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From Homeless and Addicted to Youth Advocate
I saw the possibility for a different life
Jesse De Luna
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I was taken into foster care at the age of 9, in Pomona, California. I felt like I was being kidnapped or abducted into this big white van waiting outside my school. People were escorting me and talking to me, but I couldn’t understand what was going on. Then I noticed that my brothers and sisters were in the van too. I was confused and scared; I felt like a bomb had gone off.

From that day on, I felt anger, pain, hurt, resentment, rage, and revenge toward the whole world. The world that tore my life apart and did nothing about it. I no longer felt protected or secure. Not until later did I understand why we went into care. I felt like everything was my and my brothers’ and sisters’ fault.

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Growing up in “the system,” I lived in different homes—with relatives as well as in foster homes. I got involved in drugs, alcohol, gangs, violence: the very same negative ways of living that the system was trying to protect me from. I ditched school in middle and then high school. I did not have any motivation to go to school or become anything in life; I had no vision or goals.

I was told I could not emancipate (leave foster care) until I graduated high school. Then I had a goal—to be free of this system. I graduated, then emancipated at the age of 18, the age foster care ended in California back then.

I moved in with an uncle and worked for two years in a warehouse, operating forklifts. I bought a car, but I still didn’t understand what it was to be self-sufficient. I figured, “Hey, I am out of the system; I don’t have to answer to nobody.” My mind was on money, drugs, alcohol, parties, and women.

Everyone around me did drugs and drank. So I believed that was how life was. I had no role models doing anything positive. My cousins, brothers, sisters, uncles, and aunties all had alcohol or drug problems, and many were affiliated with gangs. I fell deeper into drugs and alcohol and gang violence.

I began to see my real parents around town as I was doing my dirt. My mom, who was homeless, would ask me for a ride and money. I would see my dad on the streets, still drunk and still going to prison. He had started another family.

Rage Took Over

I grew angry that my parents never came back for me in foster care and that they chose to live this life and not get help. I let rage take me over. I quit my job. I tried to go to mechanic school, but I was addicted to meth and coke, inhaling nitrous oxide, sniffing paint, and taking ecstasy.

Because of all the drug abuse, I was hearing voices and in a terrible state of mind. I became rude and disrespectful to everyone, and I lost the trust of all my family and friends. I ended up homeless.

One day, I caught a bus from Pomona to Ontario, California because I’d heard my dad might be there. I arrived around 10 p.m. and slept against the wall of a Bank of America. In the morning I went to where all the drunks and addicts hung out.

My dad’s name came up and the people I was hanging with told me where I could find him. I reconnected with him, more as a homeboy and a fellow road dog than as dad and son; he introduced me to his associates on the street.

I drank more than I ate; I also used meth and weed. It felt like every day was the same day, for over a year and a half. I put others and myself in danger while being homeless. I got into fights, carried guns, went to jail. I slept in garage ports of apartments, behind dumpsters, in dumpsters, in parks, in the alleys, and in abandoned cars.

I grew to see why my dad struggled with addiction. He explained that he tried to get me and my siblings back, but he didn’t have the support of my mom or his family. Then he and my mom broke up and his addictions took him over.

As an addict myself, I had learned that addictions don’t respect anyone.

Living Under a Bridge

When I was 21, my dad ended up going back to prison for two years, just as I was finally getting to know him. I moved my spot from Ontario to Pomona to avoid the police. Back in Pomona, my mom was with a boyfriend who was a gang member. He sold heroin and meth and she prostituted herself to feed their addictions.

My mom tried to take care of me; she would get motels and we would stay in them for a while. As with my dad, I understood from being on the streets with her why my mom never came back for me when I was in care. She didn’t have support, her family gave up on her, and all she had was this family unit on the streets. As sorry as that seemed, I had the same reality.

I had a few friends I would hang out and drink with, and we lived under a bridge. I stayed on one side with four other people with our shopping carts and our cardboard to sleep on. My mom and her boyfriend stayed on the other side. I panhandled, recycled cans and bottles, stole food and beer from stores, and got meals from food banks. I used public bathrooms to shower, with a cup and a bar of soap.

I forgave my parents when I shared their life on the streets. I understood that homelessness could happen to anyone and that there was no way they could have fought to get me back in those conditions.

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I Saw Something New

I attended some church outreaches to get free clothes and food and supplies. One time Pastor Gabriel of Missions4Him began to talk about God with me, and I listened because I had nothing better to do.

