May 12, 2010

Leaving Homelessness Behind

Warren’s Success

When he turned 18, adulthood came as an abrupt announcement for Warren.[188] “The guy at [my] group home told me on a Wednesday that I needed to get out by Saturday.” With that, 18-year-old Warren was tossed out of foster care. “I tried to tell him that I had no place to go, but he told me that I couldn’t stay there ... I asked, ‘Couldn’t I [just] stay in the garage?’” The answer was no. Warren packed his possessions into his car and left.

He was homeless for two years. “I’d park [my car] different places and sleep. Sometimes I would stay at friends’ houses,” he said. Remarkably, he continued to work toward his high school diploma and regularly attended classes. “I didn’t want to give up. My motivation was to be better. I was trying to show people that I could do things that they didn’t think I could do.” He worked in a restaurant and used the money to pay for his car. It’s a time that he doesn’t like to think about: “I got to a point where I was so depressed, so frustrated, I felt like killing myself.”

The chance for a place to live and the emotional support to make it as a young adult came when he was twenty. “I was so desperate. I don’t know how I heard about [a transitional living program] ... but I did, and somehow I got an application and brought it over to their office. I thought I would never hear back from them.” He did, and after a rigorous acceptance process, he was off the streets and into an apartment with a roommate.

The program was not an easy ride—at one point he lost his job and did not have enough money to pay both rent and his car payment. He chose the car. “I thought to myself, I gotta keep this car. If everything goes wrong, I can sleep in my car.” Not being able to pay rent jeopardized his placement in the program, but instead of booting him, a counselor worked with him to re-focus priorities and find another job.

Those kind of second chances are part of what helped him become the successful independent adult he is today. Warren also points to the relationships built in the program. “The [staff at the transitional living program] let me know they were here for me, they let me know that they knew I was trying to do something in my life and they supported me in it. It seems like they really care about what happens to you. And, when bad things happened—like when I lost that job, they would make sure that I was out there looking for another job. They always have some ideas about work.” He spent 18 months at the program.

Living on his own in Long Beach, Warren said he was working and going to school. For the two years before up until we spoke with him, he had worked with a company that maintained a number of apartment buildings across the county. With shy pride he clicked off the skills he is mastering, “I’ve learned carpentry, plumbing, and electrical work.” Walking through an apartment unit, he showed the interviewer perfectly mitered crown molding, expert drywall work and professional painting he’d done himself. “See that air conditioning unit? I installed it.”

Warren’s boss, Tony Suarez, said he thought highly of him: “In the beginning I was kind of surprised about what he’s been through, the problems he’s had ... But he’s been great. He likes to be there for people.” The relationship has been a meaningful one for both. Mr. Suarez described a call he got from Warren last Christmas. “[He said] thank you for everything I’d done for him. He told me that I was like a big brother to him—he really meant it. No one had ever told me something like that—It made me feel so great. I’m on my own too, but I have parents—it’s just different when you don’t have anyone.”[189]

In addition to working full-time, Warren was attending community college. “Right now I am taking care of my general education requirements. I hope that by the middle of this year I’ll be able to go full-time. I’d like to work with kids. I’m thinking about becoming a teacher or a child psychologist. I’m focusing on finding something that I know I’ll be good at.”

On the weekends he played volleyball and was also a member of a car club. “It’s a Mustang owners’ club. We meet for barbeques and stuff. I do some mechanical work on cars, I help people out with their cars and fix things.”

Friends would tell him it is time to start a family. He disagreed. “I have things I want to do before I have kids. I’d like to travel, go to different places in the world. But when I do have kids, I think I’ll adopt. I think about how there are so many kids out there without a mom or a dad.”

It was hard to imagine this young man living in a car. His journey from homelessness to a stable life of work, school, and weekends playing volleyball happened because simple needs were met: A place to live, emotional support, second chances, and relationships with people who care. Those factors gave him what he needed. Warren said he was not stopping. He dreamed about traveling, plans for future careers, and family options. He summed up his life, “I want to see how far I can go.”

