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On My Own: An Aging Out Story
Anonymous
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Names have been changed.

Although it’s illegal for a foster child to age out into homelessness, sometimes there’s nowhere else to go. Sometimes going to a shelter or living on the streets are the only choices. As I approached my 21st birthday, this was very much on my mind.

The year before I aged out, I went to a workshop that was supposed to prepare me. One of the guest speakers was a young man named Peter who’d been in kinship care with his aunt. He told us that his aunt had promised she wouldn’t put him out on the street, but on his 21st birthday, that’s just what she did. He started sleeping on the trains. I couldn’t believe how his aunt had betrayed his trust.

Over dinner that night, my foster mother Patricia and I talked about my meeting. I started crying because I was scared that I was going to end up in a shelter. Patricia said that she was going to make a room in the basement for me and not to worry.

“Are you sure, Patricia?” I asked anxiously.

“Yeah, I’m sure. I wouldn’t let you be in the street. I would rather you stay with me.”

I’d been living in Patricia’s home in Brooklyn for three years. She had been caring and supportive and said she wanted the best for me. But I wasn’t sure if I could trust her. She hadn’t always kept her word in the past. She didn’t always give me my allowance when she said she would. I’d also seen her intimidate some of the other girls by threatening to kick them out, then say that she would let them stay. Sometimes she’d start an argument with me, trying to provoke me to disrespect her. She’d always apologize the next day, but it made me doubt her sometimes. What if she betrayed my trust like Peter’s aunt did?

I started looking for a job, and working with my caseworkers and lawyers. They knew about my goals, dreams, and aspirations, and I felt supported. Over the spring and summer, I applied to over 60 jobs but I didn’t receive one phone call back. Patricia kept pressuring me to get a job.

A Job, But Not Good Enough

My birthday’s in December, so by fall, I was under a lot of pressure. Then I got a job at the Gap making $8.50 an hour. I was proud of myself. But a month before I aged out, my hours started getting cut.

Patricia pressured me to get a second job as a home health aide, which was one of her jobs. But I didn’t want to do that. I had spent a lot of hours in the Veteran’s Hospital taking care of my uncle. That job seemed too depressing; it would bring up a lot of sad memories.

Patricia’s nagging hurt my self-esteem. I needed someone to help me feel proud of my accomplishments. Instead, she complained about my Gap job not being a “real job” because I wasn’t getting enough hours. My trust in her began to turn to animosity.

I had already applied for public housing; in New York, people aging out of care get a slight advantage in getting those apartments. But the waiting lists are still long. I knew that I might need a place to stay until things fell into place.

So before my discharge conference—the meeting with my caseworker to decide where I’d live after aging out—Patricia and I made a deal that I could continue to live with her after I aged out of care, and pay her rent. I knew it was important to put things in writing, so I wrote her a letter saying I would pay her $250 every month.

She said that was too low; she wanted $400. I told her $250 was all I could afford.

She shrugged her shoulders and raised her eyebrows and her voice. “I don’t care if you don’t like it. You can go to your uncle’s house or the shelter.” She lifted up her hand to signal she didn’t want to talk about it anymore. I went upstairs angrily. I was so upset that I didn’t eat my dinner.

The next day, I called my cousins and my uncle to ask if I could stay with them, but they all said that they didn’t have space. (I had only met my father once and didn’t know where he was; living with my mother was not an option.) They were sympathetic and wished me the best of luck.

It hurt to hear family say I couldn’t stay with them. They told me to try to talk with Patricia. My uncle pointed out that Patricia wanted money. “Suggest she lower the $400 rate to $300. Work with her.” I followed their advice and negotiated $300 rent, which was still a lot for me.

Countdown

My discharge conference happened a few weeks before my birthday. My caseworker was worried that my foster mother might change her mind and not let me stay with her after all. At the conference, though, Patricia was sweet and said that she would let me stay. She didn’t say anything about my paying rent.

image by YC-Art Dept

I thought seriously about going to a shelter, even though that terrified me and I would lose so much comfort. In Patricia’s house, I ate good food, watched cable TV, and relaxed in comfortable surroundings. In the shelter, I’d be living with strangers without any privacy, but I’d keep my self-esteem and dignity.

