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Father Joe’s Villages’ lack of concern for the welfare of the teens living at Toussaint Academy is reprehensible.
The organization is closing its doors on the unaccompanied minors who depend on Toussaint Academy as of the New Year.
Closure or change to any program serving the homeless inevitably affects some negatively, but when the welfare of children is involved there is no excuse for poor planning, mismanagement and neglect. Father Joe’s made a commitment to protect the teens living at Toussaint Academy. It has a moral obligation to ensure a safe, well planned and transparent transition into new housing.
The soon-to-be displaced teenagers are not in any kind of protective system – they’re not represented by the state, county or juvenile court system. Toussaint provided them with the only available access to stable housing, which in turn allowed them to focus on school, obtain employment and plan for their future. Each resident has a different and complicated story, but all have ended up living at Toussaint for the same reason: Life at home with their parents or guardian is not conducive to a healthy and productive young life. If home life were an option, I’m sure most would choose that over living at any kind of residential facility.
When teen residents were told that they would have to move out by the end of this year, there was no plan in place to address where they would move. Staff had been alerted only a few hours beforehand, giving them no time to mentally prepare for the news, consider how to tell the kids or how to answer their questions about the future. There was literally no strategy in place, no safety net, no emergency funds. How can Father Joe’s justify this?
In the press, Father Joe’s has been vague, stating that “family reunification” and placement in “other programs” is what it is offering to the teens. So how does that work? Let’s start with family reunification. Sounds all warm and fuzzy, but how is that sustainable? Is Father Joe’s offering long-term family counseling? Is it offering financial assistance? Is it offering family relocation, let’s say, if the entire family lives in a studio apartment? These questions have not been addressed with residents, their families or the public.
Moving on to the “other programs” – what are they? Do they have a name? Do they exist in San Diego? I would really like to know, since in all the outreach to counselors, school districts and social workers, I have yet to find a long-term residential program for unaccompanied youth.
Toussaint really was the last program of its kind in San Diego, a point the organization proudly made again and again to media outlets. Kids who cannot return to their guardians will likely be placed in state care, which is exactly the situation Father Joe’s had promised Toussaint would keep them from.
Father Joe’s CEO Deacon Jim Vargas told CW6 that after leaving the foster care system, “these kids are in one of three places. They are on the streets homeless. They are incarcerated. Or they are dead.” So Vargas admits to the awful flaws of the foster care system, but will allow the teens who cannot return to their families to be placed there. The choice for these kids is either to return to the unstable homes to which they were being protected from or to be taken in by the state. Great.
Father Joe’s is the largest and most well-funded organization in San Diego serving the homeless population. It can and must do better than this. It has the resources, assets and staff to change programs in ways that honor its commitments. It can make hard decisions without causing unnecessary trauma. Planning to change an entire residential program had to have taken months, with many meetings, phone calls and budgets assessments, so why were the youth of Toussaint excluded?
Why, with Toussaint closing in about a month’s time, do some residents still not know where they will live after the holidays? These dire circumstances have led to an independent effort to raise funds for the 13 teens at Toussaint Academy.
There is a right way and a wrong way to approach every situation, and in this case, the lack of forethought is just unacceptable. In times of so much social uncertainty, we cannot let huge corporate entities like Father Joe’s just sweep human lives under the rug.
Angela Santora is a youth advocate and arts educator who lives in Normal Heights. Santora’s commentary has been edited for style and clarity. See anything in there we should fact check? Tell us what to check out here.