Editor’s note: Part of an occasional series focusing on homelessness issues in Raleigh.
Four years in the foster care system as a teen meant a difficult transition to adulthood for Ashley Williams. She struggled to find stability while repairing her relationship with her mother.
Then, last October, she found the Hope Center at Pullen, off Hillsborough Street just outside of downtown Raleigh. After four months of weekly counseling and educational support, Williams is holding down a job and on track to earn her GED.
“When I walk in, it’s like this cool breeze of peace,” said Williams, 22.
A new program promises help for other young people in Williams’ situation. Last week, the Hope Center at Pullen launched a pilot project to help homeless former foster youth receive resources and support through a partnership with Haven House and Wake Tech Community College’s Fostering Bright Futures program.
Mentors, mental health professionals and education specialists will work to provide a seamless support system for vulnerable young adults 18 to 22 who have aged out of foster care.
For its first year, the program will provide 10 homeless young adults with career guidance, job preparation, education services and counseling, as well as a trained mentor to serve as life guide, advocate and friend.
The program’s organizers and volunteers say these services are crucial to steering them through post-foster care pitfalls and into a happy life.
Young people who become homeless after leaving foster care are “very fragile,” said Hope Center executive director Diane Daily, and at risk of a slew of life problems from lack of schooling to psychological distress to victimization. As many as three in 10 of the country’s homeless adults have a history in foster care, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness.
But with stable housing, mental health services, access to continuing education and the support of healthy relationships, those risks can be averted, Daily said.
“They have had to overcome so much disappointment, so much loss, and they haven’t had the chance to form the foundation for solid relationships with older adults,” Daily said. “It’s like finding cancer at stage one rather than stage four – look how much that improves your chances of success.”
Michelle Ventour has already signed up as a volunteer mentor because of her own experience in the foster care system as a teen.
Ventour became a ward of the state in Kentucky after being sexually abused at age 13. A member of her church took her under his wing, winning her over with his kindness and reliability to serve as adviser and father figure during a time when Ventour felt most alone.
“It was a real slow process. I didn’t trust adults,” Ventour said. “It was through him that I learned that all men are not the same, that someone can genuinely love you without taking advantage of you.”
She aged out of the foster care system at 18 and was faced with figuring what to do with her life without a family to support her. It was a difficult period, even with a mentor.
“You’re thrown into survival mode,” Ventour said.
She chose a job skills training program that helped her get her GED and driver’s license. Her mentor was there to serve as confidante and adviser throughout the process. Ventour believes the program’s strength can be providing the same dependable support to a young adult in a similar situation. “If we can just show them that someone really cares, and no matter how hard they try to push you away, to be a constant in their life,” Ventour said. “If they are willing to allow me in their space, then I believe there’s nothing we can’t accomplish together.”
Each young adult in the program will work with a trained mentor, a licensed mental health professional and an education specialist to help with learning assessments and career planning.
The program pulls together services already offered by the three groups – the housing assistance and life skills training at Haven House, the academic advising at Fostering Bright Futures and the programs for homeless adults and families at the Hope Center – to keep participants from falling through the cracks.