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Foster youth struggle when 'aging out' of the system; what help is available in Cuyahoga County?

Myisha Armstrong, middle in white, at a fundraiser Saturday with the board of her new nonprofit seeking to create a support system for foster youth aging out of the foster care system.
Myisha Armstrong
Myisha Armstrong, middle in white, at a fundraiser Saturday with the board of her new nonprofit seeking to create a support system for foster youth aging out of the foster care system.

Every year, roughly a thousand young people in the foster-care system in Ohio “age out” of the system, often when they turn 18. When that happens, they can face a variety of struggles including finding employment, housing or navigating college.

There are support services available to help those young people in that transition, but some advocates argue it’s not enough. In Cuyahoga County, the Division of Children and Family Services as well as local nonprofits provide a variety of those services.

Myisha Armstrong, a local mother and chemical dependency counselor in Cleveland, recently started up a nonprofit called SafeSpacesto address what she sees as a gap in those services. It has an ambitious goal: to provide housing and a significant amount of other support to aid young people aging out of the foster youth system and transitioning into adulthood.

“We will not only offer housing, which is very rare, but we will be offering wrap-around services, which will be mental health counseling, educational counseling, substance abuse counseling, and life skills,” she said. “Some may not ever have learned how to cook, clean, every life skill that you can think about that they are going to need to be self-sufficient.”

But Armstrong’s got her work cut out for her. She’s just getting started with her nonprofit and is currently raising money and does not have a building to use for the housing yet. Still, she’s hopeful to start at least some of the services by late fall this year.

Beverly Torres, senior manager at the permanency support services department at Cuyahoga County’s Children Services division, said the agency tries to ease foster youths’ transition into adulthood. Programs, Torres said, include:

    • The College Bound Program which pays former foster youth a daily per diem (about $30 per day) if they’re enrolled in college or a trade full-time, as long as they maintain a 2.0 grade point average
    • The Sullivan-Deckard Scholarship Opportunity Program, a partnership with Cleveland State University to provide a full-ride scholarship to the college for some foster youth every year and includes housing during the summer.
    • An effort involving Children Services and Cuyahoga County Metropolitan Housing Authority to “fast track” foster youth aging out of the system into low-income housing units, and assists them with their first four months of rent

    The state of Ohio also has a program offered in all counties, including Cuyahoga, called Bridges, that provides support services to young people leaving the foster system who are between the ages of 18 and 21. According to its website, that means support finding housing, a job, or getting further education, with some help potentially available to help them pay for “rent, utilities, food, clothing and other personal incidentals,” although it’s not clear how much.
    Cuyahoga County also has a “Purple Umbrella Partners” program that allows people in the community to better find agencies, businesses, nonprofits and faith-based organizations that serve foster youth, signified by a purple umbrella sticker they can put outside their businesses, Torres said.

    A Place 4 Me is a collaborative effort hosted by YWCA Greater Cleveland, meant to guide work long-term to end youth homelessness in Cuyahoga County, which is a key issue facing foster youth after they age out of the system. Christie Sozio, assistant director of A Place 4 Me, said a “great deal of work is required” to help them prepare to live on their own.

    Sozio said local, state and federal resources help, but services “cannot effectively take the place of parents and caring adults when it comes to supporting young people and helping them navigate real-life challenges.”

    “For example, the rental market is difficult for most people right now, but even more so for a young adult who doesn’t have credit history or a co-signer,” Sozio said in an email. “Some young people who’ve been in foster care experience housing instability, difficulties completing education, challenges with finding careers, and more due to systemic barriers and lack of support. Though facing unique challenges, young people demonstrate incredible resiliency as they navigate our community’s resources.”

    Armstrong, with the new Safer Spaces nonprofit, said housing access is one of the biggest barriers to help foster youth aging out of the system; plus, much of the support is coming from a lot of different places – the government, nonprofits and places of worship, for example.

    They can go to college with scholarships, but you have no place to rest your head, you know,” she said. “So that is our vision, to combine them both because it's like one without the other, it's not going to work.”

    Monique King, a 37-year-old single mom of four in Lorain County, said she had a challenging time growing up in the foster youth system, moving in and out of three different homes through her childhood. She experienced abuse with one set of foster parents before being taken care of by her grandmother, who developed Alzheimer’s. That meant she landed back in the system, eventually finding another set of foster parents, who she said were, thankfully, very supportive.

    After she aged out of the system, she did have access to housing with the apartment her grandmother once lived in, but she felt unprepared for adulthood at that point.

    “I didn’t have any type of assistance when it came to money management, life skills, any of that,” she said. “And I really wish that I would have had that because I would have went down a different path; I knew I would have went to college.”

    “I was always searching for that love, which I didn’t necessarily truly get (growing up),” she added.

    Sozio said there are a wide variety of different resources out there for foster youth in Cuyahoga County, including Fill This House, which provides household items; Chair-Ity, which provides furniture; Community of Hope and Cleveland Angels, which provide mentoring on group and individual bases; and Bessie’s Angels, which provides support for young women who age out.

    A Place 4 Me also is there to help young men and women navigate the various levels of assistance, as well as provide financial assistance and a matched savings program.

    Torres, with Children and Family Services, said there’s a great need for foster parents in the county, especially for older teens who need help with their transition into adulthood. Cuyahoga County had about 2,200 children in Division of Children Services custody as of early June, living in a mix of settings.

    “Becoming a foster parent to older teens, (one) who understands our kids’ traumas that they experience when being removed from their family, (and) to help them learn independent living skills, I think is a huge service that we need in the county,” she said.

    Conor Morris is the education reporter for Ideastream Public Media.