Aging Out of the Foster Care System and Figuring Out How to Build a Life

by Sharon Adarlo

Kyo, not his real name, is a young black man in his mid-20s currently living in transitional housing for the homeless in Northern New Jersey. I have known him since he was 18. I had met Kyo during my former job as a reporter with The Star-Ledger, New Jersey’s largest newspaper.

Kyo was placed in the foster care system as a toddler. His mother was dead of a drug overdose, and his father was a long-time drug addict until he became clean several years ago. Kyo does not have a close relationship with his father, but has kept regular contact with his siblings, one younger brother and two older sisters.

In the system, he had stayed at several places including a good orphanage, where he felt taken care of, and the home of an abusive couple who would make him and their other charges stand for hours on end as a form of punishment. He had bounced between several schools over the years as well, but he did manage to graduate with a high school diploma.

When I first met Kyo, a Newark native, I was immediately struck by his demeanor. He was simply the coolest teenager I had come across in a long while. He had a mature, perceptive air. I took to him because he reminded me of my younger self. Fellow geeks, we bonded over our love of manga, anime, and comics. He is a skilled artist and musically gifted as well. He can play the guitar and has a lovely voice.

I kept in touch with him and we became good friends. Over the years, I have seen him age out of the system, move from job to job, couchsurf with friends, grapple with the emotional legacy of his upbringing, and basically survive hand to mouth.

The last time I saw Kyo was a few weeks ago. He had left a friend’s apartment where he had stayed for a few weeks, and then slept over at my home for a night. Afterwards, he stayed at a homeless shelter for about a week. He just started a stint in transitional housing that will last for three months during which time he aims to find a job and get his own place to live. We talked about survival, the demons of depression, his views on government assistance, and hopes for the future.

(Names of specific facilities and places have been omitted to protect Kyo’s identity.)

First question. How much money do you have now?

One dollar and some change.

What is your current home like? And where are you headed in the immediate future?

It’s actually rather nice for what it is (the transitional housing). The staff seems decent, there is on site laundry, food and the other essential things. As for where I am heading, once I have a decent enough job, I will work from there to live with my girlfriend. From that point, I intend to pursue multiple endeavors. I want to capitalize on my artistic ability, my musical affinity, public speaking, and most interestingly, voice acting.

Was there any support system in place to help you transition out of foster care? Employment or school assistance?

Not as much as I had hoped nor as much as I was told there would be. As for while I was in the system, there were services aplenty. When I was emancipated, I was left at (a homeless shelter) and that was essentially the end.

When you aged out of the foster care system, what did you do for money and survival?

I was staying with a friend in Newark until I worked my first full-time job. As for money and food, it was sporadic and random at best. There was no pattern to how or who I received money and/or food from. At best, my friend made sure I was fed and sheltered. Until I stayed with him in Newark, I was couch surfing.

When you aged out of the foster care system, was it hard to find work? How did you find work?

I was lucky and knew the executive director of (the non-profit organization) on a personal level. He cared enough about me to have me work for his company. (Kyo worked there for two years.)

But before that, was it hard to find work?

Pretty much. I also didn’t search as hard as I needed to at the moment. I was depressed, to be frank. I hated myself, and I hated a lot of what I had to live through. I felt stuck and had no idea what was going to happen next. I was only 19 going on 20. And I had no answers. As for why I hated me? I felt helpless, and I could really only fathom to blame myself for a lot of these things. Sitting, crying and being in such a dark place was a lot of what I knew. I had no ambition for other things

When you got your first job, how much were you getting paid? Did you have health insurance? What did you do with your money?

$10.15 an hour. I made sure I was fed. I had my video games. And I went out when I could. That was essentially it. I THINK I had health insurance. A few months after I landed my job, I moved to East Orange. I wanted to make sure I was within range of the job due to fear of tardiness.

Why did you get fired?

A combination of a perceived lack of work ethic, a very terrible and bullying supervisor, and on the job troubles.

After your firing, what did you do for shelter, money, and food?

I sort of drifted off the track of being responsible. I, again, stopped searching as hard. Depression and despair sank in, and I sank pretty severely. I ended up spending what little I did have. Sporadic things. There was no pattern. Mostly food, I am sure.

