Sometimes I’m amazed at how far I’ve come. I grew up in foster care and didn’t have any family. When I turned 18 I was on my own. But I wasn’t ready. I didn’t know how to manage my money, cook or shop for things I needed. I wish I had gotten more help from the foster care system before I had to make it on my own.
When I was young, my mom and dad were drug addicts and homeless. They sent me to live with my grandparents so they could take better care of me. Because I was a drug baby, I had a chemical imbalance that made me a wild boy. My grandparents were getting too old and couldn’t take care of me so I was taken away from them when I was 8. I had other family members but the system didn’t send me to live with them and I eventually lost touch with them.
For the next 10 years I moved in and out of foster homes and group homes and I never really had a stable environment to live in. My behavior got worse. If I didn’t get what I wanted I would go off. I threw chairs, slammed doors and cussed. Foster families can only take so much. They would call my social worker and tell her they couldn’t handle me and I would be placed in another home.
As I got older I started doing crazier things. I fought and argued with the kids in my group homes, which are houses where foster youth live and are supervised by adult staff. I wouldn’t do my homework or my chores. Sometimes when I was mad I would kick holes in walls. Starting when I was 15, I was arrested on different occasions for vandalism, breaking into houses and fighting. The first two times I went to juvenile hall it didn’t change me. The third time I was almost 18. I knew that if I didn’t change I would do worse things and next time it wouldn’t be juvenile hall. I didn’t want to do time in an adult prison. I wanted to do something with my life. So after I got out of jail I started doing my work at school and I didn’t get in any more fights. I graduated from Simi Valley High School.
After you turn 18 and graduate, the system stops paying to care for you, which means you’ve emancipated. You can go into transitional housing, where you have to go to school or work, your rent is cheap and they teach you how to cook, save money and prepare for a job, and you make friends in the apartment complex. I interviewed at three transitional housing programs. They liked me but they said that since I was taking medication in my group home, I had to take it while I stayed there. I took medication for hyperactivity and depression. I felt like I didn’t need the medication anymore. I had mellowed out and wasn’t out of control. There were times when I had faked taking my medication and I felt fine without it. So I told them no and stayed at my group home.
A few months after I graduated, the group home staff told me, “Jeff, you can’t stay here anymore.” I didn’t know where I was going to go. I didn’t have family. I didn’t have a lot of friends. On the last day I packed up my stuff. I put my clothes in three large trash bags and had a couple boxes of my personal belongings.
I had nowhere to go
I left and spent a few nights at my mentor Mike’s house. We drove all around L.A. for two days looking for cheap apartments. I remembered I had money from a court settlement from when I was stabbed by one of the kids in my former group home when I was 14. I put down $5,000 from my settlement money for an apartment downtown for six months. I was very lucky to have that settlement money. If I didn’t have it, I would have been homeless.
At first it was cool living on my own for the first time. I would go downstairs and check my mailbox and there was mail for just me, no one else. But I was lonely. There were times when I wished I were back at my group home, where I could talk to people.
I wasn’t prepared to be on my own. I made anything I didn’t have to cook like Cup Noodles, sandwiches and chicken soup. The food in my group home had been healthier, like chicken, spaghetti and pork chops. It’s funny because I had always hated the group home food.
When Thanksgiving came, I was alone in my apartment. I had Top Ramen for dinner. I tried not to think about families that were laughing, having a great time. I wished that things were better for me.
Mike helped me get a job as a janitor. Every two weeks I’d get about $500. When I got my first paycheck my eyes got big. I thought “Oh wow!” I felt like shopping because I didn’t have to wait a long time to save up my allowance like in the group home. I bought a computer, clothes and stuff for my apartment like rugs, pots and a microwave. There were times when I had no money in my bank account but I still bought stuff using my debit card. I got charged fees for spending money I didn’t have. Mike would say, “Spend your money wisely.” I wish I had listened to him.
I didn’t know living on your own was so costly. I had never paid a bill in my life. Mike got me my first cell phone. I wasn’t sure how many minutes I had. I talked to staff and friends I knew from my old group homes, went on the Internet and bought ringtones. My first phone bill was $400. When I opened that bill I was like, “What the …?” After that, I tried to talk on the weekends when the minutes are free.
I didn’t want to have a $9 an hour job for the rest of my life. I knew that as you get older you want more things, like your own car and money to do things. When I thought about what jobs I could do, I thought of acting. There is something about entertainment—the lights, the stunts—that fascinates me. I think I would be a good actor because I have charisma, a lot of energy and I’m funny. But I didn’t know how to get my foot in the door.
A chance at a better-paying job
I saw an ad in a newspaper looking for people who wanted to be actors or extras in movies. I was excited. The acting world was calling me. I paid the agency $300. I would call a hotline to find work but no one ever called me back.
