By Steven Piper
Susana Gonzales says she did not ask to be a foster child, stressing that no parentless youth do indeed request their orphan status. Yet, despite the obstacles she has faced, Gonzales overcame the common notion that foster kids are always looking for a ticket to ride.
After spending 18 months in the United Friends of Children’s (UFC) “Pathways to Independence” program, she has gained the life skills to not only provide for herself, but also to be a contributing member of society. Gonzales has maintained her position as a public servant for the Internal Revenue Service in Los Angeles County for eight years.
“We (foster kids) will give back to society,” Gonzales said. “We will be the people working and contributing to society.” Her words were delivered in celebration of a wall-breaking ceremony at The Palace Hotel, 2640 E. Anaheim St., a thoroughfare of streaming traffic and small businesses in the eastside neighborhood of Long Beach.
The corner location, in Long Beach’s 4th District, is going to be renovated into studio apartments for transition-age youth (TAY), a population of people 18 years old who will be forced to exit the foster care system. According to the City Manager’s Office, of the estimated 1,000 children who are in foster care within Long Beach, many exit the system only to be unemployed and or homeless after two years.
The project was largely made possible through a loan from the Long Beach Housing Development Company (LBHDC). LINC Housing will oversee the renovation process while UFC implements its “Pathways to Independence” program after construction is complete within a year.
Fourth District Councilmember and high-school teacher Patrick O’Donnell said city staff did a great job gathering funds for the project, with about 12 different sources contributing to the effort, one of which was federal stimulus money from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
The building, constructed in 1929, was abandoned and owned by the city when O’Donnell realized the deteriorating structure had potential for a greater purpose. After seeing a PBS documentary explaining how foster youth are abruptly forced into society upon legally becoming adults at the age of 18, the councilmember immediately devised plans for the derelict hotel.
“If I’m in a position to address the problem of kids aging out of the foster youth program, then I’m going to do it,” O’Donnell said. “I think it will help change Anaheim Street’s direction and set the tone for getting buildings rehabbed and making it a more attractive corridor.”
After introducing the idea of transforming the hotel into a tool for assisting TAY, city staff started to take proposals from various providers and organizations. “The strongest presentation was the UFC group, so they were selected to be the on-site operator,” O’Donnell said. “It is very well run and not a shoestring operation.”
According to the UFC website, the Pathways program provides 18 months of apartment housing while providing five essential life skills: financial literacy; work readiness; nutrition and exercise; conflict resolution; and stress management. In addition to the numerous lessons the program teaches, advocacy counseling, mental health counseling, career services, and educational guidance are also provided.
Gonzales graduated from the same program that will be operating out of the hotel. UFC President Polly Williams introduced Gonzales, who has stayed in touch with the organization since her graduation. “We stay in contact with 75 percent of youth that have gone through the program,” Williams said.
After its completion, The Palace Hotel will be able to accommodate 13 individuals between the ages of 18 and 24 of the TAY population. Residents will be required to work and pay rent, while also attending life-skills classes and meetings with their advocacy counselors.
LBHDC Board Member Anna Vlaszewski said she can’t imagine leaving home at the age of 18. “We really do not have enough of these types of places,” Vlaszewski said.