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Downtown Pittsburgh center to serve youths aging out of foster care

Natasha Lindstrom
| Friday, Dec. 25, 2015, 9:42 p.m.
Patricia Todd, 27, who has been in the foster care system her entire life, now resides at Bethlehem Haven. Todd, shown on Sunday, Dec. 13, 2015, hopes to have a place of her own to call home in the near future
Sidney Davis | Trib Total Media
Patricia Todd, 27, who has been in the foster care system her entire life, now resides at Bethlehem Haven. Todd, shown on Sunday, Dec. 13, 2015, hopes to have a place of her own to call home in the near future

Patricia Todd doesn't think about her turbulent childhood often, mostly because she wants to keep the painful past behind her.

Many early memories blur together. Her first, at about 5, elicits feelings of unfamiliarity and anxiety in a cramped living space shared by a dozen girls at a Southern California group home, one in a string of so many stints in foster care that Todd lost count.

From 6 months until her 17th birthday, while bouncing among foster families, relatives, friends and her abusive father's custody, Todd says, she rarely had privacy or quiet moments to herself.

Yet mostly, she recalls feeling alone.

“I was very shy and very quiet,” the soft-spoken 27-year-old said from her latest temporary home, a partitioned room in Bethlehem Haven's women's shelter in Pittsburgh's Uptown. “Growing up, I didn't really know anywhere I could go.”

Todd's experience of isolation is common for children in the foster care system and neglectful households — a population at major risk of a litany of problems later in life.

To improve their outcomes, Allegheny County has joined with the nonprofit agency Auberle in establishing the 412 Youth Zone — a one-stop Downtown services hub for teenagers and young adults going through difficult transitions. The center, set for a partial opening next week and full operations by February, targets 16- to 24-year-olds who have used welfare assistance or become homeless.

“If we can get these kids back to where they're having successful lives and being taxpayers rather than a drain on taxpayers, it's going to be better for everybody,” said Bill Wolfe, president of the Homeless Children's Education Fund. An estimated 240 of 1,500 youths whom the center aims to serve will be homeless.

Western Pennsylvania is “rich in resources” for such struggling youths, “but the services are so scattered that someone going on a job interview can get clothes, but they have to go to one location in North Side, and then to get a shower and cleaned up, they have to go to the location on Fifth Avenue,” Wolfe said.

“A lot of these youths feel kind of lost,” said John Lydon, CEO of Auberle, a McKeesport-based Catholic agency that operates foster care centers and runs programs to help troubled children and families. “We're hoping that with all the services in one place, the focus is on service in face-to-face encounters with the kids.”

Risky transitions

Between 20 and 25 percent of foster youths exiting the foster care system at 18 become homeless by 21, regional and federal data show.

“The outcomes for youths aging out of the system are terrible across the board,” Lydon said.

Stable housing is only part of the problem.

By their 21st birthdays, half of foster youths are unemployed, according to figures Lydon provided. Seventy percent of young women have been pregnant. Only about 25 percent graduate high school, and 25 to 30 percent of young men get arrested, he said.

“We tend to take kids who are acting out for whatever reason in school or in public and put them into the criminal justice system,” he said. “They get into juvenile detention and eventually graduate to the prison system.”

The 412 Youth Zone, occupying 13,000 square feet on two floors of Wood Street Commons at Third Avenue and Wood Street, will have everything from inviting, colorfully lit spaces in which to read and relax to a food pantry, medical services and legal aid. The county is paying Auberle $2 million to cover some construction costs and six months of operations.

“The center creates that sense of a place where you belong,” Lydon said. “So you could go there on a Sunday and watch a Steelers game. You could go there for a holiday meal. You could go there to hang with other people to do fun things. We'll have a recording studio. We'll have a gaming studio where you learn to build video games.”

He expects the project will save time and resources spent on transporting youths in need to providers.

Overcoming trauma

The Downtown youth space will house 35 new positions, including 16 youth coaches trained in areas such as understanding the impact of trauma.

Shelters across Western Pennsylvania say 90 percent of women they serve have experienced some kind of trauma, such as being a victim or witness of domestic violence.

“People will say, ‘Well, why don't people just get a job? Why don't they just stay in school?' ” Lydon said. “And that's a great conversation starter to talk about how trauma interferes with that, and how it gets you to think and act in a very different way.”

Todd — healing from verbal, physical and sexual abuse inflicted by family and strangers — said she wishes a teacher, counselor or role model had attempted to get her to open up about her tumultuous home life.

“Nobody really tried to do that with me, and it made me feel very lonely,” Todd said.

Nearly a decade after child protective workers removed her from her father's custody for good when she reported that he choked her, Todd found herself in another abusive relationship. A loud dispute with her boyfriend got her evicted last year from the apartment she was renting in Squirrel Hill.

She packed up what she had, put it into a storage unit she paid for with federal disability checks and spent the next several months living on the street and sleeping on the sofas in friends' houses.

In her sixth month at Bethlehem Haven's women's shelter, Todd is optimistic she won't be there much longer. She meets three times a week with a coach who helps her with a job hunt and holds her accountable. She's awaiting word on jobs at Giant Eagle and Taco Bell, but ultimately wants to get nursing certification. Her dream is to find a career working with children, animals or seniors.

She's eager to have her own place again, hopefully within the next three months.

“I've already been here too long,” she said.

Natasha Lindstrom is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-380-8514 or nlindstrom@tribweb.com.

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