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Aging Out

Ellen Guettler

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Tyondra Newton
(Ellen Guettler)
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This weekend in Los Angeles, more than 700 people will gather for the "It's My Life Conference," which connects kids about to age out of foster care with programs that can help them find a job or get an education, as well as mentors that can help them along the way. Each year 26,000 American teenagers in foster care leave their foster families or group homes and try to make it on their own as they turn 18 and no longer qualify for state services. It's a tough transition, especially without family support. Foster kids who age out at 18 are more likely than their peers to be unemployed or poor. Many will be homeless or become victims of violence. Ellen Guettler of American RadioWorks spent almost two years following one young woman after she aged out of foster care. She starts our story in the spring of 2005.

---

Tyondra Newton always dreamed of having a home of her own. As she opens the door to her new apartment, her cheeks give way to deep dimples. She can't stop grinning. It's just a single room, with a bathroom. But it's hers.

"I have my own apartment," she says with a giggle. She says it again, as if she can't quite believe it herself. "My own apartment!"

Tyondra is 19. Her nickname, "Ty," is tattooed on her neck in curly script. Her very own apartment is at Seventh Landing in St. Paul, Minnesota. It provides permanent housing for young people who have been homeless. Most of the tenants have aged out of foster care, including Ty. She spent her whole life in foster care. She lived in so many homes and institutions, she lost count.

Ty has some family. She knew her mother growing up, and longed to be with her. But her mother was addicted to drugs. Ty and her two sisters were removed from her home. For years the three girls only had each other. But as they got older, it got harder to find homes where they could be together.

As a teenager, Ty started to pick fights with other kids and was sent to live at a residential treatment facility. She saw her sisters less and less.

When Ty turned 18, she was considered an adult in the eyes of the county. She had no one to pay for her care. She had aged out. Ty walked out of residential treatment and into a homeless shelter. She stayed in shelters for the first year on her own. And in one of them she met a girl named Jamah Boward. Jamah is an orphan; her family was killed in Liberia.

The two girls with no one else clung to each other. At night they usually stayed at the same youth shelter - until one night when their options ran out.

"We had absolutely nowhere to go," Ty remembers.

"[I] called almost every shelter. They were all full for our ages. I knew it was getting dark and I knew I didn't have no place to stay."

It was summer, and Jamah had a job selling
concessions at the local baseball field. She remembers getting off work in the evening and finding Ty at a bus stop.

"She was crying," Jamah says. "She told me she had nowhere to go."

Jamah told her not to cry. They would figure something out. She called a social worker at one of the shelters that was full. The worker had already spent the day looking for a place the girls could stay. But staff aren't allowed to take young people into their homes. Ty remembered a low-roofed building in a local park. It overlooked a playground she would go to as a child. The girls asked the worker to meet them there. The worker arrived, gave them some blankets and drove away.

Ty and Jamah climbed up on the flat black-tarred roof. It was just one story high. Some trees growing in front of the building barely concealed them. They hoped they wouldn't be caught trespassing. They hoped the men who walked through the park wouldn't see them.

It was hot and dark. As they went to sleep, Jamah and Ty covered themselves with the blankets to ward off the summer mosquitoes.

Ty felt like she had hit rock bottom.

"When I was little, I saw people sleeping on the street and I didn't understand," she recalls. "And when I stayed in shelters I knew I was homeless. But when I had to sleep outside, I felt like my life was over. I was nobody."

Having a friend like Jamah was one of the few things that helped Ty feel less alone. They spent several nights on that roof. They forged a bond there they don't share with anyone else. Later that summer, they found beds once again in a shelter. Ty found out about Seventh Landing and put her name on the waiting list.

By winter, she finally has a place to call her
own. Jamah has her own place too, not too far away.

But they keep a memento of the nights when they only had each other. They still have the blanket they used up on the roof. They trade off who keeps it. Ty says it's not very pretty to look at, and some of their friends make fun of it. But those friends don't understand what it symbolizes for Ty and Jamah.

"That blanket is like memories for our success," Ty says. "Because this blanket helped us get through nights when we didn't have what we have now."

Now Ty feels like she's piecing together a bit of a future. She pays 30 percent of her income in rent at Seventh Landing. The rest is federally subsidized through Section 8 housing vouchers. At Seventh Landing there's always a waiting list, but now that Ty is in, she can live here as long as she wants to. There's a coffee shop downstairs that employs tenants. And Ty spends part of her week working there. She's even gotten her nursing assistant certificate and plans to start another part-time job at a phone company.

