03 Aug Helping Our Invisible Homeless: Our Teens, Aged Out Foster Care Youth
I am shocked. When the new numbers came out on poverty and homelessness that revealed that the United States now has more homeless teens than any other first world country, it barely made headlines. More than 40% of the homeless in our country are age 18 or under. More than 1 million kids in K-12 are homeless. Apparently what purse Kanye West buys Kim Kardashian for Christmas is far more important than the national crisis on hand.
We pat ourselves on the back, because the number of kids in foster care has declined overall in the past decade– still at about 500,000 – but yet the numbers of 18-year-olds aging out without one caring adult in their lives has skyrocketed. Our government labels them “legal orphans.” And the majority of states still have the brutal policy of dumping our teens in foster care out of the system on their 18th birthdays. I’ve sat with caseworkers who have wept about being required to drop a teenager off at a local homeless shelter on his or her birthday.
Study after study shows that the 25,000 young people who age out of foster care each year are at high risk for homelessness, incarceration, sex slavery, drug and alcohol addiction, and early death. Fewer than 50% graduate high school or get a GED, and of the few who make it to college, only 3% graduate with a four-year degree. More than 70% of the males in our prisons report having been in either homeless shelters or foster care as children or teens. By the time people who aged out of foster care reach the age of 24, they have the highest rate of unemployment of any group in the nation with the exception of people with disabilities. These young people as children and teens lived in situations so bad that they were made wards of the state. Yet, for the most part, they were not given the proper foundation and support to understand how to lead a self-sufficient life.
Ironically, this year marks the 50th anniversary since the War on Poverty was declared. Not only have we not made any progress, but we are failing an entire generation of our teens and children. There are now more homeless children and teens in the U.S. than at any time since the Great Depression. The findings of “The State of Homeless in America” showed a 13 percent increase in “doubled up” households from 2009 to 2011 – people couch-surfing with friends or family — and a 22 percent increase in families below the poverty line paying 50 percent or more of their monthly income on housing.
Our teens and young adults are our invisible homeless. We as communities have largely abdicated the responsibility to take care of the poor and most vulnerable among us to the Government. We shut our eyes to the suffering of people around us, cloaked in our judgments and prejudice. Nelson Mandela said, “”There can be no keener revelation of society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.”
The Bible exhorts us over and over again to take care of the poor among us – especially the orphans. “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” – James 1:27 Yet when I look at the faith-based community, I often see a flurry of activity during the holiday season but relatively few people focusing on this clear calling year-round. How can I dare to make this statement? The numbers speak for themselves. For one thing, in all states there is a severe shortage of foster parents. In my home state of Georgia, most teens in foster care live in group homes, because there aren’t nearly enough families willing to take teens in. About 100,000 kids in foster care are available for adoption, yet many languish in the system until they age out.
When 15-year-old Davion Only, who had spent his life in foster care, stood before a Florida church and pleaded for a family to love him, his bravery and heart-rending story generated 10,000 families interested in adopting him. But there are thousands upon thousands of teens and children just like him whose voices remain unheard. I know, because I’ve sat and talked with them. I’ll never forget the 17 ½ year old young man, who told me he was still hoping to be adopted, because he wanted somebody to come home to over holidays: “I want to know I have a place at a table.” This kind, funny gentle giant of a kid – a genius at taking apart and rebuilding computers — broke my heart. I met him at an adoption party – attended by only a handful of people and almost all only interested in the young kids. Due to privacy laws, I couldn’t find out what happened to him after he aged out.
Most people have a negative view of teenagers in general, and when you connect the words “foster care” or “homeless” to the word “teenager” – well, I’ve found that people shutoff. Our teens are written off as lost causes. I’ve heard people refer to our teens as “those kids” so often that I could scream. Even in the words we use, we create separation. I’ve listened as people express fear of our teens. They wrongly assume that they are in foster care or are homeless through some fault of their own and buy into the negative labels that have been foisted upon our kids. Virtually every young person I know who is in foster care is there because the adult in their lives who was supposed to care for and protect them failed to do so in some way — not because the kid was “bad.”
In 2010, Sam Bracken and I launched the Orange Duffel Bag Initiative, a 501c3 nonprofit that does certified life plan coaching with homeless, foster care and high poverty teens. When our kids graduate our 12-week program, they get a laptop computer to help them bridge the digital divide. More importantly, they get ongoing advocacy from our family of advocates to help them overcome the many and sometimes seemingly impossible barriers that pop up as they work their plan for educational and career success.
Sam was homeless at age 15, and the name of ODBI comes from the fact that when he earned a football scholarship to Georgia Tech, everything he owned fit in an orange duffel bag. When he came to Tech, officials had no idea that they were getting a homeless teenager. When Sam and I looked at the attitudes and crazy barriers our kids face today, we were disappointed that so little progress had been made in the 30 years since he graduated Georgia Tech.
Sam knew from personal experience that it’s not too late for a teen – even one who has grown up in horrific circumstances – to dramatically change his or her life for the better. He made the decision at age 13 that he didn’t want to be like the rest of his drug and alcohol addicted family. Sam didn’t get the fairy tale. He was never adopted like Michael Oher was by the Touhy family in “The Blindside.” His help came from lots of caring adults – the teacher who figured out he just need glasses when he was 13 and got him out of special education classes; the family that took him in after his mom abandoned him; the doctor who helped him send out his football films; Coach Bill Curry, who gave him the base for the transformational change in his life; a couple at church who helped direct him spiritually and opened their home to him over the college breaks when he was in danger of being homeless; and the list goes on and on. He created what I call a “family of the heart.”
So why am I telling you all of this? Because what Team Orange — our brilliant officers President Mike Daly and Vice President Diana Black, executive and life coaches, advocates, board members, volunteers, community partners, sponsors and donors – have created in just three years works. Our evidence-based program improves critical thinking. That means that our teens learn how to make better choices. More than 80% of our teens have graduated high school or are on track to do so. Many of our 300 ODBI grads are now in college. What’s the secret? They have connections – people who care about them and cheer for them. They belong. We give them love and help them create their life plans.
My favorite day is our graduation day. I see teens who would barely look you in the eye on the first day of class transformed into young people who stand up and present their favorite one of Sam’s Rules for the Road from our curriculum and then present their life plans A and B. They are proud and joyous as they get their orange duffel bags, their laptops and their certificates of achievement. It’s a celebration.
How can you help our nation’s most vulnerable young people? Join Team Orange and help us create a New Year’s Revolution in 2014.
• Give voice to those who rarely get heard by sharing this blog.
• Donate $5 or whatever you feel moved to contribute on our RocketHub Crowdfunding Campaign for Orange Duffel Bag Initiative and challenge 10 friends to do the same. Be sure and watch the videos to hear our kids speak for themselves:
• Help bridge the digital divide by donating new laptops or tablets.
• Volunteer with us and help our community-based solution go nationwide.
• Contact your legislators about the idiocy of kicking teens out of the system.
• Volunteer as a Court Appointed Special Advocate.
• Urge your faith-based community to get involved in our kids’ lives on a consistent basis if it isn’t already.
• Consider being a foster parent.
Go to http://www.theodbi.org to learn more.
Show our kids that you believe in their futures. Remember: You can start 2014 by being a hero. Be that one to help just one.
If you could change one thing about the foster care system, what would it be and why do you think that change would be revolutionary?
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