You guys need anything?” the passenger in the deep blue van asked.
“Want a water, sandwich?” joined the driver.
A group of four youths appeared from the semi-darkness of a side street in Hollywood, shaking their heads.
“You guys are cool?” followed up the passenger, sounding like an only slightly reassured mom. “Good.”
The taller boy stepped forward. “You got a sandwich?”
“Here you go. We only have peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches.”
“Oh, thank you so much,” said the girl at his side.
“You’re welcome. What’s your name?”
“My name is Maria.”
“Hi, Maria. I’m Bobbie and that’s Nick, OK.”
Nick Semensky, 38, leaned over, asking, “How old are you?”
“OK, we’re gonna give you our card, so — ”
“Well, no,” Maria said, cutting him off. “I have a place to stay.”
Nick said, “But if you know anybody, let them know about us, OK.”
Bobbie Rodriguez-Martir, 38, repeated, “If you know anybody who needs anything, let us know. We’re from Covenant House, ages 18 to 24. We drive around if you need anything. A blanket, anything that you need, just wave us down and we can help.”
“Oh,” Maria cooed. “Thank you so very much.”
“You’re welcome,” said Bobbie. “Nice seeing you, Maria”.
The other boy said, “Yeah,” quietly. “I could use something to drink.”
“What is your name?”
“Hi, Kenneth. I’m Bobbie. You want water?”
After handing him a plastic bottle, Bobbie looked at the last member of the group, who was hanging back. “You want anything? You’re fine?” When he just shook him head, hooded in a sweatshirt, she said, “OK, bye you guys.”
“Right,” the taller boy said above the others.
But Kenneth, Maria and other youth living on the street in Los Angeles, California and across the nation, of course, are not doing OK. And their numbers keep climbing. Last year the National Alliance to End Homelessness’ report “The State of Homelessness in American 2015” found that on any given night in January 2014, 578,424 people were homeless, meaning they were sleeping outside, in an emergency shelter or in a transitional housing program.
Of that horrific number, 7.8 percent — 45,205 — were unaccompanied youth and children.
A year earlier, HUD (Department of Housing and Urban Development) released its own report, which foretold where all the homeless youths were coming from. “Housing for Youth Aging Out of Foster Care” showed that more than 70,000 youth in foster care had reached the ages 16 to 20; moreover, some 28,000 of them “age out” of the foster care system every year. And they had few skills or resources to help them make the difficult transition to economically independent adults.
Between 11 and 37 percent of these aging-out young people experienced homelessness after they transitioned. An additional 25 to 50 percent were “unstably housed,” which usually meant they “couch surfed” with relatives or friends until they became homeless.
The National Alliance to End Homelessness concluded the data from these reports “continue to show why organizations like Covenant House, CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates), Children’s Rights, Children’s Defense Fund and more are so critical to ensuring foster youth have the opportunity for a successful future.”
These stats, however, paled compared to California’s and, especially, to LA’s.
A 71-page report by Human Rights Watch in 2010 found that the Golden State had 65,000 children and youth in the foster care system, way more than any other state. Of that number, 4,000 aged out every year, with some 20 percent, or 5,300 young people, ending up homeless within the next five years.
Los Angeles County has about 28,000 youth currently in foster care, with some 1,400 awaiting adoptive families. Nearly half — 12,000 to 15,000 — wind up like Maria and Kenneth living on the street. Why? The Local Emergency Shelter Strategy for Los Angeles County reports that there are less than 500 beds targeted for unaccompanied youth.
But the core reasons run deeper. Human Rights Watch says California has simply not prepared kids coming out of foster care for adulthood.
“The route from foster care to homelessness is not only well-known to the state, but is, in effect, built into the system. Social workers transport some youth directly from foster homes to emergency shelters, fully aware that these shelters will house them for limited periods before turning them out onto the streets. Others are sent to transitional living situations with no back-up plan in place if things do not work out. …
“California is failing an essential duty to children in its care: to prepare them for adulthood and to survive independently. There is no magic switch that at age 18 delivers the skills, knowledge and support necessary for survival and success. Just as the state has a duty to provide appropriate shelter, food and health care to children in its care, it has a duty to address the crucial developmental needs of childhood and adolescence. The consequences are severe for young people who enter adulthood without this guidance and support.”
‘It doesn’t make sense’
Bill Bedrossian, who’s been the executive director of Covenant House California for a year and a-half, concurs totally. Professionally, the 42-year-old knows the problematic world of foster care well. He worked at Olive Crest, a west coast nonprofit that works with kids in foster care and their at-risk families, for a dozen years, much of that time as executive director. Before that he was supervising social workers at Los Angeles County’s Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS), which oversees the local foster care system.
