Lotus House. Photos courtesy Fostering a Change Executive Director Jennifer Valko.
On Friday, Fostering a Change Executive Director Jennifer Valko found herself jumping from meeting to meeting making preparations for the Saturday ribbon cutting ceremony for Lotus House, one of the private non-profit’s many projects.
“I’m in ‘final day’ mode,” Valko said.
Tomorrow, Fostering a Change, an organization devoted to helping foster youth, will officially unveil Lotus House. The house is a home for emancipated foster women that provides mentorship and wraparound services, with the aim of guiding them to a bright future. Assemblymember Patrick O'Donnell, Mayor Robert Garcia and Councilmember Daryl Supernaw will be on hand for the 2:30PM ceremony and ribbon cutting. Herlinda Chico will act as the emcee for the event.
Valko said the event is a fundraiser that they hope also raises awareness for foster youth, as May is national foster care awareness month.
“[This event] is to let everyone know we’re here and this is what we do,” Valko said.
According to Valko, 1500 foster youth are emancipated in Los Angeles County every year, and state and county programs provide homes for just about one third of emancipated foster youth, leaving more than two-thirds of the emancipated foster youth population without a home. Beyond that, she said most housing situations are transitory, guaranteeing a home for about 18 months before requiring former foster youth to move on.
Maurissa Sanders of the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services said the county's state-funded programs provide homes — both temporary and long-term placements — for about 700 or more emancipated foster youth. The state has a multi-layered process geared toward identifying different subsets of the foster youth population who are over the age of 18, resulting in housing placements that reflect different foster youth situations.
One of the housing options to foster youth is provided for under AB 12 — the extended foster care bill. The bill gives former foster youth the option to remain in care until the age of 21 if they are moving toward one of four things: receiving their high school diploma or G.E.D., working at least 80 hours per month or finishing an activity that removes barriers to employment and completing a post-secondary degree. If a former foster youth has a documented disability that prevents them from achieving these goals, there is an exception that also allows them to remain in foster care. Lotus Hose is enforcing some of the same rules, Valko said.
Sanders said there is a "shortage of affordable housing," regardless of the state and county programs and "if one is in foster care or not," lauding enterprises large and small that work toward solving the problem.
Lotus House first opened in August 2014 to address this issue. The living facility provides a permanent home for seven female emancipated foster youth, aged 18 to 23. Each female is required to attend college, take financial literacy courses and has an individual mentor she may go to for guidance and support.
Valko said a recent survey of foster students who were seniors in high school found that 78 percent wanted to attend college and 48 percent signed up for college, yet the college graduate rate for foster youth hovers around three percent.
The home is meant to provide former foster youth the support they need to sign up for college, complete their schooling and move on to find well-paying jobs and a stable home life.
“None of these kids want to be homeless,” Valko said. “A lot of these foster families do it for the money. [I’ve heard stories] where the parents put locks on the fridge and only opened it twice a day.”
She said for some of the girls, this is the first time they’ve “ever had their own keys to their own home.”
"My experience is that young people often end up back in their community and want to be separated from state agencies," Sanders said. "I think it's great when the community embraces them and helps them reintegrate back into the community."
Lotus House currently houses five females and is accepting applications for two additional spots. Fostering a Change, which was founded by Valko in October 2013, considers the house as the beginning of a broader movement toward fully supportive housing for foster youth. The organization plans to open a similar home for men, and later, a home for young women with children. According to Valko and an independent study by the Guttmacher Institute, a high percentage of women who are in foster care are pregnant by the age of 19.
Valko is a former foster child herself. Adopted at the age of three, she reunited with her biological siblings when she was 29. They were not adopted, and spent their childhood moving from one foster home to another.
“I realized how lucky I was,” Valko said.
The ribbon cutting ceremony will take place at Lotus House on Saturday, May 9 at 2:30PM.
This article was updated on 5/8/15 at 5:10PM with information from Maurissa Sanders of the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services and the Guttmacher Institute.