This is your American Dream

The country is on the road to economic recovery—but thousands of formerly middle-class Sacramentans have been left behind

by Sasha Abramsky
July 7, 2013
News & Review

Ida squints, concern etched around her almond-shaped eyes, as she explains her brother Xavier’s troubles. It’s lunchtime on a hot, clear Tuesday at Wind Youth Services, a nonprofit that assists homeless youth in north Sacramento. Ida, 19, has taken a break from her biology studies to vent.

“I don’t know where my brother is,” she says. “I don’t know if he’s locked up. I don’t know where he is.”

Two nights before, the police were out thick looking for Xavier. Once more, the 18-year-old’s anger got the best of him.

When a gas-station employee began ringing an emergency bell in order to get him to stop panhandling near the entrance, Xavier entered the store, enraged, and started throwing boxes of candy onto the floor.

“I’m just trying to feed my sister!” he yelled at the employee, according to Ida. “She’s pregnant, she’s hungry!”

Before that, he’d made a day out of saying the wrong things to the wrong people, culminating with an argument with a drug dealer who threatened to shoot him.

Ida and her fiancé, Will, took Xavier to an acquaintance’s place until things cooled down. Now, they haven’t heard from him in more than 24 hours.

Ida has been homeless for six years—she ran away from home at 13—but Xavier is new to this life. After aging out of foster care and finishing a term in juvenile hall, he’s been on the streets for less than two months.

The siblings count themselves among the estimated 110,000 homeless youth under age 25 living in the United States at any given moment. These children, teens and young adults end up in the streets for any number of reasons: running away from home, being disowned because they’re LGBTQ, aging out of the county’s care or having no immediate family to rely on. Whatever the reason, they are often alone.

Ida and Xavier know the system well. They were adopted at very young ages, but California’s foster-care system didn’t sufficiently follow up to see how things were going. Ida eventually ended up on the streets, and Xavier bounced between foster care and juvenile detention. They suffered more hard knocks during their high-school years than most teens could imagine.

And when they recently turned 18—adults—they found themselves out on Del Paso Boulevard, alone.

Now, at this age, a time so pivotal in one’s development, society’s safety nets begin to unravel. Foster care is often no longer an option, as is the case with Ida. Resources can’t be taken advantage of while on probation, as in Xavier’s case.

While protections have been enacted to serve foster kids, including the Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act, which allows foster youth to opt into care until the age of 21, it’s not always enough. Will the siblings, like so many youth often do, slip through the cracks: onto the streets, into the drug dens and whorehouses, the state prisons and body bags?

This is why Ida can’t stop thinking about her brother. Xavier could be anywhere. She fears the worst.

System failure

Two days before the gas-station incident, Ida and Xavier Southern enjoyed a lazy afternoon at their abandoned apartment, or “bando,” talking about growing up in Elk Grove.

Ida says times were rough as a kid. As punishment, she was forced to cut her hair short, shorter than her brother’s.

Strong-browed and full-cheeked, there is no denying the resemblance between these siblings. Ida leans out of one of the bando’s few windows not nailed shut with particle board. She snacks on a can of pears while her brother, in black pants and a black shirt, relaxes in the shade of a small tree on the lawn.

They say that, as kids, if either of them acted up or came home with bad grades, they were denied meals. Denied gifts on Christmas. Even showers. Once, when the police brought Ida back home during her teenage years on the streets, she claims she was locked up in her room.

“I finally got out,” she says with a laugh.

It is somewhat surreal to hear these two talk, so removed from their youth. In this moment, they sound almost comfortable with their past. But a few days before, Xavier was grim, pained, as he spoke alone of the punishments he’d endured in the years since his sister ran away.

Push-ups were a regular form of discipline, as well as being locked out in the backyard.

“The secret about adoption is that many of them are not successful,” says Amy Lemley, policy director at the John Burton Foundation for Children Without Homes, a nonprofit dedicated to improving life for the state’s foster, former-foster and homeless youth. “Not everyone gets adopted and becomes the Beav, with Ward and June Cleaver for parents.”

Once an adoption is finalized, there is little to no further oversight or checking up on the part of the courts, says Lemley. Ida says she was maybe 7 the last time she spoke with her social worker. Neither sibling knows the foster-care organization that adopted them out. (Note: Ida and Xavier are in contact with their biological parents today and prefer to not comment on how they ended up in foster care.)

According to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services Administration for Children & Families, it is not uncommon for adoptions to fall apart. In a 2012 report, the DHHS estimated that upward of 10 percent of finalized adoptions end with the child returning to the state’s care, as in Xavier’s situation. Runaway cases such as Ida’s are remarkably difficult to track, due to a lack of a paper trail.