"That's three part-time jobs," Ty says proudly.
"Back then I had none."

Ty wants to become a full-time registered nurse. The staff at Seventh Landing will help her enroll in classes in the fall.

But her jobs and the apartment haven't helped ease Ty's longing for a family. Her mother passed away a couple of years ago, around the same time Ty met her father. But he's in prison.

Ty's sisters live nearby. But they haven't fared much better than Ty herself. They're struggling to piece together their own lives.

And so Ty tries to help her sisters whenever she can. Now that she's found some stability, she gives them money for groceries. She takes her small nieces and nephews to McDonald's Playland, and babysits them when her sisters have to work.

In July, for her twentieth birthday, Ty throws herself a party at Seventh Landing. Her sisters are there. They sit on folding chairs playing cards. They joke and shout at one another about cheating or being too competitive. Their laughter carries out to the patio where Ty's nieces and nephews run around with water balloons. It's been a year since those nights on the roof. Ty can't remember when she's had this much family in one place. She hasn't had a birthday party since she was eight years old. She takes a moment to look at everyone who has gathered in her honor. Her face is beaming.

A few months later, Ty is in her apartment playing with a little boy named Miguel. He's the child of a cousin, and his parents aren't taking care of him. Ty's still working multiple jobs, but she takes Miguel whenever she can, sometimes for days at a time. Ty can't bear the thought of the little boy going into foster care.

"I'm not saying that all foster homes are bad, but all of the ones I've been to have been," Ty says, as Miguel toddles over to her and pats her knees. "If Miguel stays there... I'm just afraid of anyone going into foster care, I don't want that ever to happen."

Ty's frustrated that Miguel's parents won't look after him. She thinks they have no idea how hard it is to grow up alone.

"They grew up all their life with their mom and dad," Ty says. "So they really don't understand what it's like to not have a mom and dad."

Ty wants to take care of Miguel until his parents come around. But the rules at Seventh Landing say she has to live alone in her apartment. So Miguel can't move in with her.

Ty knows that if she leaves Seventh Landing, she'll also be leaving a lot of the support that has helped her stay off the street. She'll still qualify for housing vouchers, so she could get subsidies for another apartment. But Seventh Landing offers her help finding a job or enrolling in school. The biggest reason young people leave Seventh Landing is because they've violated its strict policy against drugs and alcohol. But Ty's reason is family. She wants to move somewhere where she and Miguel can be together.

Ty decides not to take the nursing classes she'd planned in the fall. Instead she keeps working so she can afford a larger apartment. But once she moves away from Seventh Landing, she'll have no one to fall back on. Ty's sisters and her friend Jamah care about her, but they're busy with their own chaotic lives.

When we check back with Ty eight months later to see how she's doing, she's in good spirits, but she's dealing with some heavy burdens most people her age don't face alone.

She's still taking care of Miguel. He stays with her for weeks at a time. He's two years old now, roly-poly and talkative. Ty says she's happy he can tell her when he's hungry. Shea's lived in two different apartments since leaving Seventh Landing. She supports herself by working at a local college cafeteria. But she doesn't have work when the college goes on break.

Ty is still close to her sisters and she loves being with them. But they can't give her what most parents give their children: someone to fall back on when things go wrong. Ty is still on her own.

  • Music Bridge:
    Mel Under
    Artist: Sack and Blumm
    CD: Shy Noon (Gefreim)

Comments

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  • By Sharon Smith

    From St Paul, MN, 05/09/2012

    Sad reading her story and even sadder she just passed away...You're in Heaven now TY were this is no pain,suffering,evil,hate,disappointments. You're totally loved and safe now! Walking Around In Paradise...

    By Tyondra Newton

    From st.paul, MN, 02/01/2009

    Thanks to every one who took the time to read my story! I am now 22 and have beautiful boy of my own. i am currently working has a nar. and takin care of my baby boy. I have lost contact with ellen but really would love to update her with more of mylife story,

    By Val Stilwell MSCS

    From Eugene, OR, 11/06/2008

    Look to VStreet.com for living skills curriculum. It's a great grant funded program.

