Demonque Williams exited the foster care system at age 18 in 2010 with nowhere to go and no one to turn to. Now 22, he still does not have a stable home. On a good day, he sleeps in a shelter or uses a hotel voucher. Most nights he sleeps on the street.
“I need emotional help,” Williams said, sitting on the couch at Sanctuary of Hope, a program for homeless youth in South L.A. “I need somebody to talk to. I need to keep mentally strong out there. I need encouragement.”
Williams has found some support through Sanctuary of Hope, a South L.A. organization that provides transitional housing and assistance to homeless youth. As part of the South L.A. Transition Age Youth and Foster Care Collaborative, it aims to serve young adults among South L.A.’s homeless population.
South L.A has the largest homeless population in the city, with more than 11,000 people, according to an estimate by the 2013 L.A. Homeless Count. More than 2,000 of these individuals are under the age of 24.
Many homeless youths find it difficult to get an education or find a job without having basic needs met or mentors to guide them.
“Housing is critical because it is really hard to do any of those other things if you don’t have a place to live,” said Amy Dworsky, who researches homeless youth at the University of Chicago.
Williams, reflecting on his life at Sanctuary of Hope recently, said he never had a stable home. He entered foster care at the age of six. In his first foster home, he didn’t understand that his foster mother was not his biological mother. It was only when the social worker picked him up that he realized the home he’d been assigned to through the department of Children and Family Services was not his own. From that point on, he said he would run away from every foster and group home he lived in until he became emancipated.
Foster youth become emancipated when they reach the age of 18 and are no longer eligible for state or federally funded services through the foster care system. In California the age of emancipation can be extended to 21 in some cases to help youth transition to adulthood.
Yet, freedom from the foster care system was not as liberating as Williams had imagined. He then began another struggle to find housing, gainful employment and build a sustainable life.
Many young adults who are homeless grew up in the foster care system. When they “age out” of foster care they are forced into adult decision-making and financial independence from one day to the next.
More than 4,000 foster care youth in California are emancipated each year and may be homeless in an instant. At the stroke of midnight on their eighteenth birthdays, they are no longer protected by all the benefits afforded to children in the foster care system. Those like Williams -- who have had no contact with their biological family or any emotional connection with any of their former foster families -- are completely on their own.
“All of those things that we think would occur in the biological home do not necessarily happen in a foster home,” said UCLA professor Alfreda Iglehart, who researches adolescents aging out of foster care. She said even the basics like encouraging a child to go to school each day may be overlooked.
At this critical juncture in his life, Williams encountered an adolescent’s struggles -- the gargantuan effort to graduate from high school, the allure of experimenting with drugs, the daunting task of finding a job and figuring out how to support himself -- without a stable home or role model to guide him.
“Sometimes I feel like I’m not important,” Williams said. “So when I come to Sanctuary of Hope, it’s a warm welcome.”
In 2010, Janet Kelly said she founded Sanctuary of Hope with youth like Williams in mind. The idea was to help them during these critical, seminal moments.
“The most important thing for me was to create those opportunities so that our youth can have a home place,” Kelly said. Her understanding of a home includes not just a building but also a support system to help youth get back on their feet.
Kelly has worked to make the space inviting for anyone who walks in. Like a proud mom, she hangs university banners to show where program participants have attended school. The walls are painted bright pink, blue and green hues and are decorated with inspirational quotes and photos. While relaxing on the couch in the living room, residents can overhear the faint swishing of the washing machine from the next room. Upstairs in the bedrooms, youth in the program lay their stuffed animals on their beds and hang posters on the wall.
For former resident Ericka Bernard, Sanctuary of Hope has been a safety net. When she was accepted to Evergreen State College last year, the organization helped her raise the money to cover travel costs to Washington State. When she faced a problem with her financial aid package and she was no longer able to afford school, the organization helped her return to Los Angeles. She now volunteers at Sanctuary of Hope while she searches for a job.
“It’s more of a home than a facility,” Bernard said. “It’s not like you are a client. It’s like you are a part of a family and community.”
Bernard never had this sense of community when she stayed in shelters with her siblings and her mother, a drug addict who often left Bernard and her siblings unattended. In these settings, Bernard recalled, she witnessed friends and family struggle with drug addiction and prostitution at a young age.
Kelly’s desire to open Sanctuary of Hope was not prompted by reviewing statistics but by what she witnessed through her work at People Assisting the Homeless, an organization that helps homeless individuals find stable housing in Southern California through its facilities and referral services. There, she saw homeless youth enter unhealthy relationships or become involved in prostitution because of their need for comfort and care that they didn’t receive in shelters. Vulnerable youth often sought solace from untrustworthy peers or elders and would later be exploited. She wanted them to have another option.
While transitional housing programs often show positive outcomes, it is difficult to measure their impact beyond first-person testimonials, according to Dworsky, who has conducted research on homeless and foster youth for nearly a decade. Methodological challenges such as small sample sizes of participants and the difficulty of tracking homeless youth through long periods of time pose difficulties for researchers. One notable study begun in 2014 by Abt Associates, a research firm that focuses on studying health, social and environmental policy, surveyed the homeless youth living in transitional housing. Dworsky said she expects the data will return substantial results because the study will follow a large group of participants for 18 months.
However, a recent evaluation with a smaller sample size from Stable Homes, Brighter Future, an L.A.-based coalition of five permanent supportive housing programs for transition age youth, found that homeless youth are benefiting from programs like Sanctuary of Hope. The majority of youth reported that they felt an improved sense of well-being and stability as a result of participating in transitional housing programs.
Sanctuary of Hope houses 12 homeless youth for up to two years. Residents receive financial assistance to help cover their basic living costs, such and food and transportation. They also benefit from staff support, including career and college counseling.
Still, small transitional housing programs like Sanctuary of Hope cannot fill the housing gap for homeless youth. There are fewer than 200 beds available in South L.A. to shelter homeless youth on any given night, according to the L.A. County Housing Inventory for Youth. This is a bed for only one in 10 of South L.A.’s 2,000 homeless youth.
“We will never have enough beds for those who need them,” Iglehart said. “We need to talk about how we can scale these programs to reach those in need.”
Williams is not eligible to live in the Sanctuary of Hope’s facilities. To keep program participants safe from sexual exploitation, staff said, the organization only accepts female live-in residents.
However, the program extends a variety of services to homeless youth not residing in the transitional housing program. Through Sanctuary of Hope, Williams receives grocery store gift cards, transportation vouchers and referrals to other programs that can house young men. He can also come to the facility to do laundry or use the computer to fill out a job application.
If Williams had unlimited resources, he said he would open a 27-story, 10-block complex to serve the homeless community, and call it: “We Care.” The facility he envisions would offer safety, encouragement and emotional support -- not just a warm place to sleep. This is what Sanctuary of Hope has been to Williams. He wants the same for the rest of L.A.’s homeless population: they should know that they matter and that there is hope.
This story is part of a partnership with USC Annenberg to explore what's working in Los Angeles and beyond.