Four months later I called the agency to see why I hadn’t gotten any callbacks. All I heard was a dial tone. I went over to see what the problem was. They had moved and the place was trashed. It was a total scam. I went home and thought about how everything was so screwed up my whole life. This was another thing going wrong. How could I go through all this?
Soon my spending got me in trouble. Since I had paid for only six months of rent, after six months I had to start paying rent every month. My rent was $825 a month and I made a little more than a thousand dollars. I was struggling to keep every cent I made to pay for my apartment, food and bills. I gave up eating out. I stopped buying stuff. I stopped looking for acting gigs because I didn’t have money to give to agencies and was discouraged. I would have only $100 for two weeks. I was wishing I could at least buy a Starbucks if I was thirsty. Instead, I bought noodles, dollar tacos, macaroni and cheese—cheap, simple food.
I knew I had to get another job. I was hired as an usher at the El Capitan Theatre in Hollywood from 8 a.m. to 2 or 5 p.m. a few days a week. Then I worked from 8 p.m. to 4 a.m. as a janitor. Having two jobs was better because I made more money but I had to work long hours. I didn’t sleep much on the days I worked back to back. I would drink Mountain Dew or Cherry Coke so I could stay awake. After a couple weeks everything got to me. I would go to my janitor job early and sleep in the lounge for an hour. I would go on break and sleep for another 30 minutes. I got in trouble a couple times for taking long breaks. Sometimes I would sit down in the stall in the bathroom and put my head down and close my eyes.
One time I was dead tired and it was barely 9 p.m. I had another seven hours to go. Around 1 a.m. I went to one of the restrooms that I had cleaned and broke down and cried. I wished that I was home sleeping. I thought, “I shouldn’t be struggling at 19. If I hadn’t spent all my money I wouldn’t have to work two jobs.”
Two months later I moved out of my apartment to go live with my girlfriend. I thought things would be OK, but they weren’t. My rent was cheaper and I quit my janitor job but we argued a lot. After four months we broke up.
Someone to lean on
I didn’t know where to go. All my stuff was out of her house on the sidewalk. I couldn’t afford to live on my own because I worked only two or three days a week at the El Capitan. That’s not enough to survive. I called Betty, one of the staff at my last group home. She was my only hope. I hadn’t talked to her for a few months so I wasn’t sure what she would say. I had to take a chance. I asked her if I could stay at her house for two weeks until I was able to find my own place. She said yes. I was so happy and relieved. I didn’t know where I would have gone if she had said no.
Those two weeks became two years. I’m happy where I’m at right now. I live with Betty and her adult son. When they go grocery shopping they ask me if I want something. Sometimes they’ll cook. Sometimes I’ll make simple things like spaghetti or fry frozen fish. Betty taught me what type of meat to buy so now I can make hamburgers. I am paying a little less than $400 a month for rent, which is helping me save money to move into my own apartment.
I don’t think it was fair that at 18 I had to go to transitional housing or try to support myself. I feel like the system should let kids stay in foster care until 21 to help them prepare for the real world. I was very fortunate to meet Mike and Betty. Not all kids in the system meet loving people who help them when they leave the system. Within four years of emancipation, up to 25 percent of foster youth are homeless and one in five are in jail. It’s sad.
I sometimes still expect myself to screw up and fail. Looking back at everything I did when I was young and looking at who I am today, I still can’t believe that it all really happened. I try to stay positive and make the best choices. I’ve decided to take acting classes along with going to a community college to become a nurse. I want to be a positive role model and make something out of my life.
WHEN THEY TURN 18?
Children are removed from their homes and placed in foster care when they’ve been neglected or abused by their parent. They may also be placed in foster care if their parent can’t take care of them for another reason, such as drug or alcohol abuse, illness or poverty. Some children are adopted or return home but others stay in the system, living in foster homes or group homes, until they turn 18. Once they turn 18 and graduate from high school, they leave the foster care system, which is called emancipating. Many are not prepared to be on their own and don’t know supportive relatives or other caring adults who can help them with the transition to adulthood. Up to 25 percent will become homeless at some point after they turn 18, according to statistics.
WHEN FOSTER YOUTH EMANCIPATE, THEY OFTEN GO TO LIVE:
• With relatives. They may return to live with a parent who couldn’t take care of them when they were younger or another family member who will take them in. They may have been living with a relative while in foster care and stay with them after they emancipate.
• In transitional housing. They live in an apartment while going to school or working. The program gives them cheaper rent and may give them money to pay their bills, buy groceries and other things they need. They can stay until they are 21 or 24, depending on the program. They get support but have to follow strict rules. If they break the rules they could get kicked out and have no place to go.
• In a college dorm. Some foster youth who attend college live in a dorm.
• On their own. They have to find a place to live and get a job to pay rent and their bills. If they can’t afford to get an apartment they may end up in a temporary place like a homeless shelter or go live with a friend.
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