D. Heimpel

Daniel Heimpel's life as a journalist

You Have to Like to Fight

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For 1,400 former foster youth it is either that or homelessness.

“This is a fight,” says California Assembly member Jim Beall in his Sacramento office. Two former foster youth and four transitional housing workers sit on long couches pushed against the wall. Today, they are in the Capitol Building, pleading for a program that gives thousands of California former foster youth the stable start to adulthood that many of their parented-peers blithely expect.

Beall, a bear of man, levels his eye on a 19-year-old named Daniel, who lives in one of California’s state-funded Transitional Housing Programs (THP-Plus) in Fresno.

“You have got to be a fighter, and you have to like to fight,” Beall says, driving home the sentiment that has been brewing in former foster youth, service providers and advocates up and down the state ever since Governor Schwarzenegger put the entire $35.7 million THP-Plus budget on the chopping block back in January.

Since the mere utterance that the Governor would dare consider cutting the program, which would force 1,400 youth onto the street,  a steady hum of media and activist activity has grown and was vented at the state capital Tuesday March 2nd.

THP-Plus, which provides transitional housing for a fraction of the 4,000-5,000 California foster youth who “age out” of the system every year, interested me because it ties into the national movement within Child Welfare calling for the extension of care to 21. This shift in foster care policy is embodied in federal law as a key provision of the Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act of 2008. In the context of Fostering Media Connections, the row over THP-Plus provided an opportunity to test my concept of driving public will through media coverage.

Beyond this conceptual challenge, I know the program well. It provides 24 months of subsidized housing for former foster youth between the ages of 18-24. Participants pay an increasing “rent” which is saved for them upon completion of the program. Establish in 2001, THP-Plus was part of a vanguard of programs around the country that were based on ample research pointing to the fiscal and moral responsibility that we as a society have in ensuring that youth transition from foster care to adulthood successfully.  That Schwarzenegger would hint at eliminating the program, after child welfare in California had already been purged of $80 million in the current budget, was beyond cynical; it was absurd. Shutting the program down and spilling 1,400 youth onto the streets makes no fiscal sense. THP-Plus costs roughly $25,000 a year per participant. Jail costs upwards of $55,000. Emergency rooms, homeless shelters and a cohort of youth that grow into adults who spend their lives on public assistance as opposed to 24 months aren’t free either.

So, I joined Amy Lemley of the John Burton Foundation in running fort-nightly press team meetings.  A dozen or more THP-Plus service providers would dial in to conference calls where we would discuss media strategy. We developed materials for Op-Eds and short news pitches aimed at local media. But the real catalyst for momentum came, as it always does, from the youths themselves.

Suahmirs Rivera, a 19-year-old native of Honduras who feared being homeless if the Governor’s cut came to fruition, shared his painful story with Channel 10 News in San Diego. Soon after, he and I spoke. His candor in telling his story of being trafficked to the United States, forced into prostitution and bounced through the foster care system impressed me.

I wasn’t alone. Rivera’s story was so riveting that producers from Good Morning America contacted him up and came close to putting him on air. Understanding that the Governor would have been compelled to reconsider cutting THP-Plus if Rivera had a chance to speak on the national stage, I tried to drive a viral onslaught of emails to persuade ABC to let him on.  It was a shot in the dark, and has yet to yield the result Rivera, 1,400 former foster youth, an army of advocates and I want.

But the press team’s efforts were paying off with Op-Eds in San Luis Obispo, Merced and the Contra Costa Times.

Simultaneously Lemley, Michele Byrnes and Simone Tureck of the John Burton Foundation were planning a full onslaught on Sacramento’s Capitol building. Tureck had organized 40 or more meetings with THP-Plus providers, former foster youth living in those programs and elected officials and their staffs about the dangers of a cut.

One the eve of the Capitol siege, KPIX, CBS’ Bay Area affiliate, ran an excellent television piece about how the cuts would affect a young former foster youth and her baby son. The story was born from a great deal of behind-the-scenes work by Beth Fraker of Generations-Together who had organized the entire shoot.

Then Tuesday came. The marble floors of the Capitol clapped to the sounds of dozens of former foster youth and THP-Plus service providers darting from office to office. The day was punctuated with a press conference in a crowded committee room. The main attraction: Suahmirs Rivera, who again told his heartbreaking story and implored the governor not to cut THP-Plus because, “I don’t want to be homeless.”

ABC’s Nanette Miranda filed a story about the possible cuts, which aired on ABC affiliates in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Fresno and Sacramento. The Davis Enterprise ran a story; Univision interviewed Rivera in the hall outside the news conference and radio station KFBK sent a reporter to the event.

After, I spent the afternoon sitting in on the meetings with electeds. In one, a THP-Plus participant named Jeannette broke down in tears while telling California Director of Finance Ana Matosantos how the program afforded her child the stability she never had while growing up in foster care. In another meeting a young man named Daniel told Assembly Member Jerry Hill what it was like to have one place to call home after being bounced through more group homes then he could count on two hands.

This all struck me as uniquely awful, a true portrait of desperation. These young people, who had endured so much, were literally crying in front of those with the power to either kick them out of their homes or let them stay. The tears and quivering voices were not a tactic of persuasion, but rather the visceral expression of fear.

Still,  THP-Plus remains on the Governor’s trigger list.

Assembly Member Beall leans back in his chair and paints the world as it is. “There are some people who don’t care one bit about this,” he says. “They don’t care.”

But, for Daniel and Jeanette, who had spent the day fighting for their futures,  the words that they had been waiting to hear finally came. “Think I’ll vote for a budget that cuts this out?” Beall says. “Hell no.”

Until the Governor says the same thing, there are 1,400 former foster youth who are willing to fight. The other option is just too scary.


2 Responses

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  1. Thanks for posting this – I wasn’t aware of the program, or that it was in danger of being cut. I think it is crazy that they would eliminate something that is crucial to helping foster children (who already have such a difficult childhood) transition out of the system. It’s hard enough for young adults who are raised by their parents to do it, let alone someone who doesn’t have the same support system.
    Great job on helping fight for this Daniel!


    March 5, 2010 at 7:37 pm

  2. […] You Have to Like to Fight March 2010 1 comment 3 […]

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