    By don stevens

    From seattle, 11/01/2008

    Foster children shd receive Soc Sec benefits at age 18 until age 22 : maybe $1000/mo. Soc Sec ran a surplus of $187B last year. Soc Sec pays benefits to ADD kids, which is nothing but a myth to suppress masculenity. ADD is also used to abuse Title One funds. Soc Sec is not going broke. Politicians want us to think that so they can spend the money on their noisy constituents---but foster kids aren't noisy. Middle class kids are. Mentorship is fine. Charity is great---but they are far more deserving than ADD/ADHD, which is mostly liberals suppressing males/male competition (for them). We're not spending by needs, but by political pressure/political popularity.

    By Carla Granat

    From Seattle, WA, 11/01/2008

    Independent living skills should begin on the child's 16th or 17th birthday, administered by carefully vetted volunteer mentors, and each child should be paired with a "buddy," a "graduate" from the foster care and the independent living program, to provide ongoing buddy support. There would be individual and group mentoring. The program would have community ties to education, employment, health care, and support resources.

    By Irma Pasquale

    From Haverhill, MA, 11/01/2008

    I cried listening to Tyondra's story. I was thrilled to read about Thornwell in S.C. om your website. Thank heaven for such places and the people who create safe and loving places for these young people.

    By Joe O'Brien

    From Chester, NH, 11/01/2008

    It's too bad that kids aging out of the foster care system are left to their own devices on their 18th birthday.

    I know all about the problem. Due to circumstances completely unrelated to the foster care system, I was completely on my own on my 18th birthday. I worked, morning, noon and night. Some of them lousy, crappy jobs. But I worked. I didn't stop working. I survived. Life was always good no matter how hard I had to work, but as time went on, life got better. I went on to get a college degree, and advanced degree, obtain professional employment, and now own a business and above average home in suburbia.

    It's terrible that 18 year olds are left to their own devices, but they are not best served by feeling sorry for them. They are best served by those of us who point them in the right direction. "Roll up your sleeves kid, and get to work."

    By Joe O'Brien

    From Chester, NH, 11/01/2008

    It's too bad that kids aging out of the foster care system are left to their own devices on their 18th birthday.

    I know all about the problem. Due to circumstances completely unrelated to the foster care system, I was completely on my own on my 18th birthday. I worked, morning, noon and night. Some of them lousy, crappy jobs. But I worked. I didn't stop working. I survived. Life was always good no matter how hard I had to work, but as time went on, life got better. I went on to get a college degree, and advanced degree, obtain professional employment, and now own a business and above average home in suburbia.

    It's terrible that 18 year olds are left to their own devices, but they are not best served by feeling sorry for them. They are best served by those of us who point them in the right direction. "Roll up your sleeves kid, and get to work."

    By Arthur Hewitt

    From Warren, OH, 11/01/2008

    We should not ban abortion unlil we can guarantee odequate and safe fostering of those children already born.

    By Michelle Tucker

    From Charlotte, NC, 11/01/2008

    As a person who has worked in this feild for 14 years until I was laid off because of the company selling off the group homes they used to run, it would always bother me that there was nowhere for these children to go once they aged out of the system. At one place I worked, the social worker set up the girl and her baby, which she became pregnant while living at the group home by another boy that also lived at the agencey, in an apartment and after that she was on her own to make it. Once these kids age out they are sent to the shelter with just the clothes they have and what if any money they may have saved up. I believe there needs to be more independent living programs for the children to learn living skills, and surrounded by adults who care. At the goup homes that I have worked at we have always attempted to teach children living skills, but there isn't always enough time. I think it is disgusting how the government treats the next potential leaders of this country.

    By Edmond Sackett

    From Kissimmee, FL, 11/01/2008

    Foster care in the US has become a tragedy. Children are put in private homes where the families are using them to make money or they are stuck into government run homes where they are warehoused and not given the love and nurture that is needed. Last week a group from my church traveled from St Cloud, Florida to Clinton, SC. There we toured a private Presbyterian Children's Home called Thornwell. This is what should be taking place around the country. It is a loving caring environment where the children are raised in family atmospheres with parental role models who are accountable for their well being. And they do not age out. Currently there are five young adults who are in college who still have their rooms and support system at Thornwell. This is a place that is helping children succeed. Please visit and tell this story, as a society we need more Thornwell's.

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