LOS ANGELES — At any given time, an estimated 500 to 1,000 youths are homeless in Los Angeles County after turning 18 and leaving foster care, officials said.
Anita Bock, director of the county Department of Children and Family Services, said the major reason is the lack of affordable housing — not the failure of the county.
Critics and the teenagers themselves disagree.
"Los Angeles County has a very poor history helping children who leave long-term foster care," said Andrew Bridge, executive director of the Alliance for Children's Rights. "When you have a system where nearly half the kids who leave long-term care are homeless within two years, that's an indictment of the way the system has cared for those kids."
Those children include Matthew Snyder, now 23, who has been homeless since he was 18 and released from foster care in North Hollywood.
"I do whatever I can to survive. I go to drop-in centers, collect food and blankets and squat at night in abandoned houses and under freeways."
One recent night, county Street Outreach Services social workers Julie Hildreth and Jan Sully found Snyder on the streets of Hollywood and began to work with him to get him housing and a job.
"We don't have an exact figure of how many kids are out there. There are many children out on the streets," Hildreth said.
Bock said Los Angeles County is no worse than other foster-care systems.
"I don't think it's any secret that the foster care system is experiencing many challenges, not just in Los Angeles, but nationally," said Bock, who took over the department last July. "There is much to be done to improve services to young people when they leave the system."
Los Angeles County child advocates estimate 30 percent to 40 percent of the 1,700 to 2,000 youths emancipated each year at age 18 end up homeless, compared with 25 percent to 40 percent nationwide.
The University of California, Los Angeles, Center for Child and Family Policy Studies recently studied the problem, interviewing 24 former foster youths who left the system in the last five years.
The study discovered the "chaotic, violent, risky and dynamic world the foster youths enter upon leaving care," wrote authors Walter M. Furman and Rosina M. Becerra.
It found six of the 24 reported periods of homelessness, one traveled with "gypsies" working at fairs throughout the West and many "couch surfed" — sleeping on acquaintances' couches — before finding a more permanent residence.
In interviews, the youths expressed frustration with the foster-care system, saying they felt like "we're just a file waiting to be put away," "nobody wants you, you're a leftover" and "I thought it was just like you were emancipated, you're homeless, you're 18, we don't care."
As a result of recent federal and state grants, the county can now give money to United Friends of Children, which provides transitional housing to about 220 youths at a time.
"What is set up now is a big improvement over what existed five or 10 years ago," Furman said. "I give the county a lot of credit for moving toward the development of a system that has paid attention to this issue. They have been a statewide leader, although they haven't done as much as they could have."
One young man remembers the difficulty he had transitioning from foster care to adulthood.
"Sometimes I would break into parking lots with cars and sleep in the old cars," said Ebrhamm Owens, 22, of Los Angeles. "I really preferred vacant houses - just the fact that there was carpet and not a cold floor and not being outside."
He said he spent four years living on the streets before he found a program that helped him get an apartment. He now works as a peer counselor at the Community College Foundation, an organization that helps former foster youths.
Owens, released from the foster care system in 1996, said the system failed him.
"When you grow up in the system, you don't get to experience and learn what it's like in the real world," he said. "When you get out there, you are totally shocked and left by yourself. Now, they have programs. Before, there was nothing."
Help can be found with groups such as the Culver City-based United Friends of the Children, which finds housing for the youths. With a $2.5 million budget today, the organization is able to provide homes to 220 youths at a time, including housing for 20 youths in the San Fernando Valley.