Hidden among the trees along Santiago Creek, 16-year-old “Serge” built a cabin with features of many an Orange County home — except for love and affection.

The plywood shelter was constructed on a concrete slab he poured, filtered water for drinking was pumped in, discrete cooking and heat came from a low-smoke wood kiln and a heavily locked door offered safety.

There alone, the boy had escaped from a dysfunctional family, where dad was a narcotics dealer and mom a denizen of the street.

“I was always told I was a loser who would never accomplish anything,” said Serge, his nom de guerre. “I’m my own person now. I want to be a success, the best at what I do, better than anyone who called me a loser.”

Serge, who turned 18 in July, is among 28,000 homeless young adults scraping by across Orange County.

Some survive alone, moving between hidden lairs. Others live with families in parks, makeshift shelters, under bridges or in vehicles. Many more double or triple up with friends who have a real roof overhead. There also are others on the lam from juvenile dependency programs.

Once the youths reach 18, they are legally adults who face enormous challenges like getting an education, securing a job and finding access to health care. And they have to do all of this without the guidance that a typical 18-year-old receives.

For those who have fled a tormented home, it can be a scary, if not overwhelming, scenario, often complicated by the lure of drugs and crime.

Building Bikes and Futures

There are few organizations to help such youths, say national authorities. But small, nonprofit organizations are rising to assist them in their first chapter of adulthood.

Among the new nonprofits is Build Futures, which was formed about two years ago by a Huntington Beach woman who aids young adults between 18 and 24. Serge is among about 120 Build Futures has served.

“The kids I’m helping don’t have anyone to depend on; they’ve been abandoned,” said Build Futures founder Kathy Tillotson. “We try to move them off the street.”

Tillotson and her husband, Peter, moved to California a few years ago after he retired from the International Monetary Fund in Washington, D.C. Looking for a volunteer cause, Tillotson started Build Futures, eventually officially incorporating as a nonprofit last September.

One of the organization’s fundraising sources is a bike shop that is staffed by the young adults. Serge is the head mechanic.

New Hope in 2012

Tillotson’s efforts have been bolstered by a new California law, called the California Fostering Connections to Success Act, which took effect Jan. 1. The law extends services for up to two years to young adults who previously outgrew the foster care system on their 18th birthdays.

Already 110 of the about 200 18-year-olds eligible for this program in Orange County have indicated a desire to use the new option to continue their foster services, which include direct payments and education help, according to county officials.

They remain under the authority of the Juvenile Court while in the extended program, which is administered by the county Social Services Agency. A component of the law also provides a basis for them to live alone or with friends.

“The hope is the new law will provide the youths a more natural transition to adulthood — to help face the blunt choices they confront,” said Elizabeth Lott, a youth development specialist at the Alliance for Children’s Rights, a Los Angeles organization that advocates for impoverished or abused youths. “Homelessness is the biggest issue,” she said.

Other experts say that the hope is backed by studies showing such help is crucial.

“Our research makes a pretty strong case that it is very beneficial to extend foster care,” said Mark Courtney, a professor of social work with Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago..

Courtney’s team compared Illinois, where those in the foster care system aren’t considered adults until 21, with Iowa and Wisconsin, where such youths are considered adults at 18.

“We found Illinois’ foster youths twice as likely to go to college,” he said. “Women between 17 and 19 were less likely to get pregnant; the youths’ earnings were higher. And we didn’t find any negative consequences.”

Courtney is set to evaluate California’s extension program, with the first analysis expected in September.

Foster care is a federally mandated entitlement program. The cost of the two-year extension in Orange County is molded into the current program without added funds from specific legislation. Therefore, the new costs, split between federal and local governments, wouldn’t be known until after the first year, says Anne Bloxom, a deputy director at the Social Services Agency.

Analysis shows “the benefits outweigh the costs,” adds Courtney, noting the extension program is like the state becoming a better parent for foster children.

In 2008, a federal law was passed creating the extension, a measure championed by U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif. A two-year drive then led to the state law.

More in Need Than Numbers Show

In Orange County, officials adjusted the federal definition of homeless youths to ensure maximum assistance, said Jeanne Awrey, a manager of homeless education for the county Department of Education.

For instance, the many economically challenged homeless families who double or triple up in apartments have their children included, she noted. This population added up to 26,000 of the 28,000 homeless youths, county records show.

Advocates believe a significant number of those reportedly living with other families actually may be more destitute. A youth must use an address for school, otherwise county juvenile authorities can take them into custody.

So youths who in reality are homeless use the address of a friend or extended family member to avoid the county dependency system, Tillotson says. Only about one-third of the young adults she has assisted have been in the foster system, she says.

Tillotson aids the most wayward of these young people.

After putting out the word that she could help, Tillotson began receiving calls and emails from young adults. The first step was providing them with bus passes and making sure they have cell phones for communication and safety.  Orange County’s streets can be dangerous, as shown by the recent serial murders of four homeless men.

“She is a great advocate for a very needy population,” said Awrey.

“Raw” is the word Tillotson uses to describe their lives, and the stories they tell prove it.

Saturday mornings, a handful of the young adults drop by the bicycle shop, where they learn bike repair and create reliable transportation for themselves.

On New Year’s Eve, there was:

• “Parker,” who at 14 fled his father’s vicious beatings at home to travel coast to coast, jumping trains before being caught and sent to a Riverside County juvenile hall. He was released on the day he turned 18.

• “Eboni,” now 21, who is working multiple jobs and trying to clear her credit, which was damaged after a grandmother who raised her used her name and Social Security number for credit cards. The grandmother was making her payments, but then their house burned down and the grandmother died, Eboni said. She says she ended up being left with several thousand dollars in unpaid bills.

• “Brett,” who was living under a bridge in Los Alamitos before coming that day for his first bike shop visit. At 20, he is trying to clear a $60 bill for school books, which were not returned by a foster mother in Riverside, so he can earn the final few units for his degree and enlist in the Army.

Asked what they will do to solve their problems, the frequent refrain is, “Whatever Kathy says.”

Rex Dalton is a San Diego-based journalist who has worked for the San Diego Union-Tribune and the journal Nature. You can reach him directly at rexdalton@aol.com.

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