Share the Spirit: Martinez-based SHELTER, Inc. helps former foster youths find a place to call home

Share the Spirit: Martinez-based SHELTER, Inc. helps former foster youths find a place to call home

Article by Lisa P. White, Contra Costa Times

PITTSBURG -- Imagine having to leave the only stable home you’ve ever known at age 18, even though you have no place to go.

Some young people might wallow in self-pity, succumb to the dangerous temptations of the streets or wait for someone to rescue them.

But not Le’Victoria Thomas, a gregarious 24-year-old who spent nine years in foster care. When she had to leave her foster home, Thomas set out to find organizations dedicated to helping former foster youths. Her quest eventually led her to Martinez-based SHELTER Inc.

“The programs are ‘mom and dad’ because once you age out of foster care, you don’t have mommies and daddies to give you money or advice or love and friendship,” Thomas said.

When Thomas contacted SHELTER Inc. in June, she was homeless. In September, she moved into a studio apartment in a complex near the Pittsburg marina, with help from the nonprofit’s Reach Plus program. For up to a year, Thomas will pay 30 percent of her gross income toward the $770 monthly rent and SHELTER Inc. will pick up the balance. With her first solo apartment and a full-time job at a clothing store at Sunvalley mall in Concord, Thomas is enjoying a measure of true independence for the first time.

Originally from North Richmond, Thomas was 9 when her mother became seriously ill, and she and three siblings were placed in foster care. Her mother died two years later. Thomas cycled through five or six foster homes before settling in with a Pittsburg family.

After years of tumult -- Thomas said she attended elementary school sporadically and couldn’t read by the time she reached third grade -- her foster family provided welcome stability. Thomas said she excelled in school, took Advanced Placement classes and joined the track team. But as her 18th birthday drew near, Thomas said she clashed with her foster mother over dating. In 2007, a few months before her graduation from Pittsburg High School, Thomas said her foster mother kicked her out of the house.

“I tell everybody, you turn 18, you think you’re grown, they treat you like you’re grown and put you out,” she said.

For two years, Thomas had a shared apartment through First Place for Youth, an Oakland-based nonprofit that provides housing, job training and health care to former foster kids. When her time in the program expired, she moved into a studio apartment in San Leandro with one brother and later lived with another brother in San Rafael until he lost his housing in the spring.

Back in Pittsburg and sleeping on a couch at a friend’s place, Thomas gave herself three months to find a job and six months to secure housing. Sitting on the floor next to an air mattress (the only furniture in her tiny apartment), Thomas pulls out the tattered notebook in which she jots down leads on programs that offer help, records her phone calls to those groups and lists her goals, which include becoming a special-education teacher.

Thomas said that, in her experience, it’s harder to find help if you don’t have children, an addiction or mental health problems.

“If you’re in the position where you’re a productive adult, but you hit a little rough patch, there’s really nothing out there for you,” she said. “You have to work hard, show you’re responsible and put forth a good effort to show people you’re trying to improve yourself.”

Founded in 1986, SHELTER Inc. provides housing, rental assistance, counseling, job training and other services to struggling families and single adults in Contra Costa County. As part of the Reach Plus program, Thomas must submit pay stubs to Deborah Heffelmire, a residential services case manager. Heffelmire, who has 38 clients, sometimes hands out gift cards for gas and groceries, too.

Thomas speaks effusively about Heffelmire, describing how the case manager delivered a box of food at Thanksgiving so Thomas wouldn’t have to lug it home on BART and on the bus.

“I do want to make them proud, because they’re looking at me like, ‘we know you can do it.’ And I don’t want to disappoint them,” Thomas said.

The admiration is mutual.

“She is such a high-functioning young girl. I’m just so proud of her. I don’t have to worry about her,” Heffelmire said.

This holiday season, SHELTER Inc. distributed Christmas gifts to 165 families and 30 single adults, according to Theresita Gonzalez, resource coordinator. Gonzalez enlists donors to adopt a family and asks them to supply five to six gifts per person that can range from socks to the season’s hottest toy.

But donors tend to choose families with young children, Gonzalez said, leaving people like Thomas without a sponsor. Gonzalez uses funds from the Share the Spirit program to buy practical household items such as sheets, towels, pots and pans, microwaves and coffee makers so the single adults also have gifts to open on Christmas.

Thomas was ecstatic when she learned SHELTER Inc. had seven presents for her, the most she has ever received at one time.

“Foster kids that are timed out, they don’t have anybody. Receiving something from a complete stranger, to them I think is special because they feel like somebody loves them somewhere,” Heffelmire said. “They don’t have that. They don’t have anybody.”


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