Positive Changes in FY2021: Universal FUP Vouchers for Youth Aging Out of Foster Care

This is the second installment in blog series dedicated to some of the most encouraging investments in the United States Fiscal Year (FY) 2021 budget. To read the first installment, click here.

In 1995, Alliance now-President and CEO Nan Roman wrote a paper about the large number of young people who become homeless shortly after “aging out” of the child welfare (aka foster care) system. In the intervening decades, this has become more widely recognized as a significant driver of people into homelessness. Since that time, some resources emerged, but the problem remains severe. Congress has now put a pathbreaking new tool on the table, with the potential to pay for housing for every youth who needs help with rent as they leave the child welfare system.

A Vulnerable Population

The child welfare system, operated by states with federal support, forcibly removes children from their home when the children are in danger from abuse or neglect. Ideally, these children are sent to live with foster parents, sometimes extended family members, until they can be reunified with parents or adopted. Because of a shortage of willing foster parents, many end up living in group homes run by the state or nonprofits. Historically, children who are Black or Latin American, have low incomes, or are LGBTQ, are removed from their families at higher rates.

Besides having high rates of homelessness, youth who have aged out of child welfare are a group for whom the state has a unique responsibility. Youth and young adults often rely on family to support them on their passage to adulthood; but for youth who have grown up in the child welfare system, ties with family have been intentionally disrupted by the state. This often may be for good reason, but with bad outcomes.

Changes in the economy have led to a growing recognition that at age 18, the age of adulthood when the child welfare system’s jurisdiction has typically ended, few people are able to earn enough money to support themselves without help. This is especially true for families from backgrounds that the child welfare system polices most heavily. Hence, the high rates of homelessness.

Efforts to Date

There have been interventions. They include extending foster care to age 21, and providing medical insurance through age 25 through Medicaid (thank you, Affordable Care Act!).

One particularly important intervention has been rent subsidies via Housing Choice Vouchers through the Family Unification Program (FUP). These FUP vouchers, however, were never funded to meet all the need, and they have been complicated to use. In the last few years, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) supplemented FUP with a new Foster Youth to Independence (FYI) program. This allows Public Housing Authorities to obtain a new voucher from HUD any time an eligible young person was referred to them by the child welfare agency in their community. Although this simplified the process, only communities that had not participated in FUP were eligible for FYI, leaving a substantial majority of youth ineligible.

Bringing Solutions to Scale

Congress has now fixed that. Due to provisions in the final spending bill for FY 2021, enacted in December 2020, every housing authority that operates a voucher program can obtain a new FUP voucher any time an eligible youth is referred by their child welfare agency. Together with overall increases to the voucher program, there will be sufficient resources to make sure every youth aging out of child welfare has money to pay rent.

A Thank You to the Advocates

The FYI program, and the legislation scaling it up to all youth aging out of child welfare, were the product of ideas and advocacy developed by a group of youth with lived experience, working with the National Center for Housing and Child Welfare (NCHCW) and Ruth White, NCHCW’s Executive Director. The Alliance was happy to back their work in our advocacy with Congress.

Four Things to Know

There are a few things to know in order to give this new enactment its best possible impact.

First, it requires a cooperative agreement to be in place between the PHA and the child welfare agency (CWA). In many localities, the PHA is more or less responsive to city government, while the CWA is often an agency of the county or state. It requires leadership from different quarters to establish a working relationship between them. The Alliance will work with HUD and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), as well as with NCHCW and other allies at the national, state, and local levels, to ensure that coherent guidance is issued and that funds can be released quickly. It will be important for local advocates to work at the community level to make this happen from that end.

Second, the FUP vouchers for youth provided under this enactment are not permanent. They last for three years. The theory is that with appropriate support, after three years many of these youth will have established enough stability to be able to pay rent through their earnings (especially in states that have enacted extended foster care so that people don’t “age out” until age 21). Three years also gives time in most communities for the PHA to make a regular, permanent voucher available if the young person has barriers that make that necessary.

Third, there is no mandatory source of funding for supportive services. Congress encourages PHAs to allow these youth to participate in the PHAs Family Self-Sufficiency Program (FSS). This is a program PHAs can get some extra funding for, and many use it to provide some case management and employment services. Not every PHA has one, however. Youth who age out of child welfare are also eligible for Medicaid, as noted, so health care and related services should be available. Other than that, it will be up to the community to use and coordinate other kinds of service programs and education systems to help these young people with what will often be a race to achieve a level of self-support within three years. Local youth advocates will have their work cut out for them.

Finally, like everything else associated with HUD programs, this is constrained by the United States’ historic failure to treat housing as a public good that is universally available. Joe Biden is the first President to win election on a platform that includes changing that. This new initiative is both a step in the direction of universal rental assistance, and a policy that will ultimately require universal rental assistance to fully achieve its goals.