Photo: Warren. © 2007 Patricia Williams


Anya’s Success

Plowing through eight placements in less than five years, Anya thought leaving foster care was like the end of a bad dream.[190] Instead, what came next was a real nightmare. “I was homeless for two and a half years, living in motels and in my car ... At one point I was living in my car ... in the winter. I was freezing with my baby there with me ... She’d sleep sitting up in her car seat. “

Anya recalls one desperate night trying to get to a homeless shelter in Orange County. Driving along I-5, she tensely watched the gas gauge move to empty. “I didn’t think we would make it to the shelter.” In the back seat her three-year-old daughter squealed with joy as they passed Disneyland’s fireworks lighting the sky next to the freeway. They made it to the shelter, but it was overcrowded, with sleeping mats jammed together on the floor inside, and even the yard filled with people sleeping outside. Anya felt safer parking the car in the alley and staying there with her child. Sitting behind the steering wheel, she said, she cried all night. She thought, “I can’t do this anymore.”

She had tried a number of programs but with no luck. Even reaching them was difficult. “Most places you call don’t answer the phone—it’s just a message or no one picks up.” The next day she had some luck. “When an actual person picked up the phone, I couldn’t talk, I just cried into the phone.” Ultimately she was accepted into a transitional living program. “I remember [the call saying that] I got in [to the program] ... my heart raced. I said, ‘Are you kidding? Are you kidding?!’”

“December 9th [was] my move-in day. They asked if I needed help moving my stuff, and [laughing] well, no, I didn’t; it all fit in my car ... I got there, and they took me to my apartment and I went in and I just sat on the bed. I was so happy to have a room ... I was so happy I couldn’t move for an hour. I just sat there. Finally, after everything, I had a place I could stay.”

Anya threw herself in to working and going to school. She got a job with a mortgage company and worked from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m., then drove over an hour to a community college and took night classes until 10. “I was never at home, I never saw [my daughter], because I was so scared about being homeless again. I missed out on the program here [at the transitional living program.]” Her counselor called her in for a heart-to-heart. “She said, ‘You’re disappointing me,’ and let me know I needed to participate in the program. I didn’t realize she didn’t want me to just work; she wanted me to leave [the program] with connections, with a family, because that is what I was missing.” The counselor also helped Anya focus on her priorities. “She told me, ‘You know you are taking time away from your daughter.’ I told her, ‘No, I am doing all of this for her!’ She told me that I am missing special time with her and I won’t be able to make it up later—and I realized she was right, I couldn’t keep working and going to school the way I was.” Anya quit work but with the help of program staff was able to secure a paying internship. “I work in the Motion Picture Development Finance Department at Paramount.” There she gained a mentor who introduced her to accounting.

When we spoke with her, Anya attended school full-time and worked two days a week. There were dance classes for her daughter on Saturdays. “It’s the best situation ever,” she says. “My hope is to go to a four-year college this year or the following year. I’m thinking about USC, UCLA, or Cal State Northridge. But wherever I go, I’m going to go—I’m going to a four-year college to get my degree. I’m really focused [on getting] through school.” Others have recognized her efforts and how far she has come: she was awarded a scholarship.

You do not have to spend much time with Anya to get a sense of her determination. She is energetic, exudes confidence and laughs easily. She is the picture of optimistic young adulthood. What separates her from the young person who was homeless for two-and-a-half years? Anya’s answer is the guidance and supportive relationships she has at her transitional living program. She gives a clear example: “I used to always run out of gas. Here, at this program they don’t yell at you, and they don’t just give you money for gas. The counselor helps me figure out how to budget, so next time I’ll have the money for gas and not run out. It makes me feel like here there are people who really care about me.”

When she thinks about the future, she’s clear. “My dream for where I will be in 10 years? I’ll be an accountant. I’ll have my own office; my name will be on the door. I’ll have an intern and I’ll be helping that person. Most importantly I will be helping others. People tell me now, ‘You’re going to be successful, you’re going to be doing something big.’ I hear that and I think, ‘Yes, I am.’”

Photo: Anya. © 2007 Patricia Williams

[188]All of Warren’s quotes are based on a Human Rights Watch interview with Warren H., age 24, Whittier, December 27, 2006.

[189] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Tony Suarez, Los Angeles, December 30, 2006.

[190] All of Anya F.’s quotes are based on Human Rights Watch interviews with her at age 21, in Whittier, California, April 23, 2006, and December 27, 2006.