In the Face of Defeat, Former Foster Couple is Homeless, Not Hopeless

If only 22-year-olds Hannah Cain and Markis Grimes were born just a year later, their lives would be completely different.

But as former foster kids who “aged out” at 18, the Redding couple missed the magic window to fully qualify for AB12, known as the California Fostering Connections to Success Act that was enacted on Jan. 1, 2012.

The law gave foster youth the option to stay in the foster care system for another two years, and receive the full benefits of being in that system.

“It’s great that AB12 protects future foster kids, but it cut us off,” Cain said. “We fell through the cracks.”

Hannah Cain of Redding is homeless after aging out of the foster system.

It’s been four years since they each turned 18 and left the refuge of their respective foster homes to join the ranks of the homeless.

Grimes and Cain became a couple after they met at Shasta College and bonded over their shared circumstances. 

Since then have slept behind the Dollar Store, and in parks where they’ve dodged sprinklers and aggressive transients. They have spent countless nights at the Good News Rescue Mission. They’ve couch-surfed at friends’ homes. They have learned to navigate the world of being homeless, while trying not to look homeless.

Cain said there are few things are more humiliating than the stigma of being homeless.

“We’ve never been in trouble with the law, and we keep our noses clean,” Cain said. “But even though we are homeless through no fault of our own, people still look at us as if we are bad, almost as if we deserve to live this way.”

They learned that being homeless means carrying all their belongings in backpacks. Homelessness means finding someplace to go after the mission turns them out after breakfast for the day. Homelessness means relying upon places like the library and the downtown Redding Safeway for bathrooms, wireless connection and shelter from the elements.

Homelessness means getting hygiene items from the mission, and the opportunity to wash clothes there monthly, which means that because Cain owns just one bra, and Grimes owns just one pair of shorts, they do without those during laundry times.

Homelessness means that when they apply for a job, and list their address as 3100 South Market St., some employers may recognize it as the location of the Good News Rescue Mission and decide homeless employees are too great a hiring risk.

Periodically, Cain and Grimes have enjoyed glimmers of hope and potential success, but even those were fleeting. They were enrolled in Shasta College for a few semesters, where Cain is less than a year from achieving her Associated Arts degree.

For Cain and Grimes, being homeless magnified the the usual pressures of college life. Everything from completing homework and finding wireless locations to getting transportation to and from school was made more difficult by their homelessness. At one point their laptop cord was stolen, which left them without a means to use their computer.

Every class presented a new challenge of trying to be “good” students while being homeless, all the while facing the realization that they were outsiders among their peers.

“I had holes in my shoes, and Hannah owned one pair of pants,” Grimes said. “You look at the other students, and how privileged they are to have parents who can help. I was taking a weight-lifting class and was told I needed these special shoes. There was no way I could afford those.”

No family home for support, or meals, or a place to do laundry or to just hang out and do homework. Being homeless students meant being constantly on the move, with no place to call their own.

The couple acknowledged their failures at Shasta College. Grimes lived briefly in the dorms until he was kicked out for drinking. Cain had been receiving some financial aid but lost it when her grades dropped and she was placed on academic suspension. 

Things were looking up for the couple when Grimes got a job as an intern via the Smart Business Resource Center at a tire shop, which, with Cain’s then-college financial aid, allowed the couple to rent an apartment for a few months, like “normal” people.

Markis Grimes interviewed for and got a job at a tire shop. He was laid off after the six-week federal payment to the employer ended.

But Grimes said that although the program was beneficial for employers as it federally funded up to six weeks of an employee’s “training” wages, it wasn’t so helpful for Grimes, because he was let go when the six-week period ended.

Both Grimes and Cain have been through the Smart Center’s work readiness program. There, they’ve earned their food handlers certification and typing certificates. As an aside, Grimes says he can type 40 words per minute with 2 errors, while Cain said she can type 60 words per minute with no errors.

