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Many Penniless Former Foster Kids Call The Streets Home

Former foster child Melissa Lechner talks to Kriste Draper, an attorney for the The Children's Advocacy Institute at the University of San Diego.
Amita Sharma
Former foster child Melissa Lechner talks to Kriste Draper, an attorney for the The Children's Advocacy Institute at the University of San Diego.

First of two parts

Many Penniless Former Foster Kids Call The Streets Home
The dream of finding a place to call home for these kids once they turn 18 is even more elusive.

Former foster children have overtaken war veterans as the single largest population in California’s homeless shelters.

The average American parent spends $50,000 dollars from the time a child turns 18 until age 26.


Foster children, who leave the state’s care at 18, get $500.

These findings are among a bevy of disturbing facts contained in a new report from the Childrens' Advocacy Institute at the University of San Diego. It portrays the grim trail of hopelessness facing the 30,000 young Americans -- including 300 in San Diego -- who leave the foster-care system each year upon reaching age 18. It's a trail Melissa Lechner has tread for the past several years.

“When I left the foster care system, I ended up couch surfing, going from a friend’s house to a friend’s house," Lechner said. "I tried getting my own apartment with two other people. That didn’t work out. I moved into another friend’s place. By 2007, I became homeless.”

Lechner is a 22-year-old Grossmont College student who works part-time as a caretaker. She has been homeless off and on since 2007. In the winter months, home has included the sidewalk in front of the downtown library. During warm weather, home for her and other ex-foster kids was the San Diego River bed.

“We all cuddled together in tents to keep warm, laid out our blankets," Lechner said. "I ended up with staph a couple of times because of the dirt. Churches would come out and feed us.”


Lechner went into the foster care system when she was 10 months old after her mother was killed in a car crash. She spent the next 17 years with 10 different foster families and in a handful of group homes.

“I knew it would happen," she said. "I’m a foster kid. It’s to be expected. Foster kids end up leaving the system and having nowhere to go. They don’t give us any sort of funds to be able to get our own place. They just leave us out to dry.”

But San Diego County Child Welfare Services Director Debra Zanders-Willis said social workers do try to prepare the kids for self-sufficiency. She said six months before foster kids exit care, social workers help them create a transition plan that includes assistance in writing resumes, interviewing skills and finding a job.

She said there is also subsidized housing available for foster kids turning 18 until age 21.

“There are a lot of resources available for foster youth when they exit out of foster care,” Zanders-Willis said.

That statement, according to attorney Kriste Draper with The Children’s Advocacy Institute at USD, is more theory than reality. She said there are about 100 beds in government subsidized housing available in the county even though 300 foster kids are emancipated locally each year. Social workers try to help kids find jobs, she said.

“But that doesn’t always translate into the child being brought to this worker’s place, sitting down doing that (job-application) work, taking time out of their school day or after school, coordinating with the group home to get the rides," Draper said. "Caseloads are so high.”

As a result, Draper said, most foster kids on the cusp of leaving slip through the system’s cracks. And all of us, she noted, are to blame.

“As a state we have decided that a foster child’s parents are not good enough to be their parents," Draper said. "Each one of us through our tax dollars has said we can be better parents. And if we are going to accept that responsibility, then we need to make sure that we are better than the homes we have taken them from. And right now, I think that we fail at that.”

Evidence of that failure lies in the numbers. Nearly 40 percent of foster kids become homeless. Only 3 percent earn college degrees. By age 24, just 50 percent have jobs. And the federal government spends nearly $6 billion a year on foster kids, who can’t function on their own, through public assistance and other expenditures.

“Financially, what we’re doing makes no sense,” Draper said.

But reform requires influence. Bob Fellmeth, executive director of The Children’s Advocacy Institute, said children have none.

“Children are not politically powerful," Fellmeth said. "They don’t vote. They don’t give campaign contribution money. They’re not organized. Of the 1,200 lobbyists in Sacramento, there’s a very, very small, tiny voice (advocating for children) and these foster kids are the tiniest of the tiniest."

Corrected: April 15, 2024 at 6:09 AM PDT
Tomorrow: Soical Security benefits taken from foster kids
The child care industry has long been in crisis, and COVID-19 only made things worse. Now affordable, quality care is even more challenging to find, and staff are not paid enough to stay in the field. This series spotlights people each struggling with their own childcare issues, and the providers struggling to get by.