For many, turning 18 represents the start of an exciting journey: attending prom, graduating high school and starting college; becoming an independent adult and taking advantage of the many possibilities that come with it. Earlier today while shopping, I overheard two young women talking with their mothers about the activities awaiting them at college orientation and what they needed to buy for their dorm rooms. The exhilaration in the air was palpable, and for a moment, I happily re-lived the giddy emotions I felt 20(or was it 30?) years ago as I started that new chapter in my own life.

For most 18-year-olds, summer is spent going out with friends, squeezing in quality time with family and preparing to (sort of) move away from home. They are not stressed about where they are going to live, how they will afford it or if they are able or prepared to go college. Most 18-year-olds take for granted the strong support systems they have in friends and family, and the emotional connection they have to a place they have called “home” for 18 plus years. Far from their minds is the thought that, for some 18-year-olds, support systems are non-existent, and “home” is anything but healthy, safe and caring.

Children and youth are placed in foster care because their homes are either unhealthy, unsafe, uncaring or all three. Most “age out” or emancipate at age 18, but not before being assigned to multiple foster families and schools and experiencing significant psychological trauma, neglect or abuse; forget any semblance of caring and stability. Some exit foster care with a high school diploma, but not all. And at 18, a good number are forced to relinquish their current living situation and live independently. I don’t know about you, but when I turned 18, I was far from able, or ready, to live on my own. Yet, every day in Los Angeles, foster youth do just that.

Although the final numbers from the 2015 Homeless Youth Count have not been released, according to the 2013 Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count, the homeless population in Los Angeles that increased the most (by 54.7 percent!) was that of transition-age youth, ages 18-24. The National Report on the Status of Children shows that 50 percent will become chronically homeless adults within three years; 80 percent are likely to be involved in illegal or inappropriate relationships; 25 percent without education and stable role models will become pregnant (those offspring are likely to enter the foster care system); 70 percent of those not completing high school will never complete their education; and 25-35 percent are at risk of entering homeless shelters or are destined to live on the streets due to the limited number of transitional housing units available that specialize in the needs of homeless youth. Indeed, we have a lot to do!

The YWCA Santa Monica / Westside’s Housing and Education Program has been providing a safe, healthy and caring home and support system for young women who emancipated from foster care for over 17 years. Ages 18-24, our residents have exited the foster care system with an interest in achieving their educational goals and living independently. Our program is multi-faceted and starts with the essential needs of mental health, which include living in a stable, secure home for up to two years, receiving regular meals and feeling a sense of belonging in order to become self-fulfilled. Program staff and residents work together to create “Life Plans” that incorporate goal identification, strengths, challenges, support systems, resiliencies, timelines, responsibilities, achievements and advocacy.

Our program’s life skills component focuses on the development of independent living skills such as meal planning and preparation, balancing a check book and paying bills, doing laundry, purchasing car insurance, living with roommates; skills most of us take for granted having learned them growing up in a stable home.

Finally, the program’s academic and workforce development component guides and supports residents as they find meaningful part-time work (50 percent of compensation being saved for their future) and register/attend community college and/or vocational classes. We maintain relationships with graduates by providing a continued connection to a caring adult, assisting with adjustments to independent living and offering opportunities to serve as role models to existing residents.

Our graduates have completed Bachelor’s and Master’s Degrees, become successful in their chosen careers, bought homes, married and started families. 100 percent have earned a high school diploma (compared to 50 percent for other foster youth); 77 percent have earned an associate, bachelor or master’s degree (compared to 11 percent for other foster youth); 73 percent are employed (compared to 51 percent for other foster youth); and 95 percent live in stable, secure housing (compared to 65 percent for other foster youth).

Our program relies heavily on donations from individuals, corporations and foundations to support our residents and keep our home running. If you would like to support these resilient and passionate young women, please visit our website at or mail your donation to the YWCA Santa Monica / Westside at 2019 14th Street, Santa Monica, CA 90405. Your generosity is needed and truly appreciated!

“I was not taught commitment in foster care. I was moved around to a lot of foster homes and group homes. I feel like I never completed anything. It is like I haven’t gotten anywhere. I now appreciate having the opportunity to complete something for myself.” —program graduate

Maria Abenes is the local YWCA director of housing and education.

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