Homeless Former Foster Youths Remind Us Why Having a Family Matters
They’re too old for the child welfare system but woefully unprepared to live as independent young adults. Most Americans probably don’t realize that one in four former foster care youths faces homelessness at some point in his or her life. But with roughly 26,000 young people aging out of the U.S. foster care system each year—once they turn 18 they’re often shown the door—there’s a systemic gap in support structures to ensure youths are safe and on the path to a career or college.
Know How, a film I directed, was written by and stars foster care youths who have aged out of the system. They’re beating the odds, but their journey hasn’t been easy. One story from the film is that of two brothers, Austin, portrayed by Gilbert Howard, and James, played by Michael Kareem Dew. They have been living on the street, like too many other young people in similar straits.
According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, in any given year there are about 550,000 teens and young adults up to age 24 who sleep in cars, under bridges, or at bus stops in America’s cities and towns. Similar to Austin and James, many of these youths are desperate—they stop at nothing to stay afloat and find themselves on the wrong side of the law. Indeed, 14 percent of homeless youths report breaking into a residence, 23 percent report stealing, and one in five reports dealing drugs, according to the National Network for Youth.
In the case of the film's two brothers, in their search for family they encounter a drug dealer who takes them in. In “Love 'N Guts,” a new track from the film’s upcoming album, James raps about fitting in and being a more integral part of the dealer's operation.
The song challenges viewers to open their eyes to the issue and better understand the difficult choices homeless youths make to survive.
The film opened theatrically on May 15 and premieres on Pivot, TakePart's sister network, on May 27. As I’ve attended screenings with its young stars, I’ve seen them become leaders, discuss the issues that are most important to them, and advocate on their own behalf for changes to the foster care system. The audience reaction to the youths' performances has been telling: Many have given the stars standing ovations for their bravery.
During post-screening question-and-answer sessions, the comment we get most from people who are unfamiliar with foster care is that the film has opened their eyes to a world they now want to learn more about—and in some cases they're interested in becoming foster parents themselves. The most memorable comment, however, was after a screening in New York City. One man raised his hand and asked the youths through tears, "Is this what you go through? I had no idea."
Indeed, as inspiring as this story of overcoming the odds is, thousands of other foster youths will still end up on the streets this year. Without real policy changes, another generation of kids will wind up in institutions that kick them out once they turn 18, instead of with families.