When I turned 18, I thought the only thing that I needed to be happy and successful was to leave the home where my father abused me and threatened me with honor killing. The abusive home where my mother begged my father to escalate his violence so she could die without committing suicide.
I did leave. After spending a few months at a women’s shelter and working in a gas station, I moved to Los Angeles to attend USC [the University of Southern California], a college which I applied to without my parents’ knowledge. I was experiencing freedom for the first time in my life, and scholarships covered my living expenses.
Everything should have been perfect for me, but it wasn’t.
Within a month of attending USC, I was standing at the top of a high-rise dorm building, ready to end my life. After a moment’s hesitation, I decided to call USC’s emergency counseling number, and shortly afterwards I was hospitalized in a psychiatric institution.
Once I returned to school, it took a couple of months before my residential director recommended me to a group called Trojan Guardian Scholars (TGS). At the time, their website described their services as being “for current and former foster youth,” so I shrugged it off.
During this point in my life, I held a core belief that society didn’t want to make space for people like myself, who were in between the system. Trojan Guardian Scholars seemed like just another example of that. I didn’t let go of this belief until two years later, and even now I experience it as a passing thought.
Eventually, I did join TGS and it was an immense relief. For the first time, I was surrounded and welcomed by people who experienced similar circumstances as me.
However, as conversations about accessing resources began, I quickly felt isolated from the conversation. Often, students who were in the system were the only ones eligible for TGS’ outside resources including scholarships, textbook funding and networking events.
Foster youth, emancipated minors and wards of the court are examples of individuals who went through the system. Emancipated minors are individuals who were deemed independent from their parents based on state-specific qualifications, including whether the minor is financially self-sufficient. Wards of the court are individuals who have been appointed a guardian, usually due to parental neglect or abuse.
Since I waited until 18 to leave home, I don’t fall under any of these legal categories. However, I still face many of the same difficulties including mental illness, unstable housing and a lack of family support.
The most jarring experience I’ve had was when TGS recommended I go to an organization called Journey House, because I needed help moving into my new apartment. After taking a two-hour bus trip to Journey House, I was welcomed by a cheery man whose attitude quickly soured after he asked if I was a former foster youth or emancipated youth. I explained my situation and he scoffed at me, telling me that he can’t help everyone.
That experience solidified my core belief as I took the bus back home in tears.
Former foster youth are at a great risk of becoming homeless and not graduating college, and the major contributing factor is the lack of family support. This risk manifests itself in ways like not being able to afford a textbook, not having “parental” access to rent assistance and having no home to go to when the dorms close for the winter break or the summer.
The John H. Chafee Foster Care Independence Program (CFCIP) was passed in 1999 to address the challenges of former foster youth, including those who aged out at the age of 18 or those who left the system after the age of 16. This federal program allows organizations to fund grants, mentoring and internship opportunities.
However, with such specific guidelines, many at-risk youths still struggle to access resources, even former foster youth.
Los Angeles organizations like Trojan Guardian Scholars, Ready to Succeed and Echoes of Hope work to fill these gaps. Although Trojan Guardian Scholars and Ready to Succeed are designed to assist former foster youth, the organization also provides summer fellowships for at-risk, formerly homeless students like myself.
Meanwhile, Echoes of Hope is exemplary in that they are inclusive not only with their programs, but also with their language. Rather than an afterthought, Echoes of Hope openly describes its mission as serving at-risk youth, whatever their situations may be.
If it were not for the combined efforts of these support systems, I truly believe I would have been unable to succeed in school, secure housing or manage my PTSD.
As such, it is incredibly necessary for more resources to exist not only for system-involved youth, but also for youth outside the system. If the government and private organizations really want to change the lives of at-risk youth, they need to look beyond the paper and toward the individual’s circumstances.
Aya Almasi is a junior at the University of Southern California studying journalism and web technologies.