Pastor Gabriel invited me to his house on the 4th of July and I began to see possibility for a different life. I saw him and his family having fun, barbecuing, laughing, and lighting fireworks. I separated myself because I felt uncomfortable, but his family asked me to light fireworks with them.

I saw something new: a family and friends living and serving God and celebrating life drug- and alcohol-free. No violence, just fun and peace. That’s what I wanted for my life. After that I went back to the streets, and it wasn’t the same. I wanted to change my life. I wanted a family and a wife and kids and to celebrate life like the pastor did.

I went to church drunk, with a beer bottle in my pocket, but at the end of the service I went up to the altar when they asked if anyone wanted to accept Jesus Christ as their savior. I walked up to the front and the leaders of the church prayed for me. I got down on my knees and asked for God’s forgiveness and asked Him to save my life. I told Him, “I’m tired of living like this. I know I can do better. Please teach me and help me.”

I was crying like I had never cried before and after that I drew closer to Jesus. A few days later, a woman pulled into the parking lot of the liquor store with some guy who was picking up meth for her. She was playing her music real loud and I started dancing around her. We started talking, and I told her I was homeless.

She said, “Wait here, I’ll be back for you.” To my amazement she came back with one of her daughters and invited me into her car. Then she offered to let me stay in her house.

Bonding Over God

It turns out that the woman, Laura, had been homeless for a while in Los Angeles. She had lost her kids to the system and got them back, when she entered a Christ-centered recovery home that moved from L.A. to Pomona. From there she got her own apartment, but fell back into drugs and drinking.

We bonded the first night over God and how he turned her life around and my new faith. For six months we drank and used drugs together, till I told her that I didn’t want to live that way anymore. Meanwhile Children’s Services was knocking on her door again, so together we went back to her church’s recovery meetings and daily Bible studies.

I gave my life to Christ, got off the streets, stopped using drugs and alcohol, and completely turned my life around. Laura did the same.

We got married on July 23, 2010. Now we are both ordained Evangelists and ministers of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Laura and I have a 4-year-old daughter, and we also live with three of Laura’s kids, her oldest daughter’s husband, and their baby. God uses my family to help countless numbers of people who are struggling much like we did.

Laura and I both teach Mental Health First Aid and help facilitate Strengthening Families classes through churches and community centers in Pomona. We have taught 12-step Celebrate Recovery classes too. We are founders of Chosen Few street ministry, where we reach out to homeless and addicted people, offering them food and shelter and our own stories and encouragement.

Most recently I have become a youth advocate in Pomona’s Children’s Services office. Laura worked there first, as a parent advocate who shares her own story of losing her own kids to the system and then being reunified. The Department was looking for a former foster youth to share his story of growing up in foster care.

I’m on Their Side

I am almost 29 now and I am helping reform the practice of social work in Pomona’s foster care department and encouraging and mentoring youth in care. The youth respond well to my story; hearing it helps them share their stories and to change for the better.

I encourage foster youth and former foster youth to forgive and move on from past struggles. I had always hated the Department of Children’s Services with such passion and rage, but working here, I see another side. I see how even if a social worker wants a kid to go home, it’s up to the judge. I see workers try desperately to find suitable places for kids. I see that the system is bigger than the department and social workers; it consists of foster family agencies, the courts, lawyers, and service providers.

Some foster and group homes are good, and some are horrible, but the workers won’t know unless foster youth speak up about it. As a youth advocate, I help young people do that by going to the team decision making (TDM) and child and family team (CFT) meetings with them. In these meetings the department worker, social worker, and supervisor worker, along with any supporters of the youth and family, come together to make a plan for either reunification of the family or a new placement.

In these meetings, I share my experience and talk to the youth about his or her feelings and help them advocate and speak up for themselves. I let them know I’m on their side and help them understand what’s expected of them. I believe my presence with the professionals gives the youth a sense of hope, showing them that foster youth can grow up to work at whatever we put our minds and passion toward.

Foster youth need to understand they did nothing wrong when they get removed. In most cases it’s the parents’ fault, but the youth are forced to live in jail-like settings. Then the youth acts out, and the group home gets stricter. That can lead to youth being put on medication. All of this trauma further scars the youth.

Foster youth need someone to trust. In my job as youth advocate, I try to give them the respect and care that I wish I had gotten from within the system.

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