Homeless teen Xavier, 18, hopes to re-enter the foster-care system under Assembly Bill 12 provisions, but he first must get off of probation.

Despite emotional risks surrounding failed adoptions, the monetary perks are difficult to ignore.

“The government puts a high, high priority on adoption,” says Lemley, adding that there are “very strong financial incentives.”

According to a report this year to Congress, the federal government has given out $375 million in adoption incentives to states since the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997—$34 million has gone to California. This bill rewards states for moving children out of foster care and into adopted households.

Adoptive parents receive thousands in tax breaks each year, and parents of special-needs children get additional monetary benefits.

Despite the funding, there were still problems: Ida ran away at 13, and Xavier was released back to the county at 17.

Records show that Sacramento County took their adoptive mother to family court last August to get her to pay $147 a month in child support for Xavier, since she had put him back in foster care. She contested that claim, however, arguing that she did not have sufficient income, and won.

Today, these youths fend for themselves on Del Paso Boulevard.

Teenage tragedy

In the years that Ida and Xavier should have been preparing for prom and touring college campuses, they instead battled to keep their stomachs full and their police records empty.

Ida has been pregnant before, once at 17. After six months, she says she suffered a miscarriage at the hands of another on the floor of an abandoned apartment complex in north Sacramento.

“He said he wasn’t going to stop beating me until the baby died,” says Ida. “And he kept beating me until the baby died.”

It started when Ida was crying because her mother said she could not come home. She and the young man began to argue. Then, things turned physical. They fought, and it quickly devolved into a beating. He would not stop.

“I was in a lot of pain. I was bleeding out everywhere.”

Other young people staying in the abandoned complex came to her aid. “They had poles, anything they could find in the abandoned apartments, and chased him down the streets with them.”

They ran him out of Sacramento. But it was already too late. Ida, bleeding onto a carpet that eventually had to be removed from the building, lost her child.

“I was having a boy.”

That night, Xavier was less than 10 miles away, still living with their adoptive mother. While he could perhaps never understand the immense loss experienced by his sister that evening, his late teens involved hardships as well.

Xavier’s mother released him to foster care at 17.

Back in the system, things were just starting to look up for Xavier at a group home in Lake Tahoe, but, again, his temper got the best of him. After just three weeks there, he broke another kid’s nose. The staff decided to kick him out. “Group homes aren’t the best place for me, because I have anger issues,” Xavier says. “I could be happy one minute and just change just like that. Real quick.”

That incident launched Xavier into a journey through the system, from group home to group home to juvenile detention and back, ending with a final round in juvie. At 18, the county released him onto the streets, where he went off in search of his older sister.

In her teens, Ida spent her time at Wind Youth Center, one of the few facilities in the state dedicated to serving homeless and at-risk youth. She ate free meals there. Studied. Thought about her future and her health.

In a study released by the California Homeless Youth Project in 2011, researchers found only 53 programs in the entire state of California dedicated to serving homeless youth. Two out of every three counties in the state had no services in place. The researchers counted a mere 1,000 beds for homeless youth across the board.

Here in Sacramento, Wind Youth Center is home to 12 of those beds, but young people over the age of 17 are not eligible to sleep in them. Programs for homeless youth across the state have similar age restrictions in place, showing an alarming gap in services for homeless youth 18 and older.

When Ida turned 18, she lost access to a number of the services offered at Wind. She could no longer, for instance, take advantage of the facility’s mental-health services.

Xavier just recently turned 18, but his situation perhaps may not be as bad. Thanks to the passage of the Fostering Connections to Success Act, or Assembly Bill 12, in 2010, Xavier and other California foster youth can remain in care and receive services until the age of 21.

According to Lemley of the John Burton Foundation, California now has about 4,700 youth between the ages of 18 and 21 in foster care. While some of these young people would already have been eligible based on previous criteria, it looks as if A.B. 12 is making a difference. Enrollment is up.

Xavier (left), Ida and Will struggle daily to get by on the streets around Del Paso Boulevard in north Sacramento.

A study by the University of Chicago following and comparing youth who aged out of foster care at age 18 with youth who aged out at 21 found that those who continued through 21 were doing better educationally, economically and in their history of run-ins with the law.

Despite living on the streets in her teen years, Ida was technically still in her adopted mother’s care when she became an adult. Therefore, she is not eligible for foster care under A.B. 12. Xavier is, however, and with the assistance of a local social-services group called Stanford Youth Solutions, he is working toward enrollment. This process will involve getting off of probation, which requires that he attend one-on-one counseling, as well as sessions for anger management and drug and alcohol abuse.