“From my experience working in the foster care system, it’s just so difficult to find placements for these young people where they’re going to be supported, where they’re going to have people around them,” he said. “And to expect them to succeed without some sort of family environment is just unrealistic. And to just stick a kid in an apartment, it’s not a recipe for success. It really is setting young people up for failure.”
On a Thursday afternoon, Bedrossian was showing me around Covenant House’s campus off Western Avenue just south of Hollywood Boulevard. The inner basketball court-plaza is bordered by burned-orange, two-story connected stucco structures plus old-fashioned globe street lamps and tall shrubs. Off to one side is a small garden with a fountain and purple angel figure. He points out how the place was designed to be a safe, peaceful urban haven for kids coming off the mean streets of Hollywood and other environs.
“Part of it is the system is just not equipped to parent, you know,” he continued. “And so a system that was initially designed to protect children from being hurt is now expected to be a catchall and to take care of kids. So it’s never been designed to do what it’s doing now. So you have all these gaps about when kids come into the system, when they’re in it and then what to do with them afterwards.
“The reality is the public doesn’t want to pay for adults to be cared for. But when you think about it, a normal young person today doesn’t leave their home until after they’re done with college. And you’re expecting 18-year-olds who have never had a stable home, who don’t have a support system, who don’t have the skills to be on their own, to be independent. It doesn’t make sense, even if you extend it to 21 like California. It’s just unreasonable. And I think there’s a lack of compassion, ‘cause a 21- or 22-year-old should be able to figure it out on their own.”
Bedrossian’s parents, William, a former company executive, and Susan, had plenty of compassion for neglected and abused kids. For as long as he can remember, there were foster kids living in their home. Most came as infants to join him and his three siblings. Growing up, he had a crib in his bedroom — and got up at night to change diapers. The final count was seven adopted brothers and sisters from the child welfare system and another they simply considered part of the family.
“It was part of my family’s mission,” he pointed out. “What we felt called to do is take care of these young people. So it’s always been on my heart. I briefly worked on the Chicago Board of Trade. I wanted to be a stockbroker, and realized pretty quickly that was not what I was called to do. So I went back to graduate school at Loyola [University of Chicago] and became a social worker. Came out here and worked in the child welfare system for almost 14 years.”
Then he felt called to the mission of Covenant House, working more directly with young people to help them to become independent and to advocate at the federal and state level on their behalf.
“My parents handled it with such grace and love,” he recalled. “No one who ever grew up in our house ever wondered if they were loved and supported. Even if there was harsh discipline, it was always out of love, and we always knew it. So, yeah, I have a ton of compassion for these kids.”
Bedrossian says he’s blessed to be where he is right now.
“This age group is where you have the biggest opportunity to change really the fortune of people who are potentially gonna be homeless,” he said. “Because you can get them treatment for mental health issues if that’s what they need, get them treatment for substance abuse issues before they’ve got 20 years of history of patterns that they’re not gonna be able to change. They still have hopes and dreams. They can still articulate where they want to be.
“And as long as you have that, it’s an opportunity to change their destiny. So we can work with that. The challenge isn’t easy. It’s not as simple as housing. Most of the young people who get out of the foster care system are fearful or angry at government systems and don’t want to be controlled or told what to do. So when we do outreach at night, nine times out of 10 the young people we come across don’t want to come in.
“So you have to build relationships,” he explained, “and that’s what we do. That’s what the outreach workers do.”
Grilled cheese sandwiches
After being in more foster care and group homes than he can really remember, Adam Pittman still has hopes. After being taken away from his single mother when he was 4; becoming addicted to methamphetimine when he was 17; and having a cousin, his legal guardian, kick him out for stealing money from her wallet, the 23-year-old still dreams of being a cook, or maybe even a chef.
And he’s working towards what seemed impossible six months ago at Covenant House. “I’ve loved cooking since I was growing up, because it’s something I had to learn,” he told me right after getting off his breakfast-lunch shift on a Thursday afternoon. “I wasn’t always fed at every foster home I was at. Some required me to make my own meals.
“I love working in a cafeteria or in a restaurant. Just food in general is my passion. I love the way you can turn food into an art. So I want to be a chef. I’m an onsite food-prep intern here. I’m allowed to chop, serve and cook in the cafeteria downstairs sometimes.”
The last real cooking was making grilled cheese sandwiches for lunch. “I felt they weren’t crunchy enough,” he confided. “But everyone told me they loved ‘em. I made over 62 sandwiches in less than an hour.”
