First Place for Youth: A Program to Avert Homelessness

By Lydia Gans, Special to the Planet
Thursday December 17, 2009 - 08:39:00 AM

Happy 18th birthday! Congratulations, you are now officially an adult. You can vote, you can drink, you are independent.”  

Those may be welcome words to most young people, but not necessarily to those who have been in foster care, where “independent” means “on your own”—totally on your own. Boys and girls are placed in foster care when they have no parents or their parents are unable to care for them. When they turn 18, their foster parents no longer have any responsibility for them. 

What kind of resources does an 18-year-old have to support his or herself especially in these difficult times? For aged-out foster children with no support system in place, the odds against them are formidable. Data for the Bay Area show that of about 600 young people a year, 65 percent face homelessness, 20 percent will be arrested or incarcerated, and less than 1 percent will graduate from college. Clearly these young people need help, they need support, they need a community. 

Eleven years ago two graduates from the Goldman School of Public Policy decided to do something about it. They started a program, First Place for Youth, that has become a nationally recognized model for helping young people, age 16 to 24, transition successfully out of foster care. Deanne Pearn, chief development officer and one of the founders, described First Place for Youth as “unique in that we’re a holistic comprehensive program—everything a young person will need to have a successful transition into adulthood. That means education and employment support, access to permanent housing ... helping them to develop life skills ... so they can ultimately sustain their own housing. Our ultimate goal is to help young people have permanent housing, living-wage employment and at least two years of post-secondary education. In our society those are the things that are critical for someone to be able to live successfully on their own.”  

The overarching agency is First Place for Youth which has three components: the My First Place Housing Program, the First Steps Community Resource Center and Steps to Success Education and Employment Services. In the past year the program served nearly 1,000 young people. 

The housing component is a major part of the program. My First Place Housing Program provides a rent subsidy which is gradually decreased over a two-year period. This gives them time to “become productive members of society,” Deanne Pearn explained. “They don’t need a crutch, they need support through the transition.... We have a property management arm, we find the places, do the leasing, make sure the apartments meet standards, collect the rent, deal with the landlord.” Last year nearly 300 young people were housed through this program.  

First Steps Community Resource Center, at 16th and Telegraph, around the corner from the program offices, is the first place for young people who are interested in entering the program. It is also a place they can always come back to even after they are out of the program. It is a large, inviting place with computers, a children’s play area, space for socializing and class, meeting and conference rooms. Here they go through an assessment to make sure the housing program will work for them. “Assessments covers educational history, employment history, mental health,” said manager Rudy Ross, “to make sure the housing program will work for them—they should be pretty able to function independently when they get into housing.” Once they’re accepted, they will take a broad spectrum of classes, from keeping a budget, shopping, managing their household to getting ready to go to school or look for a job. There are classes on health, nutrition, pregnancy prevention, healthy relationships, domestic violence and more. 

Twenty-one-year-old Adrienne Jackson was 17 when she got into the program and has been working there for almost three years. “It was good for me to get into this program, helped me get on my feet,” Jackson said. “I work the front desk and I’m a peer educator now, I do workshops, orientations. I’m highly involved in any activities here.”  

She talked about how it feels for kids in foster homes. “It doesn’t feel good. They have no one to turn to.... (For) some of the youth it’s not like they’ve been abandoned by their parents but sometimes their parents were killed or are gone or are dead.” As for the foster homes, “Some foster parents don’t really care too much about the youth, it’s a job for them. Others love doing what they’re doing, working with the youth and they want to help.”  

Jackson was very clear about what she wants to do with her life. “I want to get a group home or a foster home. I love working with youth, that’s all I’m going to do, work with youth. I plan to work in criminal justice, be like a probation officer for juveniles, and foster homes. A lot of former foster youth want to go into social work—I hear that a lot with former foster youth. It’s like I wasn’t treated the right way and I want other youth in the future to know that you’re not by yourself, you aren’t alone. I’ve been there before, I want the youth to understand that I understand where you’re coming from and I’m here to help fix it.” 

Steps to Success Education and Employment Services is the third component of the program. Manager Tarik Scott has constructed a chart showing a series of 10 steps starting with ‘step it up,’ ‘rapport building’ through workshops and career exploration, process of looking for and applying for jobs to finally achieving sustainable employment. “Step it up leads right out of the assessment process,” Scott explained. Here they talk about financial literacy, job preparation, cover letters and resumes, job search techniques, public speaking and more. “Here’s where we get to them and them us. When they graduate from the three weeks in Step It Up, they’re on the pre-housing list. Once in housing they’re assigned an education and employment specialist—start seriously working on education or jobs.” Their counselor might go with them to job fairs or coach them in carrying out a successful interview. 

Talking about employment brought up the particular issues that surface during the holiday times. “Seasonal jobs are easy to get but that doesn’t help in the long run,” said Tarik Scott. “We do a good job of getting youth into positions for the holiday push, and a lot of the efforts with employers are geared toward making those temporary positions permanent.... It’s great for (the young people) to get some experience (if) big retailers need them only for a month or two, but we try to parley that into longer-term employment.” 

The holidays are a hard time for all people who are homeless—especially so for young people who age out of foster care. A program like First Place for Youth can make a huge difference. Deanne Pearn talked about what motivates her: “It’s a very solvable problem. We’re talking about 600 kids in the Bay Area a year, we know who they are, where they live, what date they’re going to be made homeless, and we know that if we catch it now we’re preventing the long-term chronic homeless problem. Up to half of the homeless population in a snapshot study done in LA one day were former foster youth. So they’re a tiny portion of the population but a huge portion of the homeless population. And the stats show that two-thirds of them face imminent homelessness upon their discharge from foster care. So we know if we can catch them now and give them this intervention, we can completely divert that. And I think we can see a huge reduction in the homeless population.”