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New Housing Center to Ease Transition For Former Foster Youth


When foster children turn 18, their safety net is pulled away. A new transitional housing program is putting it back for a handful of these emancipated youth.


Born in a household plagued by drug abuse, Manny Peralta De La Guerra spent the better part of his childhood in Santa Barbara foster homes.

The state system provided him with enough of a support network to get him through the public schools; Manny graduated from San Marcos High three years ago.

But when he turned 18, he experienced another, more terrifying form of graduation: He was "emancipated," meaning he was no longer a ward of the state. It also meant he had no parents or family.

Like many others in his situation, Manny wound up homeless for two years, sleeping in dingy motels or near parking garages.

Then, early this month, he found a lifeline: a dormitory-style housing center for newly emancipated youth, called the La Morada Transitional Housing Center.

"Compared to where I was a year ago today, it is just amazing," he said. "I really want to make the most of this."

On Monday, the Goleta facility, which has been open since Nov. 1, hosted a public ribbon-cutting ceremony, complete with a tour and speeches from politicians, social workers and some of the residents themselves.


The aim of the center on South San Antonio Road is to help newly emancipated young adults ages 18-24 find their footing in the wake of having lost their foster-care safety nets. For many, the abrupt change is overwhelming. Of the 36 young people from Santa Barbara County who were emancipated in 2006, six were reported homeless by January, county officials said.

"Living in this society is a challenge," county Social Services director Kathy Gallagher said Monday. Moving into society without a support structure, she added, is "a recipe for failure."

The center, which currently houses seven residents but has room for eight, was made possible largely by legislation that was passed in June 2006. (One young man was asked to leave because the program couldn’t meet his needs, a county official said.)

State Senate Bill 1576 paved the way for counties to receive state funds to fulfill their approved plans for homeless youth in need of transitional housing.

Prior to becoming the transition house, the facility was a Sheriff’s Department storage shop. In the 1980s, it was a "women’s honor farm" housing lower-level female inmates. It was renovated in the spring using grants from the county, state and federal governments, said Yolanda Perez, the county’s independent living coordinator.


Now, the state has allocated $304,000 to run La Morada for the rest of the fiscal year, which ends in June. Every year, funding will be at the mercy of the state budget, Perez said.

This year’s money will go to a San Luis Obispo contract service called Family Care Network. The service provides staff members who help keep the young adults on track. While the staff members do not spend the night, they are present from 9 a.m. to 2 a.m. 

"Our main focus is that the residents get an education," Perez said. "We hope that they get at least one year of higher education."

Although rent is free — Family Services Network leases the land from the county for $1 a month — residents are expected to divert 10 percent of their income to a savings account. In return, the state matches their contribution to the tune of $200 a month. At the end of their stay — the residency limit is 24 months — the young adults receive their savings and the county match, plus a return on interest.

Perez said about 10 homeless young adults are on a waiting list for the program. Of the seven lucky tenants, three are working toward a high school diploma or GED, she said.

One of them is Autumn Pommier, who is taking classes for her high school diploma at Santa Barbara City College.

Autumn was 16 when her father died of a drug overdose. But even before that, day-to-day living was tough.

"I was kicked out of my home every other day," she said Monday while eating lunch at the event. "I’ve been working since I was 12. I had to learn how to get my own food."

When Autumn was kicked out of the house, she’d walk around the streets of Santa Maria, "so I didn’t have to sleep." Sometimes, she said, she’d steal food.


"Recycling cans wasn’t doing it," she said. "I don’t know if you’ve ever felt the hunger feeling, of not eating for two days."

Currently, Autumn also holds a job in retail. Although she isn’t certain what she’d like to do after obtaining her diploma, she thinks she may explore the possibility of being a mechanic.

"I’m very determined to make something of myself," she said.

Nineteen-year-old Amber Balentine already earned her diploma from Santa Barbara High, but now is taking classes at SBCC for business management.

Amber was raised by loving local foster parents who rescued her as a baby from a bad race-related situation in Tennessee. Because her biological parents were inter-racial — her father was black and her mother white — her family was ostracized.


Still, Amber’s life in Santa Barbara wasn’t easy. For awhile, she and her adoptive mother were homeless, and slept in a Blazer. Eventually, a father figure entered her life. But he had been severely injured on the job in a construction accident, and was disabled for as long as she can remember.

This year, his health began to fail. Amber returned to Santa Barbara from college at Cal State-Channel Islands to take care of him in his final days.

"I’d feed him — make sure he had lunch and juice," she said. "If he wanted to go somewhere, I’d drive him."

He eventually died of a heart attack.

Her adoptive mother moved to the San Diego area, and Amber learned she was eligible to stay at La Morada.

"This is good, because my mom is able to move on with her life," she said.

Meanwhile, Manny has been training with a local hair salon. His goal is to become a platform artist — someone who styles hair in front of audiences at hair shows.


"I feel pretty positive about advocating for this," he said of La Morada.

Manny said he knew other people his age who were foster children in high school, and then homeless afterward. One of them was Autumn, and the two remain close friends.

"Before we help the outer world, we have to help the heart of Santa Barbara," he said. "This is one of the richest cities in the nation. There shouldn’t be homeless teens."

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