Imagine you didn’t have a parent or other supportive guardian in your life when you transitioned from child to adult.
In this state, according to a recent California Youth Transitions to Adulthood Study and administrative data from California’s state child welfare data system, almost a third of foster youth (30.9%) reported that they were homeless after aging out of the foster care system. The lack of supportive adult figures in these young adults’ lives is a big reason, said Carolyn Olsen, executive director and co-founder of Santa Clarita Valley’s Fostering Youth Independence, otherwise known as FYI.
For the past five years, FYI, a nonprofit (501c3), is on a mission to equip foster youth between 16 to 25 years old with the tools and support they need to complete a post-secondary education, avoid homelessness and incarceration, and become successful independent adults. Part of that process, Olsen said, is providing these kids with adult role models that so many transitioning youth naturally have in their parents or guardians.
“Even though finding homes for youth is not in our mission,” Olsen told The Signal, “obviously it’s pretty difficult to complete your education if you’re sleeping in your car or sleeping in a park or, you know, just trying to couch surf or whatever you’re forced to do.”
Olsen said she’s seen numerous studies on foster youth becoming homeless after aging out of the foster care system, some with numbers as high as 40% and 50%.
“It just depends on what study you’re looking at and whether it’s California or another state or nation,” Olsen added. “But it’s a pretty common problem because youth who are non-foster youth have parents to fall back on.”
She shared how she raised three kids of her own, all of whom went to college. Only one of her kids, she said, got a job straight out of school. The other two had to come home while they looked for work.
“Non-foster youth have a safety net,” Olsen continued. “They have a fallback plan. If they get in a jam, they’re not out on the street. Foster youth don’t have parents, they don’t have stable adults in their lives. And so, when they have an emergency situation, they really have nowhere to go. And that’s why the homeless rate is so high.”
As such, FYI’s biggest focus is on pairing foster youth in their program with a caring adult volunteer who they call an ally.
“That’s a stable adult who provides encouragement and support and guidance, and who connects them to the resources that they need,” Olsen said. “We’ve seen some really amazing relationships develop, and we’re hoping that they’re lifelong relationships.”
FYI was founded by Santa Clarita residents Olsen, Gina Stevens and Stacey Anton in 2017. According to their website, after many years of dedicating their time and energy to raising their own families, Olsen and Stevens hoped to share their “motherly love” with more children. Olsen initially became a court-appointed special advocate for a foster youth who was close to aging out of the system, and Stevens became a foster mom to two kids.
Once Olsen and Stevens became involved in the foster care system, they saw a more desperate need for support. Olsen shared what she was experiencing with longtime friend Anton, who was a public health nurse, and soon after, FYI was born.
Since then, the organization has been providing assistance to foster youth. Support services that the program offers include helping youth with Free Application For Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) financial aid forms, college applications, grants and scholarships, and class enrollment. And they offer learning and study support as well.
According to Olsen, the program also provides emergency financial assistance that helps youth with housing, car repairs or emergency transportation offering Uber or Lyft rides, dental needs that aren’t covered by medical plans, books that aren’t covered by other programs, grocery assistance and even job referrals.
Over the years, Olsen said FYI has helped about 120 young people. The program is currently serving 60 individuals. Of those 60, the program has 60 allies working one-on-one with the youth and another nine allies who are still waiting to be paired.
Asked if FYI has a cap on the number of youths they can help, Olsen said no.
“We have never turned anyone away,” she told The Signal. “We’re just going to figure it out. We have a generous community, we have individual donors, we have family foundations, the city of Santa Clarita has been very generous in sponsoring our programs, and so, as we grow, we just continue to reach out to the community, and the needs somehow are always met. We just continue doing what we’re doing and trust that the support will come.”
And while many of the kids who come to FYI go through the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services, the William S. Hart Union High School District and College of the Canyons, Olsen said that they’ve recently received more and more referrals from the foster youth themselves.
“They’ll refer another student who they know is a foster youth,” Olsen added. “We’ve had our youth refer their siblings, which is really nice because a lot of siblings get split up in the system. For them to be able to participate in our program together is very heartwarming to see.”
Some youth even come forward with their own situation.
“We’re seeing a tremendous difference that having a caring adult makes in the life of the youth,” Olsen said. “I’m looking at these youth who are graduating with their bachelor’s degrees, and I can see the impact that it’s made on them, to be part of our FYI community and to have a caring adult in their lives. I don’t think all five of them would have graduated with their bachelor’s degrees had it not been for our program and for their allies.”
For more information about FYI, to donate, get involved, to refer someone to the program or to ask for help, go to FYIFosterYouth.org or call 661-360-1500.