Dejon Lewis was 11 years old when child protective services arrived to take him and his twin sister away from their mother, whom he says is a drug addict. But instead of giving themselves over to the state, the two children made a run for it. Lewis says they stayed with a family friend for a while, but eventually they turned themselves in, and that’s when he entered the foster care system. Since then, Lewis has bounced around a lot.
“It’s hard to live when you’re just living with strangers and strangers and strangers, and no relatives. But I know down the road that that wouldn’t last forever, so I had to figure out how to be more independent,” he says.
Now he’s 21, and he’s emancipated from foster care, but he’s still not settled yet. Only a few months ago, things got especially bad. He lost his apartment and struggled to find a place to sleep.
“It was tiring because I was hungry and I couldn’t get something to eat or go to the bathroom. I kept sleeping on the floor, uncomfortable floors,” he says.
It’s pretty common for former foster youth to experience homelessness. In one regional study, over a third surveyed reported periods of homelessness or couch-surfing. But on top of that, Lewis was also attempting to attend community college.
“Even though I was in my situation, I still managed a way to find my way to school,” says Lewis.
The balancing act
Trying to make it through college as a former foster youth is really hard. Less than half of California’s former foster youth even enter community college, and of that population, only about 40 percent enroll for a second year.
Michael McPartlin manages a program called Guardian Scholars, which provides support for former foster youth, at City College of San Francisco.
“I can point out pictures on the wall of students who have graduated, where all the way up to just within a month of graduating, lost housing, and thought they’d have to drop out because they had nowhere to go,” McPartlin says.
Former foster youth support programs like McPartlin’s are embedded in nearly 45 colleges across California. But many are inside universities with on-campus housing, and they might serve a couple dozen students. City College’s program has 160 students, and like most community colleges, it doesn’t have any dorms. So McPartlin says he spends a lot of time dealing with housing issues. “For our program, it’s not a luxury. It’s a necessity,” he says.
The problem, McPartlin says, is that services for this population are underfunded. Things got a little easier for some of his students when California Bill AB12 was signed into law in 2010. It extends foster care benefits from age 18 to age 21. But McPartlin says many eligible youth can’t find stable housing near school with the limited cash benefit AB12 provides.
Another potential financial aid source is the Chafee Grant, which is specifically for former foster youth in college. But in San Francisco’s expensive rental market, the money still runs out, and they often don’t have a backup plan.
“They come to me and say, ‘I’m homeless, I’ve got no place to go tonight,’” says McPartlin.
So McPartlin continually seeks creative housing solutions for his students. While Guardian Scholars lacks the funding to cover rent for individual students, the program can sometimes cover a student’s security deposit, and it will try to connect students with housing opportunities. For a while, Guardian Scholars had a relationship with a local residential hotel. Recently, an innovative idea came from a 73-year-old volunteer.
Warrene Lofton describes herself as the motherly type. In fact, she’s the mother of two grown children, and a former foster parent. In 2011, Lofton started volunteering as a mentor with Guardian Scholars. She noticed pretty quickly how much the students struggled with housing. Since she’s a real estate agent, she thought maybe she could help.
“So I veered away from mentoring to finding housing for the kids,” Lofton says.
At first she found rooms for individual students to rent in various houses. But in December 2012, she took it a step further: she convinced the owner of a home near City College to let her rent the entire house and then sublet it to four Guardian Scholars students.
“I pay the rent upfront, and they reimburse me, so I’m giving them that leisure time to get their money together,” she says.
At $600 for most of the rooms including utilities, it’s affordable for the students. The current tenants all work and pay their rent themselves.
At first, the whole project was pretty demanding for Lofton, but now she says, “I’m trying to let them be adults. I had to stop cooking for them. I was going over there and cleaning, showing them how to wring out a mop, and you know, I said, oh no, no. You figure it out.”
Some of her tenants have already come and gone, and Lofton has adapted along the way. She says the house is an experiment, so she just does what she feels is best. Some people have suggested she bring counselors or therapists to the house, but she says her tenants don’t want that.
“They tell me, Miss Lofton, that’s all I’ve had all my life is programs. I don’t want another program,” she says.
Lofton says she hopes to recruit people to help her expand this model to other homes. She believes her actions can make the difference for students who might otherwise become homeless or drop out of school.
“Somebody needs to do it. It just has to be done,” she says.
Until we meet our goals
“Not a lot of people believe in foster youth,” says Darrell Molett. He’s one of Lofton’s tenants. “They believe we mess things up more than fix things. And she took it the other way around. She said we fix things more than mess things up.”
It’s a Sunday morning and Molett is in the living room with a few housemates, including Dejon Lewis. Lewis moved in a couple months ago. The place looks like a typical communal apartment. There’s mismatched furniture, and empty Jack-in-the-Box wrappers on the coffee table. A makeshift wall separates the living room and Molett’s bedroom.
At 30, Darrell Molett is a little older than the others, but he’s familiar with group living. He grew up in the foster care system in New Orleans from the time he was born.
“That’s seven different neighborhoods, that’s seven different best friends,” he says.
After Hurricane Katrina, Molett moved to San Francisco to rebuild his life. Now he plans to complete his associate’s degree in cinematography next year. Then he wants to go for his bachelor’s degree at SF State, where he’ll probably move into university housing. But for now, he’s the house manager here, collecting rent and trying to keep everyone in line. According to Molett: “It’s not a lot of house rules. It’s just enough rules to make sure everybody’s treated fair.”
Molett says being around other Guardian Scholars students has been good for him.
“Growing up in foster homes you meet a lot of people, but you’re dealing with so much pain on the inside, you don’t really want to open up to the people. College has a way of making you want to open up,” he says.
He says the housemates share their stories and goals: “We definitely motivate each other. We feed off each other.”
Still, Molett says he really wants his own place. So does Dejon Lewis, though he knows it might not happen for a while.
“Hopefully we can live here till we meet our goals in life, till we get on our feet. But this is not a place where you get too comfortable or we call home,” Lewis says.
Instead, this is a place where these young people can start to envision what home could be.