“At this point a job would be a miracle,” Cain said. “We just want to live and work like a normal person. We want a bed to call our own. We want a way to feed ourselves. We want our own roof over our heads. That would be the most amazing thing.”

Grimes said that he’s not picky, that he’d take almost any job.

“We have written cover letters, and we take all these steps to get a job,” he said. “I would scrub toilets with a toothbrush if it meant having a job. And we aren’t the only ones like this. We know lots of homeless people who’d walk on hot coals to have a real job.”

Markis Grimes  jokes around with a fellow homeless man.

“We can’t just wait around for an employer with a heart to give us a job,” Cain said. “At this point, we’re the only ones who can break our cycle of being homeless.”

Grimes agreed, but also acknowledged that it’s hard to not get discouraged.

“I’ve applied for a lot of jobs, but honestly, employers don’t want to look past what they see – a homeless kid, who maybe looks a little rough,” Grimes said. “It’s really sad, because if someone would give me a chance, they’d see I’m an extremely hard worker. And I have integrity. But I don’t get that chance.”

Cain said part of the reason the homeless often aren’t given a chance is because of some common assumptions about the homeless: They are dirty. They are criminals. They are unreliable. They are lazy. They are dishonest.

“What I also hear a lot is that people choose to be homeless,” Cain said.

“Really? Who in their right mind would choose to live like this, to have people look down on you, to go into a store and have people assume we’re shoplifters? We know there are people who like to camp out and use the mission, but we also know many more people who are just down and out and homeless because of some horrible circumstances, like us. We don’t steal or use drugs. We have morals. We are good people, and there are many other good homeless people just like us.”

Why foster care in the first place?

Cain and Grimes were placements in the north state foster care system for different reasons.

Cain, a doe-eyed young woman with a Mona Lisa smile, said she was removed from her family at age 17 and placed in foster care after she reported her father for abuse. Her accusations against him caused alienation from the majority of her family members that exist to this day.

Staying with her mother — who was divorced from Cain’s father — wasn’t an option, either, said Cain, because her mother suffers from such debilitating mental illness that her mother lives with and is cared for by Cain’s grandparents.

Grimes, an energetic  brown-haired, brown-eyed young man with a wide grin, said he’s never met his father. He described his mother as so mentally ill and drug-addicted that any maternal instinct was nonexistent.

“She would rather do dope than feed her four kids,” Grimes said.

Grimes told of a childhood in which he was homeless off and on, a childhood that included abuse. Grimes ran away a few times, but was returned by the police each time to his mother. Finally, after a younger sister called social services and reported that she’d been raped by their mother’s boyfriend, Grimes was removed from his home and placed in foster care. He was 11.

The last he heard, his now-adult siblings range from being toothless and addicted to meth, to wearing ankle bracelets.

“I have no family support system,” Grimes said. “They either don’t want to help or can’t help because they’re on drugs. Either way, there’s nobody there for me except Hannah. Literally, all we have is each other.”

“I had a different life than Markis,” Cain said. “For the first 17 years of my life I had a winter coat and yearbooks. I had food. Markis had none of that.”

Grimes smiled. “I had a hard-knock life. But what can you do? Nobody is going to give you a new deck of cards. You have to play the ones you have.”

Grimes said the couple decided that after they’d tried everything they could to succeed in Redding, and failed, it was time to move on.

“They say the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results,” Grimes said. “It would be insane for us to stay in Redding. Obviously, it’s not working here for us.”

In the fall Grimes and Cain felt excited about a program they heard about in San Francisco that helped homeless teens. So they set their sights on moving to San Francisco. Grimes even created a GoFundMe page in hopes of getting $900 to move there. In four months four people contributed a total of $25 toward the $900 goal. But it was a moot point because the program didn’t pan out. Neither did one they’d heard about for homeless youths in Butte County.

The couple was at a loss.

“We’re in limbo,” Cain said. “We’ve been struggling for years. We are so tired. We just want an honest opportunity at life. We are at rock bottom, and ready to give up.”

But they didn’t give up.

