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June, 2003

From Foster Homes To Homeless
By Keshia Harrell

One night when she was 13 years old, Laquana Knight heard her mother and her mother's boyfriend arguing in the next room. Something told Laquana to see what was going on. When she walked in, she saw her mother's boyfriend pinning her mother down on the bed. Laquana jumped on his back and started hitting him, yelling, "Get off my mother!" He did, but he kicked her mother and hit Laquana before he left the apartment.
The domestic violence was nothing new, but that night, Laquana's mother had had enough. She called the police. They told her to pack her bags and call a domestic violence hotline. The hotline suggested she go to a shelter. They left that night, ending up in the shelter system for two long years.
"It was hell. It was the worst thing that ever happened to me," says Laquana, 16. "The rules and regulations, the setting. It felt like jail."
As teens, we may think that homelessness won't affect us, because many of us believe it mostly happens to drug addicts and older people. The reality is that many teens like Laquana live in shelters with their parents. And many times, young mothers end up turning to shelters for support. In fact, 18 to 25 year olds with young children make up almost half of the homeless family population.
Young people who grow up in foster care are especially likely to end up homeless as adults, because we often can't turn to our families when times get tough. Across the country, three out of 10 homeless adults were in foster care as children. And some experts say that almost half of youth leaving foster care become homeless within a year.
In New York City, the number of homeless families has been going up and up. Today, the number has soared to more than 8,000. Back in 1983, the number of families seeking shelter was barely 2,000. As families enter shelters they are staying longer than they have in the past. Right now, the average family stays in a shelter for nearly a year.
"Basically more people are coming in, they're staying longer and fewer families are leaving," says Linda Biggs, commissioner for the Department of Homeless Services.

Times are tough
There are many reasons for this sudden increase. In part, it is directly related to the economy getting worse after September 11th. Many people lost their jobs and it's been harder to find work. Some people suddenly couldn't pay their rent.
Plus, apartments in New York have been getting more expensive for years. Many New Yorkers already pay more than half their salaries in rent, which means there's not much left over for anything else, like food, clothing, entertainment or even savings. If something goes wrong, it's easy to get behind on the rent.
It's not like the city is sitting on its butt while these people are suffering. The city has made a big effort to fix the problem. For instance, it has doubled the number of beds in family shelters and doubled the city budget for homeless families.
The city also tried harder to move more homeless families into regular apartments. Many landlords weren't willing to take in homeless families because they fear that the families wouldn't be able to pay the rent. So now the city gives landlords an extra $1,000 for each person in a homeless family that the landlord takes in. Plus, landlords didn't want large families. So the city pays more for large families. A landlord can get $5,300 just for accepting a family of five.

Landlords want cash money
Even so, it hasn't gotten too much easier for homeless families to find homes of their own. Gladys Cruz, who used to be homeless herself, works at HELP USA, a homeless shelter, helping people find homes. Cruz says some landlords won't accept small families, because they want that extra money.
"Back when I was homeless, the landlords asked, "How is the family, how do they behave?" And they wanted it to be a small family," Cruz says. "Now they ask. "How many people?" If I say, "Three," They say, "No, no, no. I want four or five in the family."
It seems that some of the changes the city made to fix the problem have caused other problems.
For example, advocates for the homeless complain that to get Section 8, which helps poor people pay the rent, homeless people may have to deal with five different city agencies. Ironically, those agencies all used to be one big agency, and they were split up to make things easier.
And some people believe the homeless population is going up because certain programs people need are only available to families that are homeless. It's nearly impossible to get Section 8 unless you're homeless, which makes shelters tempting.
Some shelters also provide their clients with strong support services, like free job counseling, day care, medical services and therapy, which clients might not be able to afford if they were out on their own.

A safe haven
Keisha Bardowel, 24, has gotten a lot of support since she went to a shelter to escape her abusive boyfriend. In the shelter, she joined a domestic violence support group. She also got computer training so she can find a decent job. And counselors there have helped her find an apartment.
For Keisha, going to the shelter was a difficult decision. Keisha was 16 when she met her boyfriend and they'd been together eight years when she left him for the shelter. By then, he'd been physically abusive toward her for two years.
For a while, she felt she couldn't leave him, because his parents were sick and she was helping them. "I left him on and off. That's why I always went back to take care of them. But he knew that when they were gone, I'd be gone too," Keisha says.
Finally, though, Keisha felt she had no choice but to leave and start taking care of herself. "When I got to the shelter I felt safer. I also felt alone," Keisha says. "I didn't care how the shelter was, as long as I was away from where I was at."
For most families, staying in a shelter is not a good experience, it's a last resort. When Laquana first got to the shelter , she felt a big relief, because she believed her life would have been in danger if she and her mother stayed at the apartment.
At the same time, Laquana felt angry, because it wasn't her fault that they ended up there, but she had to suffer anyway.
The shelter was right across the street from her junior high school. People at school would ask her why she was always coming out of there, so she would say she worked there. "I was embarrassed," she says.

"My Own Room, My Own Space"
The rules at the shelter were really strict. Laquana couldn't have any friends over because it might put her family in danger. She and her mom couldn't have a telephone, so they could only use a pay phone at certain times. Laquana had to share a room with her mother, and their apartment was inspected often. If it wasn't clean three times, they could've gotten kicked out.
In the shelter, Laquana felt like her mother tried to keep her under her wing too much, because her mother was mad about being there, and she'd take it out on her.
Finally, after nearly two years in the shelter, Laquana's mom found them an apartment. In their new place, Laquana feels much better. "I have my own room, my own space, my privacy and more freedom," she says. "I don't have to worry that if I leave the house dirty for one day, someone will come upstairs with an inspection sheet. It feels great."
Foster Care Youth United.Voices 2003, IPA, all rights reserved.

 

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