Heroes Of The Homeless Crisis: How Dr. John DeGarmo Is Helping To Prevent Young People From Becoming Homeless

Perhaps the biggest misconception about children in foster care is that the children are somehow at fault. When I was much younger, I had this same false belief, that children in foster care were bad kids, and that they did something wrong.

Yet, this is so far from the truth. These are children who are the victims. These are children who are suffering. Children suffering from abuse. Neglect. Malnutrition. Even drug-related problems passed on from a mother’s addiction. Children rejected by those who were to love them most, their parents. When placed into a foster home, many of these children carry with them the physical and emotional scars that prevent them from accepting the love of another.

As a part of my series about “Heroes Of The Homeless Crisis” I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. John DeGarmo.

Dr. John DeGarmo is the founder and director of The Foster Care Institute. He is a TED Talk speaker, and conducts seminars and consult across the world on foster care, child sex trafficking, adoption, and child welfare related issues. Dr.DeGarmo is also the author of several books, including the book The Foster Care Survival Guide and Faith and Foster care. Dr. John is the parent of 6 children, including adopting three adopted from foster care, and has been a foster parent to over 60 children. He and his wife have been named the Good Morning America Ultimate Hero Award, the Up With People Ultimate Hero Award, and the Citizens of the Year in their hometown.

Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to ‘get to know you’ a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your personal background, and how you grew up?

Thanks for asking. I never planned on being a foster parent. After the death of our first child, my wife (who is from Australia) and I moved back to the United States, whereupon I began to teach high school in a rural school setting. I noticed many students in need, many students who were coming from poor environments. I noted to my wife one evening that as we had lost our first child, perhaps we could help these children in my classroom. That led to foster parenting, to my doctorate around foster care, to opening up a residential home for youth and young men in foster care, and to dedicating my life to making the system better for all involved. To be sure, the system is a broken one, and for those who age out of the system, the majority end up homeless within a year of leaving the foster care system. I am driven to change that.’

Is there a particular story or incident that inspired you to get involved in your work helping people who are homeless?

A child, who I call Sydney in my TED Talk and in a few books, that was placed in our home for almost two years was placed with birth family that she had never met in another state. Tragically, she suffered incredible abuse for over five years, and was eventually abandoned. She ended up homeless at one point. Despite trying every way I could to possible help her, I was unable to. Her story haunts me each day, and I have a great deal of grief, years later. I must help others. I must not stop working. There are thousands more just like her, today.

On a few occasions, my wife and I have had as many as 11 children in our home. We realized that we could not continue to do that, yet we wanted to take our service to these children to another level. That is why we opened up the residential home for youth and young men, which we named Never Too Late.

Homelessness has been a problem for a long time in the United States. But it seems that it has gotten a lot worse over the past five years, particularly in the large cities, such as Los Angeles, New York, Seattle, and San Francisco. Can you explain to our readers what brought us to this place? Where did this crisis come from?

For one, the foster care system is in crisis. More children being placed into the foster care system, in part due to the rise of the opioid epidemic as well as the rise of domestic violence that children in our nation experience. Yet, there are not enough foster parents. Along with that, today’s agencies and caseworkers are overworked, overwhelmed, and under resourced. When a child is in a system that does not work, they suffer, as well. The statistics are grim for youth who age out of foster care. 55% will drop out of school, 65% will end up homeless, and 75% will spend time incarcerated. For many the system will repeat itself for their children. It is generational, and I have seen it time and time again with the children living in our own home. In addition, many youth who end up homeless end up victims of Human Trafficking, which I believe is America’s Ugly Secret.

For the benefit of our readers, can you describe the typical progression of how one starts as a healthy young person with a place to live, a job, an education, a family support system, a social support system, a community support system, to an individual who is sleeping on the ground at night? How does that progression occur?

Mental illness is an issue that many in our nation simply do not understand. When one has experienced great trauma, lives are changed. Anxiety can cripple some in ways that few will understand. For the scenario you describe, of those who start off healthy yet end up homeless, the trauma, anxiety, and lack of support system, that quite simply we all need in some fashion, can quickly lead to homelessness. Recently, my wife and I had two homeless teens in our home, living with our family, as we helped to provide them the support, the stability, the resources, and the love they needed.

A question that many people who are not familiar with the intricacies of this problem ask is, “Why don’t homeless people just move to a city that has cheaper housing?” How do you answer this question?

For so many who are homeless, they suffer from a number of anxieties that overwhelm the; anxieties mental health challenges that they do not know how to process, and that paralyze them into inactivity. Along with this, many who are homeless do not have a support system of any kind.

If someone passes a homeless person on the street, what is the best way to help them?