The first week of December they tried one more thing. They applied for work with the California Conservation Corps, though they’d heard openings were few and far between. Their dream job with the CCC would be with the Fortuna unit, because both Grimes and Cain love the ocean. They knew they would qualify for the CCC because they could pass a drug test, were free of convictions and were within the right age range – 18 to 25.

The CCC program would mean hard work in environmental conservation doing everything from fire protection, land maintenance and emergency response to natural disasters. Members of the CCC are paid minimum wage, but that’s fine with Cain and Grimes. Working for the CCC would also mean the security of housing and food.

“We don’t care how hard the work is,” Cain said. “Anything would be easier than being homeless.”

Good news, at last

They started attending Bethel Church, where they found people who gave encouragement and acceptance, and Grimes was baptized at Bethel. Once, when a woman at Bethel gave Grimes $5, he put it back in the church offering.

“I had been blessed, and I wanted to bless someone else,” he said.

Cain and Grimes spent spent Thanksgiving at the mission.

A few weeks ago they were informed that they’d been accepted to the CCC’s Fortuna unit after a pair of openings became available.

Next, some Bethel members helped supply many of the things on a list of items the couple would need to start work with the CCC; things like sleeping bags and outdoor clothes.

Finally, this week the couple learned that by working for the CCC, and being classified as officially employed, Humboldt County residents, they would qualify for a benefits program – Transitional Housing Plus – that they’d tried for more than a year – without success – to receive in Shasta County.

This time, their ages worked in their favor. The program was especially designed for former foster youth under the age of 24, a program in place before the passing of AB12.

If they were to receive the THP funding, it would supplement their income to the point where they could save enough money to get their drivers licenses, and maybe even buy a car.

In the meantime, the couple is literally counting down the days and hours until they head for Fortuna via Greyhound bus in the early hours of Jan. 3 and leave Redding behind them.

When that day comes, they will have achieved exactly what they wished for a few months back: the miracle of a job. At last they will have a chance to live and work like normal people. At last they will have beds to call their own. At last they will have a way to feed themselves. At last they will have a roof over their heads.

Grimes and Gain spent Christmas at the mission. But that was OK with them, because they were there with the certainty that this would be their last homeless Christmas homeless.

And that was the best Christmas gift of all.


Foster Youth Statistics

• By the age of 19, only 57 percent of emancipated foster youth have received high school diplomas or GEDs. 

• Less than 5 percent of foster youth graduate college.

• Employers are less likely to hire a former foster youth who have the similar qualifications than a non-foster youth.

• Less than 50 percent of former foster youth are employed 2 1/2 -to 4 years after leaving foster care; only 38 percent have maintained employment for more than 1 year.

• In California, 65 percent of youth leaving foster care do so without a place to live. 

• Only 40 percent of eligible emancipated foster youth receive independent living services.

• Nearly 40 percent of transitioning foster youth will be homeless within 18 months of discharge. 

• Former foster youth experience Post Traumatic Stress Disorder at twice the rate of US war veterans. 

• More than 70 percent of all California State Penitentiary inmates have spent time in the foster care system. 

Source: Voices Youth Center

Independent online journalist Doni Chamberlain founded what’s now known as anewscafe.com in 2007 with her son, Joe Domke of the Czech Republic. Prior to 2007 Chamberlain was an award-winning newspaper opinion columnist, feature and food writer recognized by the Associated Press, the California Newspaper Publishers Association and E.W. Scripps. She lives in Redding, CA.

Doni Chamberlain

Independent online journalist Doni Chamberlain founded A News Cafe in 2007 with her son, Joe Domke. Chamberlain holds a Bachelor's Degree in journalism from CSU, Chico. She's an award-winning newspaper opinion columnist, feature and food writer recognized by the Associated Press, the California Newspaper Publishers Association and E.W. Scripps. She's been featured and quoted in The Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, The Washington Post, L.A. Times, Slate, Bloomberg News and on CNN, KQED and KPFA. She lives in Redding, California.

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