Adam’s road to Covenant House was troubled from the start. He was taken away from his single mother four times by child welfare officials before it was made permanent when he was 5. He remembers being in kindergarten when police arrived at his school with her in tow. She had a Happy Meal from McDonald’s in her hands, but they wouldn’t let her get close to him.
After that it was pretty much one foster care home after another. “It was a very unique environment growing up in foster care, being shipped from place to place,” he said. “I remember one year I went to school and they asked me what grade I was in. Because I had no clue, I just guessed. And they put me in, like, a sixth grade when I was really supposed to be in third or fourth.”
The longest stay was three years. “It was, like, nice,” he said. “It was like a family. But we moved around a lot: Crestline, then Twin Peaks, then Victorville.”
His next to last placement was in a Rialto group home with 10 other guys. Staff was there 24/7 monitoring everything, and he wasn’t allowed to leave the grounds. He didn’t like the totally programmed atmosphere from getting up at 6:30 a.m. to going to bed when it was still daylight at 7 p.m. “I stayed awake in bed just lying there wondering what my life was gonna be,” he said.
Moving, of course, was hard.
“I’ve been to about 10 foster care families, but I’ve been to more schools than I had families,” pointed out Adam. “School was always difficult. You always make friends and have to move, making a new group of friends and then have to move again. Eventually you get tired of it. You’re like: ‘Why am I making friends when I’m never gonna see these people again?’ So I went from having no friends to pretty much having acquaintances. Because you only see them at school.”
Until middle school, he never told any of his classmates he was in foster care. But then they found out. “I got made fun of,” he said, glancing down. “Because they’d always say, ‘You have no family. You have no parents.’ They’d be like, ‘Oh, they’re just watching you to get paid.’”
And there was worse. He had soap shoved down his mouth, got slapped and punched, and beaten with a belt. And then there were the deeper developmental scars. Adam knows he wasn’t raised properly. He wasn’t sure what “family” meant because he never really had one. And he didn’t know how to control his emotions because nobody ever told him how to keep his feelings in check.
He matter-of-factly mused, “There’s a lot of things I’ve felt like I missed out on in a normal upbringing.”
But right after, Adam brightened. “It can damage you, but it can also make you stronger,” he said. “Like, I wouldn’t be the person I am today if I didn’t go through all those foster and group homes. I wouldn’t learn my own strengths and control my ability to maintain my emotions. Going through foster care made me stronger.
“I can deal with more pain than normal people,” he stressed. “I can deal with more tragedy. I can deal with losing someone way easier than someone else because I’m used to losing everybody. I lost families. I lost friends.”
And his tone dropped again: “You go into a foster care house thinking, ‘Oh, my gosh! This is gonna be my house where I’m gonna live for the rest of my life.’ And find out you’re only there for a certain period of time. They treat you like they care for you, and then they just kick you to the side.”
Rights of Passage
Adam wound up on the streets of Hollywood after his last placement, a guardianship with a second cousin, went sour. He was taking money from her wallet almost every day to support smoking weed and a burgeoning meth habit. He wound up couch surfing at friends’ apartments, serving a 20-day stint in a San Bernardino jail, and staying in a couple shelters. The last one told him about Covenant House.
After spending a few weeks in the agency’s emergency crisis center, he was accepted into R.O.P., the two-year residential Rights of Passage program. To qualify, youths must be either enrolled in school full-time or working full-time or a combination of the two. They also have to save about 80 percent of their income and are encouraged to take “life-skills” classes to prepare for independent living. There’s also regular R.O.P community meetings.
“I love it. It’s actually a really good program,” he told me. “The staff are genuine. They care. They show they care. They come to you when they see that you’re down. Or you can go to them if you need assistance. The clients themselves are good people. You can see that we’re all good people. We’re just stuck in a situation we can’t get out of, and we’re all working toward getting out of this situation.”
When asked where would he be if he wasn’t at Covenant House, Adam didn’t hesitate. “I’d either be on the street or dead right now,” he said. “Yeah. It got to a point one day after I first was here in crisis where my schizophrenia started acting up. I was having auditory and visual hallucinations. And I decided I wanted to overdose.
“So I went up to one of the staff, letting them know how I felt. They immediately acted. They were like: ‘Well, what can we do to help you? What can we do to get you out of this state?’ And they were willing to do everything to make me feel better. And all I needed, personally, was just time to myself to figure out what was going on.”
Adam says he’s in a better place now. His “faults” are in check. His dream of being a cook, or even a chef, is more like a reality. All he has to do is keep making those grilled cheese sandwiches.