On the edge - Page 3

44TH ANNIVERSARY ISSUE: For foster youth, turning 18 means growing up fast

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Kirsten Johnson-Bell, 18, said she was in 20 different foster care placements since 2007
PHOTO BY SARAH PHELAN

A major sponsor of A 12 was the John Burton Foundation for Children Without Homes, and policy director Amy Lemley hailed its passage as "the biggest child-welfare improvement in 20 years." Studies show that youth who receive support beyond 18 are 200 percent more likely to be working toward completion of a high school diploma, 65 percent less likely to have been arrested, and 54 percent less likely to have been incarcerated than those who exit with no support. The benefits could also generate savings by reducing the number of people in prison, on welfare, or in need of publicly funded health and human services. The law will be implemented in 2012.

The law also will provide new housing options. The federal government will chip in to cover more placements in the Transitional Housing Program Plus — nearly axed during the last budget cycle — which offers supervised transitional housing for emancipated youth. Youth may also receive a rent subsidy that could apply in a dorm, a shared-living situation, or another arrangement that fits the youth's needs. This flexibility is a positive change, Lemley noted. "We're not telling young people 'it's our way or the highway,'<0x2009>" she said.

"If a state like California can do this in the context of its current fiscal deficit, it sends a strong signal to other states," Lemley said. However, an unexpected line-item veto put a damper on the landmark achievement. Schwarzenegger dealt a blow to the child-welfare system by cutting $80 million in funding for programs the California Legislature had restored, which actually amounts to more like $133 million due to the loss of federal matching funds.

"It's really just a schizophrenic policy on the governor's part," Lemley said. "We were hoping he would have a legacy of the foster care governor, but now it doesn't seem as if he will have that legacy at all."

While the deep budget cut isn't aimed at AB12 directly, Lemley said, it erodes funding for child-welfare workers and forces counties to make painful funding cuts. The overarching effect is that abuse and neglect may go undetected more often, and youth in the system will have fewer available resources once they're placed.

ANOTHER CHANCE

Of all the challenges facing foster youth who age out of the system, housing is among the most critical, particularly in San Francisco. A partnership between the city, Larkin Street Youth Services, and nonprofit developer Community Housing Partnership (CHP) aims to address this by providing a space for transitional-age youth who wouldn't otherwise be able to afford housing in the city. Located at the King Edward II Inn near Cow Hollow and the Marina district, the facility would house 24 young people, ages 18 to 24, who are at risk of homelessness.

"By definition, that includes youth aging out of foster care," explains David Schnur of CHP. The nonprofits are working in tandem with the city's Human Services Agency and Mayor's Office of Housing.

Youth housed at Edward II would have access to physical and mental health care, substance abuse and HIV-related services, education and job training, coaching in basic life skills such as budgeting and personal hygiene, and case management, Schnur said. They would be required to contribute a portion of their income, whatever the amount, toward rent.

However, an organized force of opposition has already surfaced from the surrounding community, which comprises one of San Francisco's wealthiest neighborhoods. "I think people are just nervous about what it means to have a building of this type in the neighborhood," Schnur noted. To assuage neighborhood concerns, the nonprofits have set up a project advisory committee in hopes of talking it out and bringing everyone on board.

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