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Homelessness hits home hard for too many former foster youth in Massachusetts

November 21, 2011

Michael Shavies is a sophomore at Worcester State University, an aspiring model and a participant in Youth Villages’ transitional living program. Michael has rebuilt a relationship with his mother, who continues to love him and encourages him to follow his heart. He has a loving stepfather who helps him when he can and professors and friends who care about and believe in him.

I will never forget Dec. 3, 2003. It was the day my life changed completely.

I was 13, and I clearly remember how two of my siblings and I came home from a walk to McDonald’s. There was a car we had never seen parked in front of our house. Inside, there was a woman we had never seen, and my oldest brother was yelling. I was told to pack my things, and we piled into the car and drove off. The Department of Children and Families decided it wasn’t safe for us to live with our mother any longer.

I didn’t know then the profound ways my life would change. I didn’t know what statistics say about how foster and former foster youth fare compared to other young adults. I never thought of myself as a statistic — or that I could be among the thousands of former foster youth who experience homelessness.

All in all, I got lucky. I was placed with a nice family in Holden, Mass. My sister was taken in by my mother’s best friend, and after a month, I joined them. My brothers lived with different foster families in different towns.

We would visit when possible.

Our family friend gave my sister and me the stability, care and shelter we needed to graduate from high school and make it to college. But that’s when everything changed for me again.

One of my brothers was shot and killed. My other brother and my closest friend got shipped out to Afghanistan. My surrogate mother and I weren’t getting along. My grades were suffering, and my college finally cut me off.

Suddenly, everything came crashing down.

When my surrogate mother told me to leave, I was homeless. I started sleeping over at friends’ homes, on the couches of acquaintances and, once, in the living room of someone I didn’t even know. There was no one to help me.

It’s scary what happens to former foster kids. Statistics show that former foster youth like me have a high likelihood of becoming unemployed, homeless and incarcerated. We have a much higher chance than others of becoming teenage parents and of never obtaining a high school diploma or GED. My chance of earning a college degree is around 3 percent – that’s how many former foster youth graduate.

But I was lucky again. I found Youth Villages, a nonprofit organization that has a program for former foster youth like me. The transitional living program is one of the very few programs out there to help young adults who have no support and are struggling. This program has become my lifeline.

A Youth Villages transitional living specialist is helping me get my life back together – helping me find a place to live, build a support system and organize my life and finances. Youth Villages is teaching me the independent living skills nobody ever taught me – how to budget, balance a checkbook and more.

I am back in school, and I know I won’t make the same mistakes twice.

I have high goals for myself, and I know if you saw me, you would never think of me as the kind of kid who comes from a broken home and doesn’t know where he’ll sleep tomorrow night. When you see me, you see who I want to be – a smart, confident and successful man with all the potential in the world.

November is National Adoption Month and Homeless Youth Awareness Month. You can make a difference for young people who come from backgrounds like mine by providing them with a permanent family through adoption or by supporting programs like Youth Villages’ transitional living program, which largely depends on the financial support of individuals, corporations and foundations.

I know I will make it somehow because I am one of the few who now has the support I need. But I also know there are so many more teens and young adults from broken homes who need help.

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