I aged out on December 28th. Two days later Patricia asked for the rent, and I gave it to her. The payment plan was me paying her $150 every two weeks. But with my hours cut at the Gap, I couldn’t pay the full amount of the second payment.

Patricia pushed me to apply for food stamps and threatened to kick me out if I didn’t get them. I agreed because I wanted to work with her. There was no need for her to say things like, “I’m
letting you stay in my house and you’re not living here for free. Either you get food stamps, or you will get put out. If you don’t like it, go to the shelter.”

That was bad enough, but then she started accusing me of stealing her money. She’d say that I hadn’t turned off the computer and was leaving the lights on all night. I wasn’t doing those things.

Normally when I got stressed out, I’d buy a ticket to Jersey and visit friends and relatives, but I couldn’t afford to. Patricia had acted before like she cared about me, but now she only seemed to care about her money. I felt as if I needed to be completely independent and not rely on anyone else. I felt like nobody cared about me.
In late January, I saw my public housing apartment for the first time and absolutely loved it. But it would be more than a month before I could move in. During that time, Patricia’s behavior changed for the worse. Around the middle of February, we got into an argument.

“I want more money from you,” she yelled at me. “I’m tired of you.”

Then she said I hadn’t paid rent for weeks, but I had. I told her so and then headed upstairs because I didn’t want to continue the confrontation. She said that she was going to move my belongings without my permission. I told her, “No you are not.”

She grabbed me and scratched me, and threatened to call the cops to put me out. Her sons got in between us and told her to leave me alone. For the next few weeks, I kept my distance and paid my rent on time.

Life as an Adult

In March, my apartment was finally ready. I packed all my things and left my foster mother’s house in a cab. I had no furniture but the agency provided a furniture voucher for $1,800, which I used for my first month’s rent and security deposit. My rent when I moved in was $83, based on my pay stubs from the Gap.

My foster care caseworker helped me sign up for food stamps and health insurance (Medicaid) once I aged out. Food stamps cover food but not things like toilet paper, dishes, detergent, and toiletries.

In May I got a job at Wendy’s, and I was still getting a few hours at the Gap, so I had two jobs to fall back on and started saving money every week. I also started selling products for Avon. That made me feel like a businesswoman.

But then I was fired from the Gap, and I quit Wendy’s because they were also cutting my hours. Then I owed Avon $200 because a customer didn’t pay for her merchandise—you have to buy from Avon what you sell. I got some unemployment, but I had to tap into my savings since it wasn’t enough to pay off the Avon bill.

I decided the best way to be financially secure was to go back to school so I could get a better-paying job. I enrolled in a two-year college and got a work study job at the Student Union, which helped me save money. Now I have 10 credits left until I graduate with my associate’s degree. I’d like to transfer and get a bachelor’s in teaching, so I could be a kindergarten teacher.

In the last year or so I’ve been earning a little here, a little there. I cleaned an office occasionally, and now I am an assistant to a lawyer seven or eight hours a week; I file documents and type affidavits and tax forms for $10 an hour. I found that job on craigslist. I also go door-to-door to campaign for a city councilman for $8 an hour for 16-20 hours a week.

Being so close to getting my associate’s makes me feel more hopeful about my future. What I went through aging out has shown me that I can handle a lot, and it also taught me to be more diplomatic.

My advice to young people about to age out: Bug your caseworkers about your housing application; be consistent and persistent. Get a job, no matter how low-paying or odd, because the housing people will need to see pay stubs. And if possible, try to negotiate a good relationship with your foster parent because you may need her when you age out.


Negotiate What You Can Expect

People have different ideas of what “being there for you” means. The Foster Club has come up with a Permanency Pact, which spells out exactly what you can expect from a supportive adult, everything from doing laundry at their house to regular cultural outings to a place to spend holidays.

Go to fosterclub.com/_transition/article/permanency-pact.

This story is part of the financial literacy series, which is generously supported by NYSE Euronext Foundation.

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