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Former foster youth students share their stories

Lauren-Michelle Hardge has lived the last several years of her young adulthood in what she calls “survival mode.”  

Hardge, 25, grew up in Inglewood and was put into the foster system at 6 years old. Her biological father was never around the house, and her mother struggled with substance abuse.

Until the age of 18, she lived a nomadic lifestyle, switching from the atypical family structure in an impoverished community to a nuclear household in a wealthier area. Moving to Santa Clara and then Rancho Cucamonga, Hardge called her experiences “traumatic” as she struggled to adjust to the differing socioeconomic backgrounds.

“I would walk to school and see a parking lot full of Corvettes and Mercedes and Hummers,” Hardge said. “I didn’t even have a bus pass, couldn’t even afford one.”

She is now a resource program specialist for foster youth assistance program Guardian Scholars at Cal State Long Beach.

Hardge was one of about 20 individuals in a small, vocal group discussing mental illness among those in foster care Saturday.

The event was hosted in the Alamitos Bay room in the University Student Union on campus by the National Foster Youth Institute and the CSULB branch of Guardian Scholars. The discussion featured a panel of foster care experts and two working groups.

Jordan Sosa, a Cal State Fullerton senior was also present at the event. He shared his experiences with homelessness in Long Beach and financial issues while going through school.

“When I was going to college, I was very lost,” he said. “I didn’t know how to pay my dorm on time… I couldn’t register to my classes in spring because I was late with my dorm payments.”

Currently, the university serves a little over 100 identified-foster students, with almost 70 of them involved in Guardian Scholars.

According to John Hamilton, director of the program, up to 80 percent of foster youth have issues surrounding their mental health.

Congressman Alan Lowenthal of California’s 47th district was in attendance and encouraged voting members to reach out to their state representatives for the development of foster youth domestic programs. He also emphasized the importance of advocating for stable housing opportunities across the state.

“It’s so difficult as it is for a young person … [to get] housing. We all live in LA County in Southern California, one of the most expensive areas in the nation,” Lowenthal said. “…Now compound that once you age out of foster youth, you are now put into the system where you won’t get those additional resources for housing. Then you’re under a lot of stress.”

Getting secure housing is a pertinent issue for people aging out of the foster system. According to Hardge, 68 percent of foster youth that age out of the system become homeless.

Despite this, Guardian Scholars is trying to pool as many resources as it can to keep foster youth students informed on community services and help them with financial assistance in higher education.

But funding continues to wane for Guardian Scholars, as it is entirely financed by donors. Although the Long Beach branch uses some resources from Counseling and Psychological Services, the program’s funding remains unsustainable.

“Realistically speaking, [when] our support group came, we mostly put love into it,” Hardge said. “We didn’t have money to do all the different things. What we were able to provide was tea and chips and cookies.”

Sosa mentioned the budget surplus in California and another Guardian Scholars member suggested the program should be publicly funded.

Participants of the event, many of who have experienced foster treatment, voiced problems in the type of care and treatment in the foster care system — with one being treated “like a number,” and another being cut off from services after reaching the age limit.

California Assembly Bill 12 allowed assistance for youth in the foster system to receive resources until 21. When those resources are no longer available, support programs such as the LA County Department of Mental Health help these “transition age youth,” or at-risk populations between 16 and 25, ease into everyday life by providing services including housing assistance and shelters.

However, once an individual ages out, they are cut from the services. Cheryl Crumble, resource and development specialist for Guardian Scholars, said that not all are ready for that abrupt transition since everyone is on a different path to recovery.

“You might have some developmental, disabled, trauma that you’ve experienced as youth,” Crumble said. “So when you get to college, even though you’re chronologically 21, you may not really be mentally 21.”

The foster care youth remains an “invisible community.” According to Hardge, only 0.006 percent of foster youth graduate with a post-secondary degree. But Hardge attempts to change this by teaching her students to be advocates for the community.

“I’m 25, and I’m just getting into the thriving mentality,” Hardge said. “…It’s something so empowering about working in a field where you’re actually making change and not just living in a space where you’re just working to survive. It’s a whole other life out there when you’re thriving, and I want that for my students.”

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