“Seven” grew up in a repressive authoritarian cult. She was so isolated from the world, she didn’t know what TV was until she was 12. After her father was kicked out of the cult, she attended public school for the first time. “I had to stay after school so they could teach me how to read a clock,” she says.
The 21st century overwhelmed Seven. She got good marks in seventh grade, but she couldn’t sit still. “I was a loose cannon,” she admits. “I was a watcher and absorbed things [until] it was just too much. Kids who weren't nice to me I kicked in the shins.” When puberty hit, with its hormones and identity crises, she broke down and was expelled for violent behavior.
Seven ran away from home to live with an older sister who traveled a lot for her job in the adult entertainment industry. Unsupervised, Seven started using with street kids, and eventually went missing downtown. By age 14, she was bouncing from group foster homes to juvenile detention to hospital ERs and psych wards. Antipsychotic meds cooled her down enough for placement in a more normal foster home, but her foster mom was spiteful, repeatedly telling Seven: “When you turn 18, we’ll have a nice bonfire in the street for your stuff.”
Seven recalls being haunted by “the terror of turning 18. I couldn’t think straight to do school, didn’t have the skills to get a job. I felt insane, felt I was drowning.”
When she turned 17, Seven’s case manager got her into transitional housing at YouthCare's Pathways. She blew out of Pathways and other programs more than once, she says. “People were trying to work with me but I was really struggling.” Then when she hit 20, an 18-month voucher from Seattle Housing Authority helped her move into her own apartment. “It was my first experience of having my own place,” Seven says.
The foster care system is a major pathway to homelessness. A tiny fraction of America’s 18-24-year-olds are homeless or unstably housed in any given period, but the percentage of foster youth who become homeless is high. In Washington state, 35 percent of the 550 teenagers who age out of foster care each year wind up on the streets during their first year out. That’s according to a 2013 study by the state Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS).
In addition, many foster kids run away to the streets, where they may spend days or even years. Between January 2010 and April 2012, 115 to 172 children ran away from their foster homes each month, according to DSHS.
As Seven’s history suggests, steering homeless foster kids or young people at risk of homelessness under a roof and keeping them there is no simple task. “It’s not like they get housed and quickly become successful people,” says Hedda McLendon, YouthCare’s director of programs. “Their progression is never linear.” In this respect, says McLendon, homeless foster kids are a lot like college kids who need to “take breaks and who get to go home, then go back [to school]. One thing we do with our programming is we try to allow for that coming and going.”
Patience is critical to any foster youth program, but so is discipline. YMCA’S Metrocenter Seattle offers an Independent Living program for foster teens on the cusp of independence, providing resources to help prepare them for the time when they’ll age out of care. Some enroll at age 15 or 16 then don’t show up again for a year or more, says Cacey Hanauer, YMCA director of Foster Care Transitions. “That’s how their brains work, and I get it.” But if they don't honor commitments, there are repercussions. “If they miss a housing appointment [they] don’t get the place,” says Hanauer. “If [they miss] a job interview [they] don’t get the job. Natural consequences aren’t punitive. It’s how the world works.”
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