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By Miriam Raftery

Photo: Rev. Shane Harris, courtesy of the People's Alliance for Justice

January 19, 2020 (San Diego) – Rev. Shane Harris, a former foster care youth, is emerging as a powerful voice for documenting and improving conditions for foster youths and those who have aged out of the foster care system.

He recalls turning 18 and being instantly homeless. “They dropped me off at B Street in downtown San Diego with an emancipation letter and one bag of clothes,” he has stated.” It wasn’t his first bout of homelessness. Harris had entered foster care at age 8, lost both parents, and ran away from one foster home earlier, winding up sleeping on the streets and couches of friends for six months. Now he wants to spare other young people from suffering similar ordeals.

Last week, San Diego Supervisor Kristin Gaspar announced that Supervisors unanimously approved her appointment of Harris to the San Diego County Child & Family Strengthening Advisory Board.

“Rev. Shane Harris is a fierce advocate for foster youth in our county and across the nation addressing issues of disproportionality,” Gaspar said. “As a child who grew up in the foster care system in San Diego County, Rev. Harris provides a perspective based on lived experience and passion for improving outcomes for our youth. I am pleased to appoint him to this seat and there is no better person to serve in this role.”

Just one day later, on January 15, Harris and the People’s Alliance for Justice, which he founded and leads as president, announced a partnership with the San Diego Regional Task Force on the Homeless to make San Diego the first city in the nation to survey the homeless population to determine how many have been in foster care.

The nationally known civil rights activist is also calling on U.S. Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Ben Carson to add this as an initiative to HUD’s platform nationally.

A task force homeless count in 2017 found two percent of youths contacted said they became homeless because they had turned 18 and aged out of foster care. But Harris thinks the number is far higher. So in the 2020 program, data will be collected not only during the point-in-time homeless survey done in a single night, but also at various sites frequented by foster and former foster youths.

A similar study of homeless veterans led to a specialized approach to help them, resulting in a 43 percent decrease in homeless vets since 2011, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness.  Harris suggests changes such as making transitional housing available immediately to foster youths turning 18 and raising the age limit for foster children to be eligible for county housing aid are two potential solutions.

Nationwide, there are about 437,000 youths in foster care, according to U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, including about 7,000 in San Diego, according to county records. African-Americans or blacks are disproportionately represented in the foster care system. Nationally, although blacks account for about 15% of the U.S. population, 32% of foster care children are black, the People’s Alliance for Justice reports.  Locally, 5% of San Diego County’s population is black, but 17% of foster youths here are black.

The foster care system has dismal outcomes for many youths:

  • Only half of all foster children graduate from high school or obtain a GED, Voices for Children reports, citing the Casey Foundation.
  • Just 15% of foster youths attend college and less than 3% earn a degree.
  • Of those working full time, most are in low-wage jobs at minimum wage or close to it.
  • 25% of youths aged out of foster care wind up homeless at least once.
  • Foster care youths are diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) at a rate six times the general population and double the rate of returning war veterans.
  • In California, despite some programs to help foster youths who have aged out of the system, 65% of those turning 18 are never reunited with their families.  A survey of San Diego County Extended Foster Care youths in 2015 found 72% of those age 18 had spent 5 years or more in foster care and 4% had spent their entire lives in the system.
  • 25% of kids in foster care will be in prison within two years after leaving the foster care system.
  • 80% of inmates in prisons have been in foster care.
  • 81% of males in foster care have been arrested, compared to 17% of males not in foster care.
  • According to the NAACP, 32% of prisoners are African-American/black – and they are imprisoned at a rate five times that of whites, in part due to disparities in the criminal justice system that is more apt to imprison a person of color than a white person who commits the same crime.
  • A San Diego Grand Jury report found that foster parents locally often lack training to support victims of human trafficking.
  • The Congressional Research Service reports that 35 to 60% of extended foster care youths, or young adults, have at least one chronic or acute health condition that needs treatment and 50 to 75% have conditions that need mental healthcare
  • Many local teens aging out of foster care had received no job training and were not enrolled in programs such as Cal Fresh, CalWorks or Guardian Scholars even if they were eligible.
  • Of the 18-year-olds surveyed locally who aged out of foster care, nearly 1 in 5 had a child or children of their own.

Rev. Harris has led workshops around the region to draw attention to the needs of foster care children and those aging out of the system, including a program in El Cajon in December moderated by East County Magazine editor Miriam Raftery, where he also gave away free turkeys to local foster families. Former foster care youths and family members present voiced gratitude for his efforts.

Harris sums up his efforts to reform the foster care system this way: “It’s about making the government a better parent.”

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