Foster Youth and Homelessness: What are the Risk Factors?

When do youth become adults? If you ask the foster care system in most places, it’s at the age of 18, when youth “age out,” or are required to exit the system. More than 20,000 youth age out of foster care each year. This means that they have to learn to meet their own needs, as they no longer will have their needs met by the state. They must identify and maintain housing, find a job, and manage their own finances. Put simply: each year, more than 20,000 youth must rapidly become adults.

For many of these youth, aging out of foster care leaves them in a precarious situation in which they are vulnerable to homelessness. If we know that youth exiting foster care are particularly vulnerable to homelessness, what can we do to support this transition for the youth who are most likely to become homeless? And, how do we know which of these youth are most likely to become homeless?

These are challenging questions, but their answers could provide valuable insight into the best way for communities to target resources, such as funding and case management services, to the youth who are the most vulnerable to homelessness upon exit from foster care. Researchers from the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services have released a new report that aims to do just that.

Last week, our Local Homelessness Research Network was fortunate to have one of its members and the primary author of the report, Melissa Ford Shah, present the report’s findings. Shah and her team looked at the 1,213 youth over the age of 17 who permanently exited foster care in Washington during the state fiscal year 2011 or 2012. Nearly 25 percent of the sample population became homeless within a year of exiting foster care.

Based on the sample population, Shah and her team were able to determine specific risk factors and protective factors for homelessness that estimate a youth’s likelihood of becoming homeless after exiting foster care. They found that the most significant risk factors for homelessness after exiting foster care include:

  • Race. African American youth were 1.8 times more likely to become homeless.
  • Household composition. Youth who are parents are more than twice as likely become homeless.
  • Recent history of homelessness. Youth who had been homeless or who received housing assistance in the past year were nearly twice as likely to become homeless.
  • School placement. Youth who frequently changed schools—particularly those who changed schools more than four times in three academic years—were nearly twice as likely to become homeless.
  • Number of foster care placements. Having more than one foster care placement increased a youth’s likelihood for homelessness by 1.5 times.
  • Justice system involvement. Youth with multiple convictions (four or more) and youth who had been in juvenile rehabilitation were 1.5 times more likely to become homeless.

In addition to these risk factors, researchers also identified two strong protective factors: placement with a relative while in foster care and a high GPA.

Once they had determined these factors that are predictors of the risk of future homelessness, the researchers were able to create a tool that can identify youth exiting foster care who are particularly at risk of becoming homeless. This tool should help workers in the foster care system decide which youth to target with additional support and interventions after they leave foster care, in order to help ensure that youths remain stably housed.

This study provides a compelling demonstration of how we can use data to prevent homelessness by targeting resources toward those who are the most vulnerable. While predictive tools of this kind can’t identify every single youth who will become homeless, they can guide communities toward the most efficient use of their limited resources. And in that way, they ideally can help a community prevent homelessness for as many youth as possible.

By supporting the most vulnerable youth exiting foster care in their transition to adulthood, we can ensure that their risk of homelessness never becomes a reality.

Graphic from “Youth at Risk of Homelessness: Identifying Key Predictive Factors among Youth Aging Out of Foster Care in Washington State.”