To begin with, one should not pass judgement. We do not know the specific causes that has led someone to a life of homelessness. We do not know the trauma, the anxiety, the pain that someone has experienced, and is suffering from. Along with this, we can show kindness compassion, and can ask how we can help, even in the smallest of ways.

What is the best way to respond if a homeless person asks for money for rent or gas?

Perhaps give the person a gift card to a grocery store or fast food restaurant so they can purchase food. Purchase some bottles of water.

Yet, let’s look deeper. I am a firm believer that awareness equals advocacy. When we become aware of what is happening around us, in our communities, we can become stronger advocates.

Many youth who run away and end up homeless, as I noted earlier, end up victims of human trafficking.

Most prostituted youth today come from environments where they have already been sexually abused. To be sure, the majority of children in America who are exploited sexually have already endured a life of physical, sexual, or psychological abuse. Indeed, the contributor to a child entering into a life of child sex trafficking is a prior life of sexual abuse. Along with this, many of these children who have already been exposed to sexual abuse have problems with low self esteem, and do not receive the educational opportunities they deserve. Foster children often come from environments of these forms of abuse. Teens that age out of the foster care system are also more likely to end up homeless, and may choose a life style of prostitution in order to “make ends meet,” financially, so to speak. These youth are more inclined to be placed into foster homes or group homes, and are also more likely to run away. Pimps also attract foster children by targeting them in group homes, promising them gifts, a sense of belonging, and a place where they will be loved, as well as encouraging them with presents and gifts, all while grooming them for a life as a child prostitute.

We need to be aware that this is happening in our nation, and in every community. When we become aware of this, hopefully, we will become advocates.

Can you describe to our readers how your work is making an impact battling this crisis?

As director of The Foster Care Institute, I work with foster care agencies and foster parents across the nation and globe. One of our focuses is indeed on helping youth find the support and resources they so dearly need before they age out of the system, and prevent them from becoming homeless.

In addition, at Never Too Late, the residential home for youth and young men in foster care that my wife and I founded, our mission is to provide a safe, warm, comforting group home environment for young males, ages 16–21 years old, so that they may thrive physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually and begin new, stable lives filled with meaning, purpose, and joy. I have been overjoyed to see the community that we live in embrace Never Too Late and the young men that live there. Indeed, we are asked daily by people in our community how they can help the youth at Never Too Late. Again, awareness equals advocacy, and I am pleased that more people are becoming aware of the need that surrounds them.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected the homeless crisis, and the homeless community? Also how has it affected your ability to help people?

To be sure, the economy has been greatly affected by Covid 19, and millions of people have lost their jobs. Sadly, for some, this leads to homelessness.

Can you share something about your work that makes you most proud? Is there a particular story or incident that you found most uplifting?

Perhaps the most uplifting story time for me has been the year we had over 20 children and young adults come through our home during the Christmas season, so many of these children who once spent part of their lives as part of our family.

Without sharing real names, can you share a story with our readers about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your work?

There have been several young men at Never Too late, the residential home for youth and young men, that have benefitted from my work. Yet, perhaps the one that stands out is a young girl who came to live with us at 17 years of age. Her family had been killed, and she had been adopted by three separate families, all who abused her in some way, over the course of 9 years. When she came to us, at 17, she had tremendous issues of trust, of attachment, of love, due to the level of trauma she had suffered. Make no mistake, it was a very hard time when she was with us, as she tried to sabotage the placement with our family time and time again,and tried to reject all that we gave her. A very hard time for all involved. Now she has a successful job in child welfare, has two beautiful children who are like grandchildren to my wife and I, and is very much a part of our family today. It shows me that unconditional love and never giving up does bring healing to someone who has suffered so much.

Can you share three things that the community and society can do to help you address the root of this crisis? Can you give some examples?

Sure! Here are ten ways that someone can help a youth who has aged out of foster care (without being a foster parent themselves).

1. Become an after school/college tutor.

2. Donate school supplies to local foster care agencies.

3. Develop a college and scholarship fund.

4. Teach youth money skills and the importance of saving.

5. Help youth open up a bank account.

6. Donate household goods to local foster care agency.

7. Donate furniture and clothing to local foster care agency.

8. Teach youth importance of good health and hygiene.

9. Show former foster youth how to read food labels, and how to choose fresh and nutritional food.

10. Teach youth how to cook and prepare a variety of healthy meals, and the importance of a good diet.

If you had the power to influence legislation, which three laws would you like to see introduced that might help you in your work?

1) Make it easier for foster care agencies and child welfare programs to work across state borders.

2). Provide more therapeutical services for children who are in the foster care system.

3). Lower the workload for foster care case workers and hire more case workers so they have more time to support foster parents.

I know that this is not easy work. What keeps you going?

