FCYU127 cover image See all stories from issue #127, Winter 2017

Aging Out Shouldn’t Be This Hard
Sharlene Tolbert

The month before I turned 21, I spent New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day by myself because I didn’t want to be around people. Adolescents often dream about their 21st birthday, how they’re going to party until the sun comes up and other fun stuff. But all I was thinking was, “What the hell am I going to do if I don’t find an apartment?”

I could be homeless in less than a month, and I needed a job. I was about to start college, but I worried that my apartment might not be near my college. And if I didn’t find an apartment, my social workers didn’t know where I could stay. My foster mother said she was OK with my staying there after I aged out, but I had a feeling that she didn’t really want me there. It felt like she was rushing me out.

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I had applied for NYCHA (New York City’s public housing) when I was only 19. I thought that was soon enough, but it wasn’t. A year and a half later, I was still waiting. My social worker asked me a couple of times if I had anybody to live with if an apartment hadn’t come through by the time I turned 21, but I couldn’t think of anybody. My relationship with my mother is not stable and it would not be a good idea to move back with her. I didn’t consider asking my aunts; if they were willing to open their home to me, then they would have done it seven and a half years ago when I went into care.

I have a friend who was homeless. I asked her about the shelters and where she would go to eat. I was getting so worried I’d have to steal to survive. But I knew if I tried to steal, I would get caught because I would feel guilty and return the item. I’d tell the cashiers, “I stole this and want to return it because it’s not right.”

Then on January 2, a few weeks before my birthday, I got an email from my social worker. “Sharlene, I’ve got good news. NYCHA found you an apartment in Coney Island, Brooklyn. We have to move fast and set up an appointment. See you when I come back from vacation.”

I read it three times to make sure that my eyes weren’t playing games with me. I was frozen, couldn’t talk, until my boyfriend called me. I read the email to him and he was so happy for me. I snapped back into reality and started to cry. “Maybe this is my year,” I said to him.

All the anxiety in me gathered together and went to my heart. I cried for about three and a half hours. It’s not that common for a young adult in foster care to get an apartment right before she ages out. And I was one of the blessed ones. I was crying partly with relief.

My lawyer, her intern, and the social worker for Legal Aid made sure that I had everything I needed and that my agency didn’t leave anything out. The landlord said I had to pay for part of January before I moved in, and I was sure my foster care agency was going to say they couldn’t help me with that. I was furious but I didn’t want them to know, so I kept a smile on my face. But then my social worker told me that we would have to do an emergency meeting to sign me out of care. That would allow me to use my discharge grant to cover the rent.

Joy, Then Planning

My anger turned into joy. I had more tears of relief in my eyes waiting to slide onto my cheeks. I wouldn’t let them fall until I was sure I heard my social worker correctly. She said they’d also give me money for furniture.

I received an email from my lawyer saying that I shouldn’t sign myself out until I had everything my foster care agency was supposed to supply me with and I had the furniture money—$1,800—in my hands. She was right. I didn’t have to sign myself out until February 3. My agency wrote a letter to NYCHA and told them that I was in the process of getting public assistance.

I applied for public assistance (food stamps and rent assistance) on February 6. When I applied, I was told that I needed some type of income to receive assistance. If I didn’t have a job, I had to attend a job training program.

My rent is 30% of my income, but since I’m not working, public assistance is paying $215 every month until I get a job. The Human Resources Administration (HRA, the city agency that administers welfare) pays the rest of the rent, as long as I go to the jobs

OK, I’ll Be Disabled

About a week before I went to my appointment with HRA, a social worker in my foster care agency said that since I go to school I didn’t have to go to the jobs program. But when I went to my appointment with HRA I was told my school wasn’t on the list of schools that the HRA accepted to exempt you from the jobs program. They accepted 10 City University of New York (CUNY) schools, and I attended a college just outside the city.

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I was furious. I had a plan to stay in school and look for work at the same time, but my plan went south as soon as I entered this bureaucracy. I thought I was leaving the world with 1,000 rules when I aged out of care. I guess I was wrong.

The lady who was handling my HRA case offered two job programs: Work Force and WeCare. They both help you find employment, but WeCare is for people who have physical or mental disabilities. I enrolled with WeCare because my friend told me that I’d find a job faster than if I went to Work Force.

While I was in care I’d been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and I had taken medication for it. So I put down bipolar disorder to qualify for WeCare. I have to attend 35 hours a week, or less if I have a job. (For example, if I get a 20-hour-a-week job, I only have to attend the program 15 hours a week.)

Public assistance gave me emergency food stamps until I was approved by HRA, 45 days later.

I moved into my Coney Island apartment on March 3. The next night, I went shopping for food with my friend Jasmine. I love to cook, and I hadn’t cooked a real meal when I was in foster care, so I was excited. I was in the grocery store, waiting to pay with my EBT (food stamps) card, and Jasmine said, “It would be funny if it didn’t work.” We both laughed as I was putting in my PIN number, but then the cashier said, “You don’t have anything on your card.”

I looked at the cashier like she was crazy. But sure enough, I checked my balance and it was $0.00. I started to cry.

After we got home, I called my social worker. She gave me some canned goods to tide me over until I got my food stamps, but it wasn’t enough. My friends and boyfriend helped me out with food. I went back into despair.

I hate asking people for food and money. I thought getting this apartment would take me away from being depressed and stressed, but at first, it just added to it. Nights were lonely and dark, and my stomach was mad at me for not eating three meals a day.

A week later, I received another benefit card in the mail. The letter stated that they got my Medicaid number wrong on my card. That was the reason it wasn’t working. The sun reappeared when I read that letter. I rushed to the supermarket, and when I came back home I started to cook and ate my first real meal in my apartment.

I have to attend WeCare workshops four times a week and go to “work” at a senior citizen’s center in Coney Island. I keep the clients happy and entertained, but I don’t get paid. I’m trying to find a job on my own so I don’t have to act like I’m working and not get paid. I already know what they teach in the workshops. They go over how to present yourself at an interview, what to say and not to say, and never to be late. I don’t need to be there.

If I’d Known

If I had known all of this, I would have enrolled in a CUNY, and I would have looked harder for a job before I aged out. WeCare actually makes it harder to look for certain kinds of jobs because I can’t go into places between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. to ask if they are hiring.

My lawyers helped me a lot, but I wish someone at my agency had told me to sign up for NYCHA more than two years before I aged out. I wish they’d made it clear that I’d need an income to keep my NYCHA apartment. I wish I’d known which 10 CUNY schools count toward the “training” requirement for back-to-work public assistance programs. After I aged out, I experienced hunger and fear of losing my home, and I was blocked from work and college. There’s got to be a better way.

Learn from Sharlene!

• Sign up for NYCHA housing at least two years before you age out.
• You need an income (SSI counts) to keep a NYCHA apartment.
• Ask exactly what counts as “work” (including school) in back-to-work public assistance programs. (New York City has eased the requirements since Sharlene wrote this story.)

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