Ben LaFollette lived on the streets of Portland for nine months when he was 18.
Monica Carpino lived out of cars and on friends’ couches intermittently throughout her teens.
Today, both are living independently in Yakima apartments, working, paying rent and planning for the future, largely thanks to two local programs that come alongside at-risk young adults and help them become self-sufficient.
The Independent Youth Housing and Young Adult Housing programs at Catholic Family and Child Service take young people ages 18 to 24 who have either aged out of the foster care system, or are homeless or at imminent risk of homelessness, and help them find their own housing, get back into school, apply for jobs and save money.
“I feel like I’m really goal-oriented; I know where I want to go in life and I have the right mindset to get there,” Carpino, 19, said last week. “I just need a little extra support, and the support that this program offers me is helping me a lot more.”
That guidance also helps participants work on long-term plans, once their basic needs are covered.
“The thing that keeps me motivated is I want to be a step higher,” LaFollette, 21, said. “I’m pushing myself to be better — bigger place, nicer car, better job."
Catholic Family began the Independent Youth Housing Program for young adults ages 18 to 23 in 2008, as an extension of its work with foster children ages 14 to 18.
Following the success of that program, last year the organization started Young Adult Housing for young adults ages 18 to 24 who are currently or at risk of being homeless, modeling it closely on Independent Youth Housing, said Laura Riel, regional director of foster teen programs for Catholic Family.
The programs are two years long, but anytime after a year, if participants feel they’ve achieved what they need to be self-sufficient, they can choose to exit early.
Catholic Family assists with rent and utilities, starting out paying the full amount and slowly decreasing its subsidy month by month as the young adults become increasingly independent.
Program coordinators meet weekly with participants one-on-one, helping them work toward regular goals such as enrolling in school, getting their GED, applying for jobs, applying for financial aid, putting money in a savings account and setting a budget.
“We’ve really based it on the value that young people have the capability; we just come alongside them and support them,” Riel said. “It’s really intended to launch into self-sufficiency. We teach them the life skills as they go along: learning how to problem-solve; finding an apartment; ... financial literacy.”
Staff also works with the young adults to find permanent support systems, so they have someone in their lives they can turn to if troubles arise. Caseworkers have had some pretty incredible experiences of tracking down foster children’s long-lost relatives and building up those connections, Riel said.
The programs are small, and Catholic Family covers Yakima, Kittitas, Benton, Franklin and Walla Walla counties.
Independent Youth Housing accepts 10 to 12 young adults per year, spread across those five counties. Most of the participants come up through Catholic Family’s foster youth programs for younger children, and transition through with the same case managers, Riel said.
“We tend to work with a lot of young people who have a lot of complex needs; a lot of trauma history; a lot of situations that have brought them into foster care at a young age and they’ve stayed in foster care for a long time,” she said.
Catholic Family also offers mental health and substance abuse support programs.
The organization started Young Adult Housing for homeless young adults last September; demand was so high that by January, it was already full and the waitlist had 35 people on it, Riel said.
That program was only supposed to have eight spots, but there are 14 young people currently in the program, with Catholic Family using whatever money it could find to fund it, she said.
For next year, they’re planning on eight to 10 young adults, but also are applying for grants to expand further; Riel hopes they can have as many as 34 participants in the program.
Homeless youths and foster youths appear to carry similar trauma histories, Riel said, so program coordinators can use the same approach with both. However, the team has noticed that young people who grew up in the foster care system are more resource-savvy than those who did not, which they attribute to foster youths hearing a constant drumbeat of “You’re going to be on your own at 18; what are you going to do?”
Homeless youths also are more likely to have disconnected from the education system, Riel said. None of the participants in Young Adult Housing this year had a high school diploma or their GED when they started.
Carpino says that when she was younger, bouncing from house to car to couch, all the turmoil affected her behavior at school. Starting in elementary school, she said she was suspended almost weekly, culminating in her expulsion in 10th grade.
“I had to get on my own feet and realize that, ‘I need to go back to school,’” she said. After some counseling, she was able to return to school, where she buckled down, stopped getting in trouble so often and focused on completing all the credits necessary to graduate. She earned good grades all along the way, she said, even tutoring other family members who were struggling, before graduating as a fifth-year senior earlier this year.
Now, she’s signed up for fall classes at Yakima Valley College, and plans to go to a technical college in Wyoming next year to train as an auto mechanic before joining the Navy.
“I like school a lot,” Carpino said. “I like to be educated; I like to be learning. I hate the summertime when I’m not in school.”
To continue building her financial stability, she says she’ll likely get a night job in a fruitpacking warehouse during the school year.
Hard work has been a hallmark of her life for a long time. Carpino started working when she was 14 or 15, she said, accompanying her mom to work in the fields, leaving home at 5 a.m. to go pick apples.
“We always had struggles; always going back and forth; we never really had a place,” she said. “A lot of kids, they’ve grown up in the same house their whole life. I didn’t have that.”
But all that effort has taught her valuable life lessons.
“Not everything is given to you. You have to work for it,” she said. “I realized I couldn’t help everyone the way I wanted to unless I got myself to where I want to be in life.”
LaFollette and his younger brother are both in Independent Youth Housing, living down the hall from each other.
LaFollette was about 5 years old when they first went into foster care, For the first two years, they bounced from house to house, but then landed with a family in Goldendale where they stayed until they aged out.
However, LaFollette struggled with addiction during his teen years, doing two stints in rehab before joining Job Corps at 17, where he trained in carpentry, something he had learned from his foster father. He worked to finish his high school studies online and earned his diploma, and also graduated from the Job Corps with a certificate in carpentry.
But his efforts to slowly rejoin the world through Job Corps backfired, he says, and he ended up homeless in Portland for nine months.
In the following years, he found his way from Goldendale to Yakima, where he lived with his girlfriend and hunted for a job. Her father connected him with the auto shop where he worked, and LaFollette has now been working there as a mechanic for the past eight or nine months.
Once he got the job, it was his little brother who reminded him of Catholic Family’s housing assistance program, he said.
With the agency’s help to point him “in the right direction,” he did a lot of research and found his own place.
“This one, it’s cheap, but pretty decent. Small but cozy,” LaFollette said. “Just being able to relax in my own place is really nice. ... Just being independent and being able to go do what I want, when I want.”
“Bills aren’t that fun, though,” he said. “I like to spend money; not a good saver.”
With his program coordinator, he’s been watching videos and reading materials on money management, budgeting and taxes, which has helped him learn to prioritize his spending while putting money in the bank. And he’s paying his bills on time, marking them off on a calendar on the wall.
Long-term, he wants to get back into carpentry, which is where his true passion lies, but he’s enjoying working and learning at the auto shop where he is now. He’s learned a lot from his girlfriend’s father, he said, and really admires how he carries himself and how he’s the coworker everyone goes to if they need help.
“I look up to that,” LaFollette said. “I like being that person that people go to. I’d like to be there someday, maybe not as a mechanic, but just in general.”
That’s what the program directors are aiming to bring out in all their participants.
“Young people have the capacity to be independent, and everybody wants to be,” Riel said. “We’re actually helping them have the foundation to rely on themselves and get where they need to be.”