LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Moving to Louisville from Mississippi last year, Devontae Pearson, 24, hoped to make a fresh start in a new city.
But instead, Pearson, who spent his late teens in foster care after the death of his grandmother, found himself homeless.
“It was horrible,” Pearson said. “I never took a liking to living in the streets.”
But in January, Pearson plans to move into a new apartment while he works toward a college degree and completes a construction apprenticeship he entered through YouthBuild Louisville, a program that helps young people learn a building trade.
Pearson’s apartment is part of a complex under construction in southwest Jefferson County designed to house youths who have “aged out” of foster care at 18 and need support and housing to continue their education.
It’s the latest project of Family Scholar House, a rapidly expanding Louisville nonprofit organization that until now has focused on single parents seeking to complete college or vocational training.
Cathe Dykstra, Family Scholar House’s president and “chief possibility officer,” said her organization decided to expand its mission to include young adults who’ve been in foster care because they often lack the support of family and are at greater risk of homelessness and poor educational outcomes.
“It’s always been a population that needed attention,” she said.
Family Scholar House already has four apartment campuses in Louisville that help single parents in school with supports that include academic assistance, financial counseling, cooking classes, child care and a safe community.
The fifth complex, Riverport Family Scholar House, under construction off Cane Run Road, will include 32 apartments for single parents with children and another 32 apartments for former foster youths. The first units for parents are to open in December and foster youths are scheduled to move into their apartments in January.
Lynn Rippy, executive director of YouthBuild Louisville — where Pearson found support and job training — said the new program for former foster youths is urgently needed to help the increasing number of young adults her program enrolls who lack any family or outside support.
“Most of us have somebody in our lives to talk to, to keep us moving,” Rippy said. “It’s just not true for many kids right now.”
Of the 35 youths in YouthBuild, 12 were homeless when they enrolled last year, Rippy said. The program works with them to find housing.
While state foster care provides the option for some young adults to extend their time in state care until age 21 for financial support and services, many teens choose to leave at 18 because they want independence — only to discover they can’t do it alone, Rippy said.
“Maybe one out of 100 are able to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, but maybe they had a bootstrap,” Rippy said. “If we want these young people to be productive, we have to offer them the kind of physical and emotional support they need to become self-sufficient.”
For former foster youths, poor educational attainment is a common problem.
In Kentucky, foster children are eligible for tuition assistance to attend a state college or university.
But only about 55 percent of teens who age out of foster care have a GED or high school diploma, according to statistics provided by Kentucky Youth Advocates.
And national statistics show that only 3 percent of children who age out of foster care go to college, and of that group, only 4 percent complete a college education, said Thomas Evans, a young adult advocate at Family Scholar House.
About 500 youths “age out” of Kentucky’s foster system each year, according to a report by the state legislative Program Review and Investigations Committee.
The plight of former foster youths was highlighted in October by two young women who testified at a public hearing in Frankfort on the state’s adoption and foster care system, making a powerful appeal for more support and services.
“We don’t have the same supports that other people do,” said Tessa Bowling, speaking to Kentucky legislators on the House Working Group on Adoption. “We are still people when we get out. We need your help.”
Bowling, who spent two years in a Covington youth shelter before she turned 18, described a host of barriers to independence — starting with the discovery she needed a co-signer for her first apartment though she had no family members to do so.
She was able to get a car but found she couldn’t afford insurance to drive to her part-time job or classes at a community college, so she spends hours riding buses and transferring between them.
“I take the bus everywhere I go,” Bowling said. “I’ve got to leave two hours early for work for what would be a 15-minute car drive.”
Cynthia Schepers, of Louisville, told the legislative panel she wound up in foster care after her mother died of a drug overdose and her father died from cancer while incarcerated.
Schepers, a student at the University of Louisville, opted to remain under state supervision until she turned 21 for additional assistance. But when state support stopped, “I had no idea what to do,” she said.
When she asked for help, her social worker told her, “You should be ready,” Schepers said.
“For the next two weeks I was homeless,” she told the committee. “I slept in my car, in the school library.”
Schepers found help through a mentoring program and lives with a family while she attends school. But she said she believes the state should do more to help foster children transition into life as young adults.
“It’s not easy by any means,” she said. “I am constantly struggling to keep up.”
Schepers said her future is looking better because in January, she said, “I’m headed to Family Scholar House” and one of its new apartments for former foster youth.
Pearson, with the help of YouthBuild, found a place to live while he completed work on his GED and began carpentry work as an apprentice. His jobs have included working on the Omni hotel under construction in downtown Louisville.
Pearson said he discovered he likes building and he thinks he wants to pursue carpentry as a career.
Meanwhile, he said he’s looking forward to having his own apartment at Family Scholar House while he works on an associate degree at Jefferson Community College.
“I think this is a good experience for me,” Pearson said. “I hope there will be many others who have the opportunity.”