For now, Xavier is homeless, just like the one in five foster youth who end up on the streets at some point in the first three years after aging out of the system.

The dream and the nightmare

The weekend before Xavier goes missing, a carnival is going up outside the Rite Aid on the corner of Del Paso and El Camino Avenue. Ida and her fiancé have waited nearby for two hours in the spring heat, assailed by truck fumes and the metallic clatter of rides being assembled, hoping that the crew will offer them the two job openings they’d heard about at Wind.

When the carnival reps return, they inform Ida that she cannot work for them due to her pregnancy. Will still has a chance, but late into the afternoon he too returns to Wind, deflated. Their search for steady income continues.

Meanwhile, Xavier has been kicked out of the Wind Center indefinitely for fighting. It is becoming clear that he will not establish access to the resources available to him until he has dealt with his anger, but he can’t seem to pull it together to find free counseling or to regularly attend the sessions he books.

The 2011 Homeless Youth Project report found only about two-dozen programs in place for counseling or therapy for homeless youth across the entire state. Today in Sacramento, UC Davis Children’s Hospital’s CAARE Center Diagnostic and Treatment Center sends a mental-health professional down to Wind about once a week, thanks to grant funding. The age cutoff for this program? Seventeen years old.

“Without mental-health treatment, homeless youth are at [an] increased risk of victimization, substance abuse, prostitution,” and problems with law enforcement, says Michele Ornelas-Knight, the psychologist supervisor at the UC Davis Children’s Hospital.

According to Ornelas-Knight, youth on the streets in need of mental-health services are unlikely to be able improve upon other aspects of their lives. They can’t manage stressors. They can’t get employment. They are unable to sustain functional, healthy relationships.

Sometimes, as with Xavier, they go missing.

But there are some shelters in the state that offer mental-health services, and much more, to the older homeless youth demographic. The Youth Engagement, Advocacy and Housing—called YEAH! for short—shelter in Berkeley, for example, offers programs to youth aged 18 to 25 to help them establish permanent housing, or a path toward education and employment. It also works closely with Berkeley Mental Health.

Homeless-youth advocates, such as Wind’s Uylous Ingram, view YEAH! as a brilliant example of how a community can serve its older homeless youth. And while he isn’t sure if Sacramento can pull together the funds for a shelter of that caliber, it’s certainly a dream of his.

That dream could turn around a lot of nightmares.

Another day

The day after Ida sat worrying about where her brother might be, Xavier returns.

He doesn’t say much about where he’s gone or what he was doing, and since he makes light of it, it almost makes you think it was silly to have been concerned in the first place. Look: He’s right there. Safe.

But there remains the pang of dread, unspoken, shared between the siblings. Yes, they have each other, and they have Ida’s fiancé, Will. But no one is safe. There are no long-term solutions. They remain out on Del Paso every night, with the drug dealers and hookers, the gangs and the cops.

Still, they sometimes talk about their dreams.

Ida hopes to someday work in medicine, first as an assistant, and then as a registered nurse. “I just want to prolong everyone’s life as long as possible,” she said that warm Friday afternoon, leaning out of the bando’s open window.

Xavier wants to be a chef, and he talks of one day running his own shelter—a place where people can come to rest, eat and shower. A place, as he puts it, “to help people back on their feet.”

And he wants to be a police officer, but the good kind, he says, the kind that protects and doesn’t frighten you and might give you just a warning when you’re not hurting anyone else.

But the immediate future remains uncertain.

After a brief stint in the back room of an apartment rented by an acquaintance with a meth problem, Ida and Will return to live at the pink bando. The police have been cordial with them, and the building’s owner—in what seems to be a silent display of humanity—has turned on the heat and water. Will had to break through the newly boarded-up entrance a few days back with bolt cutters, but things seem to be OK for now.

Xavier will not move in with Ida and Will, despite their offers. Ida often has no idea where he is at night, but she sees him almost daily at Wind. Recently, Xavier was rushed to the hospital after falling into shock for unknown reasons in a parking lot. He seems better now, but he hasn’t been eating much. Or sleeping.

They’ve all been victims of violence these past weeks. Theft. Drug and alcohol abuse. Will took pity on an old man he met one day at Loaves & Fishes and offered to let him stay at the bando for a few nights. Things fell apart, however, and they had to kick him out. When the man returned, threatening to kill them, the youths defended themselves with a paintball gun.

Now, they fight for work but can find none. They continue to panhandle for food. Ida, nearing her third trimester of pregnancy, worries constantly for her baby. But even that takes a backseat to their most immediate problems.

Today, they must eat. Tonight, they need shelter. They fight, rage—anything to keep one another safe for just one more day.

And tomorrow will be much of the same.