coordinator. Names have been changed to protect confidentiality.
Jason and I sit at a coffee shop with my laptop. We are looking for a place for him to live — again. It’s the second time in two months that he’s been kicked out. First, by a friend from school and now by a former co-worker. He has burned every bridge. Jason’s face is blank, but I can see the tears he wipes away from underneath his sunglasses.
He is shutting down, as trauma has wired him to do, preparing himself for survival once again. He is two days away from homelessness without immediate help. He has lived in so many different places he can’t even remember them all.
As a child, he bounced from foster home to foster home. Kids with trauma often exhibit bad behaviors and intentionally push their caregivers away. Then, as a teenager, he found no one wanted to welcome him into their home anymore. He was labeled “troubled, delinquent, risky” and he lost the opportunity to live in a home with a family. He lived in group homes and facilities where a paid staff rotated through on a daily basis, making it even harder to find someone who truly cares about you.
While these placements were initially intended to be temporary, this became his last stop into adulthood. After years of living in group homes, Jason turned 18 and left the system.
He was moved into an apartment and secured a job. He had everything he needed right?
In just a few months he became homeless and trapped in depression. For a year, Jason was either living on the streets or couch surfing, and we had no contact with him.
It took almost a year before Jason was able to get another job and find a stable place to live, where he reconnected with an old friend. He re-established contact with Fostering Hope, where staff and volunteers had been so eager to help and be his friend. Now, not even a year later, the cycle is repeating.
The only way Jason knows how to handle conflict is by running away or getting kicked out – the fight, flight or freeze response. All of us have brains that protect us from harm and prepare us for survival in a state of danger. When you see a bear, your body takes over and you don’t think about what you do next. For kids experiencing trauma, this toxic level of stress rewires the brain so that this state of survival is the constant, not the other way around. Ironically, the very thing that helps you survive danger hinders Jason’s survival in society.
I take Jason to apply for an apartment and help him fill out the application. I feel like his parent taking him to an interview reminding him to shower and put on clean clothes before meeting the landlord. I review his application before we turn it in because I knew even one tiny mistake could disqualify him.
The reality starts to sink in as I review his application — in a competitive and fast-growing real estate market, he doesn’t have a chance. He has no address or phone number. He has no references.
And the emergency contact section is completely blank. I ask Jason who he wants his emergency contact to be. He responds, “What is that?” I explain this is the person you would want the landlord to contact if you were hurt or needed help. If you were taken to the hospital, who would they call to come see you?
Jason’s silence spoke a thousand words. I broke the long pause by telling him he could put me down as his emergency contact. Jason breathed a sign or relief and said, almost under his breath, “Oh, good… I don’t really have anyone right now. I mean I know where my mom is living on the east coast but I haven’t been able to contact her in a long time.”
My heart broke, and now I was the one brushing away tears from under my sunglasses.
Can you imagine being all alone in the world? Having no one who cares if you live or die, no one who would visit you in the hospital if you got hurt? I learned so much that day about what it’s like to be in foster care, and to age out of the system. I was reminded that it’s not just about resources and services.
Foster kids want a place a place to belong more than they want a place to live.
As predicted, he did not qualify for the apartment. Fostering Hope found him a safe hotel room for a couple of nights while we called on our community of supporters for ideas and leads. Thankfully, someone in the community opened their home to Jason, and he was offered both a place to belong and live for now. In lieu of rent, this individual is requiring him to set aside money each month in savings, to help him as he works to get a more permanent place of his own.
Update: In October, Fostering Hope launched its first ever transitional housing initiative. Through a master lease with Canyon Ranch Apartments, we are now able to provide more housing options for youth aging out. This initiative, made possible with help from private donors, enables youth to pay income-adjusted rent while living in an aspirational community of working-class adults with house parents on-site. While in its formative stages, our hope is that this will help kids like Jason to thrive and become self-reliant.