OAKLAND -- When teachers saw bruises on the 7-year-old's neck they were quick to report it. The young boy spent the next 12 years in and out of foster care and occasionally at his uncle and grandmother's homes.
Now 19, Andrew Sterling has found a place to call his own.
Having never lived on his own, he jumped at the chance to apply for a studio apartment at a new housing center for aged-out foster youth that opened in May in East Oakland. The transitional housing, known as Rising Oaks, is run through the Fred Finch Youth Center, which helps abused, neglected and abandoned children.
Sterling, who was born and raised in Oakland, said once he submitted his application, he waited anxiously to hear if he had secured a spot. Now he is settled in with a desk he purchased that will come in handy when he starts school at Merritt College in the fall.
"It's calming because you don't have to worry if somebody is going to open the door for you, or whether you'll have a place to stay," said Sterling, who dealt with abuse and neglect as a result of his parents' substance abuse issues as young child. "It provides relief in a lot of ways."
Sterling plans to study administration of justice and dreams of becoming a police officer because of his experiences growing up. He is currently participating in a 12-month internship in the mayor's office.
The idea for Rising Oaks began 10 years ago but finally came to fruition this summer. The Fred Finch center staff saw a huge need for kids that were aging out of the foster care system with little or no support system and decided to find a solution. With Rising Oaks, foster youths ages 18 to 24 will have a place to prepare for independent living.
"Most 18-year-olds are not prepared to be out on their own and it really requires some additional service and support that really starts with housing," said Tom Alexander, president and CEO of the Fred Finch Youth Center. "If you don't have the housing all those other services are really difficult to deliver and really difficult to sustain."
The transitional housing project cost about $8 million, and it took just over a year to build. There is a wait list of 140 people for the 30 slots available for housing. The studio apartments come furnished, with a twin bed, refrigerator, kitchen table, dishes and other items.
Rent for a studio apartment at Rising Oaks is $311.50 per month. The center sets aside a portion of the rent and puts the money in a savings account for the resident to have once his or her lease is up. The maximum lease is 24 months. The goal is to provide transitional housing that will lead to permanent housing, Alexander said.
Foster youths who settle in one of the studio apartments are required to either work or attend school. Case managers will help look for opportunities to get residents enrolled in school or to find employment.
"The real benefit is that they can have that first experience of starting to transition into adulthood," said Van Hedwall, clinical manager of Rising Oaks. "This gives them a trial run of being out there in the real world."
Sterling said he has settled into the community and that he appreciates that his neighbors have been through similar circumstances. However, despite his new home, he said he worries about other foster youths who might not be so lucky. "I think stable living is a necessity for foster youth, whether over 18 or under 18," Sterling said. "There should be more Rising Oaks in other places. There should be like 30 units of apartments for foster youth on every block, because there's so many of us in need."