MADISON (WKOW)-- Sharemi Williams is 19 and spent years bouncing around the foster care system, before finding herself on the brink of homelessness.
Sharemi's situation isn't unique. In Wisconsin, about 6,840 kids are currently in the foster care system and they face though odds when they age out.
“[They face] Higher rates of criminality, much higher rates of homelessness, and higher teen pregnancy rates,” said Wendy Henderson, the director of the office of youth services at the Department of Children and Families.
Henderson says nationally, crime rates among former foster children is higher. About 60 percent of former foster males are convicted of a crime by age 24, that's compared to 10 percent of the general population.
According to the Department of Children and Families, about 25 percent of former foster kids end up in a homeless shelter. Henderson says the number of homeless teens is likely even higher.
“The homelessness rate is really difficult to estimate among youth in general because a lot of youth who are homeless do not show up in an emergency homeless shelter,” Henderson said.
Sharemi's foster care experience started when she lost her mom.
“My mom passed away from AIDS,” she said. “ [It was] Horrible.”
Without her mom around, Sharemi Williams ended up in foster care when she was 15, separated from her two little sisters.
“My mom always said that she never wanted us away from each other,” Sharemi said. “So it was kinda hard not being able to see them every day.”
Sharemi says it was also hard living with a stranger and following someone else's rules.
“I'm used to my mom telling me them things, so it was kinda like, 'I don't have to listen to you,'” Sharemi said.
“It wasn't working out too well so they wanted to put me in a group home. Wasn't comfortable there, left again. Then I got put back in to a foster home. I left there, went to shelter and then back in to a foster home.”
At 19, Sharemi found herself a high school drop out, without a place to stay and without a family.
“If my mom was here she'd tell me you have to be a big sister because it's time for you to grow up,” she said.
Then a few months ago came an opportunity- Sharemi's social worker told her about a new homelessness prevention program called PATHS.
“One of the things that we're working on under this grant is trying to give to youth who are in care, who we expect to age out, an apartment and some intensive supervision to be able to practice living on their own,” Henderson said.
PATHS is working to stop the problem of homelessness before it starts. Foster kids are eligible to apply at age 17 and a half, and can stay in the program for up to a year. The teens meet with someone program every day.
“The idea is that the apartments that the youth get through this are affordable enough that they will eventually be able to pick up the rent and keep the apartment,” Henderson said.
The teens also get help with employment, academics and, if they require it, mental health services.
The program is in it's infancy-- Sharemi is one of the first teens to move in to an apartment. PATHS provided things she's never had before- dishes, a kitchen table, a brand new bed. She says the first night in her apartment was the best night sleep she's ever had.
“I used to think there was no one out there that could help and that I was in it alone,” Sharemi said. “But you're really not.”
She's also working and back in school. She plans to complete her high school work by April, then wants to go to college to study music producing and auto mechanics.
“I'm actually happy,” Sharemi said. “I don't have to lean on nobody or like 'oh where am I going to sleep tonight?' I have a key to my own door.”
And best of all, Sharemi says she's becoming someone her sisters can look up to, and someone her mom is proud to be watching over.
“I think she'd be like, you know, I had my doubts but you made it. You did the best you could.”
The Department of Children and Families is currently supporting the homelessness prevention program in three counties, but hopes to obtain a more permanent grant to expand it across the state.
They also need community partners to make the program successful. Businesses that might be willing to help or landlords with affordable apartments that could house the teens can contact their county human services. Dane county can be reached here and Rock County contacted here.****************
According to the Department of Children and Families, about 25 percent of former foster kids end up in a homeless shelter. Wendy Henderson, the director of the office of youth services at the Department of Children and Families, says the number of homeless teens is likely even higher, but many don't show up in a shelter and are couch surfing or living on the streets.
“One of the biggest challenges is kids that are leaving the foster care system don't have that permanent connection and that caring adult that they can come back to,” Henderson said.
Tonight on 27 News at 10, Kristen Barbaresi digs deeper in to a program working to reduce homelessnesss rates for foster kids, and has the story of one teen benefiting from that program.