Research shows that kids who age out of the foster care system are less likely to finish high school, find jobs, or go to college. But one organization in Anchorage is trying to change the outcome for former foster kids and other young adults who need to learn the skills to live independently.
Twenty-two-year-old Luke Guthrie shows off the sparsely furnished kitchen of the small two-bedroom apartment he shares with a roommate.
“This is my cabinet,” he says, pulling open the aged wooden door to reveal a stack of ramen noodles and other easy-to-prepare foods. “We both have one side, each of us. That’s my cabinet. That’s Jesse’s. This is our shared table.”
His fluffy, blazing orange ponytail flows behind him as he heads to the stove to put on a kettle for tea, eager to be polite and welcoming.
“Do you guys, like coordinate? Someone’s duty to dishes on one day…?” I ask, glancing around the tidy kitchen.
“Yeah, we have a rotation chart, actually, that the program provides.” Guthrie pulls out a sheet of paper the outlines each of the duties.
Guthrie is part of the Living Independent ForEver program at Shiloh Community Housing in Anchorage. The program provides low-rent housing for young adults while also teaching them life skills, like learning to live with other people.
Guthrie says it was hard at first because he never saw his roommate.
“But one night he just came out and said, ‘Hey man, wanna watch a movie?’ I was going ‘Alright.’ Apparently he had a movie I wanted to watch. I can’t remember what it was. It was about robots, fighting or something else.” He shrugs.
Guthrie grew up in Ketchikan but moved to Anchorage to attend job training. When he finished, he didn’t want to go back to the drama of his family life. But he was young and shy and didn’t really have the skills to live on his own.
Shiloh Community Housing Executive Director Verna Gibson says many kids end up in the same situation. They come from rough homes or age out of foster care and have nowhere to go. They often don’t know what is and isn’t acceptable as responsible tenants.
“Nobody wants to rent to them. They’re not good renters. They don’t know all of the rules. They turn their music up too high; they throw trash on the ground,” Gibson says.
She says many of her former foster kids had the same problem and they needed help transitioning into adulthood. So she worked with Shiloh Baptist Church to create the L.I.F.E. program back in 2008. They don’t provide anything for free. To live in the 8-plex apartment complex, the 14 young people have to start applying for jobs from day one.
“The Bible says if you don’t work, you don’t eat,” Gibson explains. His office is dotted with religious references though the program does not have any religious requirements. “They needed to understand that they needed to work to provide for themselves. But they needed the opportunity to be put in a position to increase their skills, get their GED or diploma, and do that in a safe, affordable environment.”
The residents also learn about financial literacy, hygiene, interviewing for jobs and showing up to work on time.
L.I.F.E. graduate Jessica Steve says the program gave her a safe environment to make mistakes and learn from them. She was fired from a job because she stopped showing up.
“I knew the policy. I knew what I was doing,” Steve says. “So I took responsibility for my actions. That’s another thing that Shiloh has taught me, to take responsibility for myself.”
Now, she’s starting a new job with a decent wage and knows she needs to be responsible.
Back at Luke Guthrie’s apartment, he comfortably settles into the old used couch in his living room with his cup of tea and smiles at Steve and another resident. The young adults interview each other to make sure they’re a good fit before joining the program.
“This program is like family. You gotta live like a family, help each other,” Guthrie says.
Each week the group meets to discuss their issues and successes. He says this new, supportive family has changed his outlook on life.
“I feel more confident, more inspired, more outgoing,” Guthrie says. “Before, I’m not going to lie, before, at work, as a janitor at the 5th Avenue Mall, if I saw a homeless guy I’d try to avoid him and stuff. But now, man, I just walk up and buy him a meal if he’s hungry. I just feel like a nicer person.”
He’ll take those strengths and the skills he learned as an electrical apprentice to his new job as well. After acing the application test and interview, he’ll begin as lead electrician for a cruise line railroad this summer.