Diverting Foster Youth from Homelessness

Every year, high schools all over the country host graduation ceremonies which officially mark the end of adolescence and the beginning of young adulthood. Teens who have plenty of life skills often feel ready to move out of the home and begin the next chapter. But this is not always true for foster youth.

The years of traumatic experiences put foster youth in a vulnerable position when they age out of the system at age 18.  This blog post explores several approaches that the federal government, states, and other organizations have deployed to address this critical issue.

Preparing for Adulthood

Although we are deemed adults at the age of 18, few of us are truly prepared for the stressors of adult life. In fact, the brain is not fully mature until the age of 25, affecting emotional and cognitive development. It is common for youth to get overwhelmed with big issues such as finding gainful employment, navigating social circles, and trying to understand themselves, all while trying to find an affordable place to live. It is no wonder that so many people of this age group continue to live with their families well past the age of 18.

Youth exiting foster care face all these pressures and more. They may not have acquired adequate coping skills to deal with all that life will throw at them. They are likely to be dealing with trauma from navigating through the system, and it is important to recognize the coping skills they have learned to reduce negative or unwanted feelings. And as is the case with so many of the systems that feed into homelessness, there are stark racial inequities in play: Black youth are more likely to be placed in the foster care system and are more likely to experience homelessness.

Youth aging out of the foster care system need guidance and help to navigate the adult world. The monthly cost of living in the United States is $2,213, which is 2.26 times more expensive than the world average. The average salary after taxes in the United States is $4,223, which is enough to cover living expenses for 1.9 months. People are struggling to live in America, so how can we expect youth to pick themselves up by their bootstraps when the boots are worn down and the straps are broken?

Encouraging Signs of Support

Recently, there has been a growing recognition of the need to scale up resources for this population.

President Biden’s new budget proposal, for example, aims to create a housing voucher guarantee for youth aged 18-21 who are aging out of foster care. This is an encouraging signal, but of course, this funding isn’t guaranteed. Lawmakers will need to come together and demonstrate the necessary will to ensure these investments survive the annual budget appropriations process.

Moreover, 26 states have approved the expansion of youth in foster care. The Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act of 2008 allowed states to extend eligibility for foster care and adoption assistance to age 21. The Act also allows youth ages 18 up to 21 to live in a supervised setting in which the individual is living independently. This may be an apartment, with monthly check-ins with a case worker.

The 26 states that were approved to use federal funds for extending foster care have allowed various independent living options to their residents, including shared apartments and college dorms. Furthermore, some selected states have gone the extra mile in preparing their young residents for independent living by providing training in areas such as financial literacy and daily living skills.

What Programs Are Available?

Homelessness can have a significant impact on young people’s mental and physical health, as well as their educational and employment opportunities. Youth homeless service providers should be aware of the various funding opportunities that can help youth from experiencing homelessness. The Foster Youth to Independence (FYI) and Family Unification Program (FUP) provides Housing Choice Voucher (HCV) assistance to youth ages 16-24 who have exited the foster care system or will be exiting within three months. These vouchers are valid for three years and can be extended up to 24 months if the youth meet certain requirements.

Innovative programs are also being created to address the issue of youth being at risk of homelessness or falling into homelessness. The Youth Homeless Demonstration Program (YHDP) brings a fresh take on a coordinated community approach to preventing and ending youth homelessness by uplifting the voices of youth leadership, promoting equity woven throughout communities’ programs, mobilizing data for evaluation, building capacity, using a Housing First approach and much more.

Supporting Youth Long Term

New York City has gone even further to make sure that youth aging out of the system have a safety net for much longer. An organization called Fair Futures has created a model with wraparound services such as career and housing support to ensure that young people ages 11-26 have the skills to live independently. With cross-sector collaboration including leaders in child welfare, education, workforce, and youth development, Fair Futures has successfully implemented its comprehensive model across the 26 NYC foster care agencies, making it the first in the nation to serve foster youth through the age of 26.

Building a Better Future

By the time youth age out of foster care, they have already dealt with enough challenges. Facing homelessness shouldn’t be yet another.

The policies, proposals, and programs outlined in this post make it clear that we can and must build a better path for this vulnerable population. Our systems and leaders would be wise to recognize the manifold benefits of this choice: most immediately, it would prevent people from unnecessarily experiencing homelessness as young adults. But in the long term, it would help break the cycles of homelessness that can persist for years.