The San Diego Regional Task Force on the Homeless may study how many homeless adults throughout the county once were in foster care under a proposal by the Rev. Shane Harris, president of the civil rights group the People’s Alliance for Justice.
“It’s about making the government a better parent,” said Harris, who spent 13 years in the foster system.
A survey the task force has conducted each year since 2017 as part of an annual homeless count has found that about 2 percent of youths contacted said they became homeless because they aged out of foster care at 18.
There isn’t much data on how many homeless adults in San Diego County are former foster children, however, and Harris said he suspects they are over-represented in the overall homeless population as a result of the lasting effects of having been in the foster system.
Harris discussed ways of collecting that information last week with task force CEO Tamera Kohler, who said she would bring the idea to the group’s board of directors.
On Monday, Kohler said if the board supports the proposal, data would be collected throughout 2020 with surveys at various sites rather than from the one-night annual homeless count.
“Our hope is we get the greater representation of our homeless population in all the different types of programs where they seek services,” she said.
The information could lead to a better understanding of how to help homeless adults who once were foster children, she said.
“Does an experience in foster care affect a person’s ability to stabilize?” she said. “This may allow us to tailor support to someone who has been in the foster care system. It’s a mindful way for us to consider their experience.”
Kohler noted that a similar study of homeless veterans led to a tailored approach in helping that population. According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, the percentage of homeless veterans around the country has decreased by 43 percent since 2011 and dropped another 2 percent this past year.
Harris said the data also would help bring attention to challenges faced by young people transitioning out of foster care, which could lead to greater services and housing.
“We’re going to be having town halls and getting input about more solutions,” he said, adding that he would like data on homeless former foster children to be added to national reports on homelessness.
In one possible change, Harris suggested making transitional housing immediately available to foster youths aging out of the system. He said he waited a full year before housing became available after he turned 18.
In another change, Harris said the county’s Home program for emancipated foster youth could be modified so people up to age 30 are eligible for it. The affordable housing program, run by San Diego County Health and Human Services in collaboration with the Housing and Community Development Department, is available only to former foster youth ages 18 to 23.
According to the program’s website, there are 7,000 children in the foster care system in San Diego County, and about 200 age out of the program each year.
A former foster child who once slept on the street and couch-surfed, Harris said he has first-hand knowledge about the relationship between homelessness and foster care.
He attended San Pasqual Academy in Escondido, a county-run school for foster youth, but left after turning 18. He recently recalled how he and several other students who had aged out of the system were driven in a van to new homes with former foster families or mentors.
“And there I was,” he said. “I didn’t have anywhere else to go. They dropped me off at B Street in downtown San Diego with an emancipation letter and one bag of clothes. The driver wished me well.”
By 18, Harris said he had gone through about 10 different placements.
Harris said he was 8 when his father died of cancer. One day when he was 16, he was called out of class at school and told that his mother had died of a drug overdose.
“I was distraught and didn’t know what to do,” he said. “I ran away from a foster home and was homeless for about six months. I was couch surfing and sleeping on the street for two months.”
Looking ahead, Harris said he would like nationwide data on homelessness to include information about how many homeless adults had once been in foster care.
About 437,000 youths in the United States were in foster care last year, according to the U.S.Department of Health and Human Services.