Where did you live during the past two years? How did you get food or money?

I ended up couch surfing again. And in the same pattern as the first time, I was homeless. I ate as I was provided food, however that was. People offered me food, so I ate. Again, there was no pattern. I did try and search for work, unsuccessfully. I landed one job in that time, and I quit because I could not sustain it financially, via transportation.

Why is it you didn’t succumb to the drug addiction of your parents? Were you ever tempted to numb the pain chemically?

I was never cool enough to be sucked into those sorts of crowds because to be honest, drugs always seemed to be a “popular” crowd thing. As for me, my own misery was numbing enough. I also knew that while I sometimes felt the pangs of wanting to be nothing, something in me didn’t want to die. I was also not stupid, luckily. So using heavy narcotics never occurred to me as a solution. I could cry, whine and feel sorry for myself. However, using harsh drugs was off limits. Period. I may have not known what I wanted to be, but I always knew what I did NOT want to be, and a drug addict was one of those things. I saw what it could do, ultimately the worst being death. I had no urges to be so low. Or make my life harder in that regard.

Are you in touch with your father? When did you get back into contact with your dad after he had lost custody? Why is it your relationship with your dad strained?

He and I touched base when I was 18 and from there, it was contact as we saw fit. As of now, I don’t feel the need to contact him. I feel he only enjoys having a son when it is convenient for him. Thus, I feel no need to engage in contact with him until I am done with what I feel I am done with. In other words, I genuinely don’t need him around. Up until a point, I was more so wanting him around out of a sense of familial obligation, and good intention.

Can you point out one moment that actually happened where you were the happiest?

When I found myself becoming that much comfortable in my skin, and when I noticed that I could better self-sustain my personal thoughts. When I noticed that I was growing slowly, yet surely. And as of late, when I ended up in a great program, and felt more confident about the great things to come.

This current program right now? The transitional housing?

Correct. Time has been flying. As for the transitional housing, I made a phone call. I was informed of their services, did a phone interview, and later a phone intake. I heard about them from the (homeless shelter) and from some of the people who have stayed there. I can be there for three months, and MAYBE an extension under certain circumstances if I genuinely need it.

What will you be doing during those three months?

Job searching and planning.

What are your thoughts on government assistance? I know you resisted using it after you aged out of the foster care system. You are now applying for general assistance and food stamps for the first time.

I can admit that my pride would not let me accept assistance in that way for the longest time. I did not know HOW to accept help, and for some reason I conditioned myself to achieve self-reliance to a fault. So much so that it ended up being more of a hindrance than a help.

Why is it you resisted government assistance before?

Because there was no way that I should have had the need for it. I always told myself that I could do it alone, but that manner of thinking is a fallacy I had come to realize. I wanted to feel as if I could rise about with pure effort. In the words of the Puscifer song, “The Humbling River”: “It’ll take a lot more than rage and muscle.” I learned that this time around.

What has given you hope during these tumultuous years?

Admittedly, it was meeting my current girlfriend. Initially, it was just me being pathetic at life and relying on her as a means to boost my sense of personal purpose in some ways. Oh, I truly love her and always have. But the more time went by, the more it grew into a more happy sense and genuine love that I came to appreciate and use as a motivating factor. The happiest I have been was after she came along. She helped my personal growth along when I actually opted to learn from our experiences. The more we grew side by side, the more I understood her significance to me. Thus, I opted to better myself that much more, as I wanted to be a great man alongside an amazing woman.

What are your hopes for the future? How will you manage your depression?

In that particular sense, I have come to realize that my efforts are what can help. Fortunately, that sense of depression grips me much less than it had in my youth, but that’s only because I found more things to live for. I constantly tell myself that If I don’t see these tasks through to the end and pick myself up, those things I want can and will drift further way. In other words, I gained a better sense of focus. I have understood that I — and this is for me — am in a greater sense in control of me.

Sharon Adarlo is a writer and artist based in Newark. She can be found at her personal website or on Twitter.

Photo: eutrophication&hypoxia

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