Every year thousands of foster teens age out of the foster care system. In Orange County alone, approximately 150 foster youth aged out of the foster care system last year, many of whom have, or will become, homeless.
Across all age groups of unsheltered adults, over a quarter report that their first homeless episode occurred when they were transitional age (Escape Routes Analysis of Homelessness published April 24, 2018 and underwritten by The Conrad N. Hilton Foundation). Nearly one-third of transitional age homeless youth report that they were in foster care. Given that many youth in institutional care are not successful in building a path to self-sufficient adulthood and are at risk of becoming second or third generation homeless, there is an important public interest in strengthening these youth, including addressing behavioral (mental) health needs (Ibid). Very few public or private resources exist to assist these youth with the transition to the adult world after years of living in the foster care world. Approximately 50% have a high school diploma and less than 3% will graduate from college. One of the most significant factors contributing to these grim statistics is mental illness compounded by substance use and abuse.
Many foster youth age out of the foster care system plagued by unresolved trauma-related mental illness, stemming from the abandonment, physical/sexual abuse and/or neglect which initially caused them to be removed from unsafe situations and placed in foster care. Depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and other debilitating mental illnesses inhibit emancipated youth from creating healthy and sustaining relationships, furthering their education, and gaining employment. Other than very limited, underfunded, and overcrowded public health options, almost no high quality resources exist for these youth to get the critical mental health treatment they so desperately need.
Without the treatment necessary to cope with their mental illnesses, many emancipated youth will turn to drugs and/or alcohol to self-medicate their mental health symptoms. Addiction becomes the gateway to homelessness, incarceration and institutionalization. For the few treatment programs that do exist, the waiting lists are often long, treatment is short, and aftercare is almost non-existent. These limited resources are often allocated, due to funding restrictions, to those individuals exiting jail or prison. Moreover, these facilities offer treatment programs which do not address the specialized needs of traumatized former foster youth. The success rate for our youth in these types of facilities is extremely low. Experience with our clients indicates that dual diagnosis care (treating mental illness and addiction simultaneously) produces the highest level of success.