Quite simply, “Sydney” does. It drives me each day. Right now, there are thousands of children and youth who are hoping and praying that someone helps them, that someone takes time to care for them. I can’t stop working.

Do you have hope that one day this great social challenge can be solved completely?

While I surely hope that it does, I do not believe that it will. Child abuse continues to increase in our nation. Human Trafficking is on the rise.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

1. It’s The Child’s Fault. Perhaps the biggest misconception about children in foster care is that the children are somehow at fault. When I was much younger, I had this same false belief, that children in foster care were bad kids, and that they did something wrong. Yet, this is so far from the truth. These are children who are the victims. These are children who are suffering. Children suffering from abuse. Neglect. Malnutrition. Even drug-related problems passed on from a mother’s addiction. Children rejected by those who were to love them most, their parents. When placed into a foster home, many of these children carry with them the physical and emotional scars that prevent them from accepting the love of another.

2. You Have to be a Saint. I often hear, on a weekly basis, that my wife and I are saints for caring for children in need, and opening up our homes and hearts to kids in foster care. In no way, and in no fashion am I a saint, and I believe that foster parents from all over would echo that sentiment. We are not saints. We become tired, worn down, and exhausted. We have our own frustrations and disappointments. There are times when we succeed, and there are times when we experience failures. We are not the perfect parents. We are simply trying our best to provide a home and family for a child who needs one, and help a child in need.

3. You Have to be Married. As I travel the nation, working with foster parents, I have met some wonderful single foster parents. Some are widowed, some are divorced, some never married. In fact, one of my dear friends is a single dad to several children from foster care, and he has been a wonderful example for these children, and a great foster dad.

4. Your Own Biological Children will Suffer. There have been some who have told me they were concerned that being a foster parent might in some way influence their own children in a negative fashion. They voiced concern that the children from foster care bring a negative influence to their own children. Instead, I think it is the opposite. My own children have been influenced in such positive ways from those they have lived with, have played alongside, have learned from, and have come to love. Our children have been introduced to a diversity of cultural beliefs and ways of thinking, and have come to embrace some of these differences, as well. Additionally, my children have learned the joys that are found in adoption, from the three that we have adopted from foster care, and have learned that family comes in different shapes, colors, and sizes. My own family, as a foster family, has included children from so many different ethnic identities and cultures. As a result, my own children have so much more insight into how others live and think that most their age. In short, when you care for children in foster care in your home and your family, you will be given the opportunity to show your children how to be giving, how to be considerate of others, how to share belongings and time, and how to be sensitive and understanding to the pain that others might be suffering from, and you can do so in a very real, very hands on, very relevant fashion.

5. It Hurts Too Much to Say Goodbye. It seems that the comment that is made to me the most by those who are not foster parents is this; “I could not do what you do. It would hurt too much to give the children from foster care back.” As one who has cared for over 50 children in my own home the past 15 years, as well as traveling the country speaking about the foster care system, the question is one that I hear several times a week.

My response is this; “That’s a good thing. It is supposed to hurt. Your heart is supposed to break!”

To be sure, children in foster care need stability and they need security. Yet, what they need the most is to be loved. As foster parents, we might the first adults who have ever loved the child in a healthy and unconditional fashion. Sadly, for some children, we may be the only adults who will ever love the child in this fashion, in an unconditional manner. So, when the child leaves our home and our family, our hearts should break. We should experience feelings of grief and loss. After all, we have given all of our hearts and love to a child in need.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Today’s churches and faith based organizations have a tremendous mission opportunity before them; the mission to help children in foster care. With roughly 500,000 children in foster care, the mission field is a large one. People of all faiths do not have to travel to other countries to find a mission field, when there is a mission field in every community. I would like to see each faith based organization and people of all faith create their own “foster care ministry program” or “outreach program.” There are so many ways that faith based groups can help children in foster care right where they live.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Winston Churchill famously said “Never surrender” We must never quit, never surrender working to help these children. There is so much more work to be done, and today, this very moment, there is a child who is hoping and perhaps praying that someone will help them.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Can I name three, please?

Ashton Kutcher is working hard to bring awareness to Human Trafficking.

Kathy Ireland is an outstanding advocate for children in foster care.

President Donald Trump has done a great deal of work to end Human Trafficking in our nation.

I would like to sit down with each, or all three, and collaborate on how we can help children in crisis in our nation; children who need someone to stand up and say “I will help you.”

How can our readers follow you online?

Thanks for asking. I can be found on Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, and Linkdedin at Dr. John DeGarmo Foster Care Expert, and of course online at The Foster Care Institute.

This was very meaningful, thank you so much!

Heroes Of The Homeless Crisis: How Dr John DeGarmo Is Helping To Prevent Young People From Becoming was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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