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A new push to help homeless kids

Ryan Brower and Dillion Hughes stand outside a McDonald's in Hollywood, Calif. after taking the Homeless Count census. Mae Ryan/KPCC

Youth homelessness is on the rise in Los Angeles, and officials are looking to quell it by targeting kids exiting foster care.

One of the bigger surprises coming out of January's annual count of homeless living in L.A. County was a dramatic rise in homelessness among children and young adults. The count found 6,000 homeless 18 to 24-year-olds. A  large portion — 40 to 60 percent — had spent time in the child welfare system.

"It's an issue that's really surfacing now," said Marilyn Garrison of the L.A. County Department of Children and Family Services. "We really just want to band together and tackle it."

As L.A. County embarks on a massive effort to reduce its growing homeless population – which as of last count, neared 58,000 people – there's increasing focus on other public systems that feed into homelessness, like jails, hospitals, and foster care. 

When children grow up in the foster care system, they often don't have lifelong support networks that are available to many other children, Garrison said, which makes them vulnerable. 

"They have to go out into the world on their own," Garrison said.

Three new pilot programs will act as experiments in creating more of a network around children aging out of foster care. If successful, they could be eligible for funding to expand, said Tina Estedabadi of the L.A. Homeless Services Authority. 

The first, in the San Fernando Valley, takes foster youth who are transitioning to independence and pairs them with a caseworker to help find housing. 

Right now, the task can be overwhelming with no help.

"We're looking at an 18-year-old knowing how to manage money, how you rent, know how to engage with landlords, running credit, having good credit," said Olga Flores, director of transition-aged youth services for the Village Family Services in the San Fernando Valley.

Kids can get a stipend for housing from the state to help with rent for a few years after leaving care, but application costs and down payments can be a challenge, Flores said. And kids in this situation are at high risk for homelessness. 

The pilot will pair 25 such youth with a caseworker who helps them find long term housing, employment, and whatever else they may need to be successful in the long term.

There are 800-900 kids who could be eligible for that kind of service in the county, said Estedabadi. 

The second pilot program, run by Hathaway-Sycamores in Pasadena, will focus on working out the kinks between L.A.'s homeless services system and the foster care system, determining when a youth should be targeted for services aimed at preventing homelessness. 

Those two projects have private funding from the United Way of Greater Los Angeles. A third program, with funding from L.A. Homeless Services Authority, puts a person in charge of connecting youth to the countywide homelessness system in a DCFS office.

The overall purpose, Estedabadi said, is to stem the influx of kids with few resources into homelessness. 

'That's the goal, to get youth off the streets, house them as quickly as possible, and prevent them from becoming chronically homeless," she said.