Preventing Homelessness for Youth and Young Families in Foster Care: FY2021 Updates

Many young people who enter homelessness, including young parents with children, do so after exiting foster care. Researchers have found that between 31% and 46% of youth exiting foster care experience homelessness by age 26. A study conducted in Washington State found that approximately one quarter of youth that exited foster care at age 17 or older became homeless within 12 months of exit. The risk of homelessness was particularly acute for Black youth exiting foster care and for parenting youth. We have an opportunity now to end this trajectory and the disparate impact on Black youth and young parents.

Homeless service leaders can advocate at the state and local level to ensure that child welfare agencies are prepared to take advantage of new, time-limited opportunities to prevent youth homelessness during the COVID-19 crisis . They also can seek to institutionalize the most promising approaches for future years.  Homeless service advocates and leaders should also be aware of forthcoming resources from HUD that can facilitate access to housing for youth and young families exiting foster care. The array of new funding opportunities and tools were included in the Consolidated Appropriations Act of FY 2021. The legislation provides new tools to do the following:

Reduce Placements into Foster Care

We can avoid placing so many children and youth into foster care if families have the support they needed to safely stabilize their current living situations and thrive. The legislation includes significant new funding for states to strengthen and expand the array of supportive services they provide at-risk families throughout the pandemic. The new legislation will:

  • allow states to receive a 100 percent reimbursement for eligible expenditures throughout FY2021 (ending September 30, 2021) to preserve families under Title IV-E Prevention Program of the Social Security Act. Allowable expenditures include the use of evidence-based mental health, substance use, and parenting support interventions; and
  • provide an emergency funding increase of $85M for the MaryLee Allen Promoting Safe & Stable Families Fund and eliminate the state match for increased funds. This funding stream can be used for an array of activities to support families to prevent or minimize the time children and youth spend in foster care. This includes helping families cover rental arrears and subsidizing rent to prevent child welfare involved families from losing their housing.

Extend Foster Care

Chapin Hall has identified significant benefits associated with extending foster care to youth until age 21. Benefits include reducing the likelihood that young adults experience homelessness or an economic hardship while they remain in care. Youth in extended care are more likely to finish high school and move on to college. They participate at higher rates in the workforce. And they are far less likely to become pregnant as a young adult or be arrested or convicted of a crime. Despite the clear positive outcomes of extended foster care, not all states have opted to take advantage of the opportunity to offer a more stable platform for youth.

Under the legislation, states must extend foster care for youth during the pandemic (until September 30, 2021). This is regardless of the current state policy on when youth exit care or what subgroups of youth are eligible for extended care. In addition, states must allow youth who have exited during the pandemic to return to care. 

This provides an important opportunity to keep young adults safe. While many states have already implemented extended foster care, not all states have done so, and not all states offer it to every youth.  This legislation extends foster care protection to all youth. Since the legislation also increases the federal reimbursement to states for providing extended foster care throughout FY 2021, it eliminates the cost to states of extending foster care and of testing new approaches.

This is an opportunity for states to modify practices to support some of the most vulnerable youth at risk of homelessness. And they can do it without incurring additional costs. It also provides an opportunity for states to implement and test promising models of extending care that reflects youths’ desires. This includes living arrangements that allow for greater autonomy and independence, while also providing the resources and supports that enable their future success. States can then elect to continue to implement those effective and promising practices well after the pandemic ceases.

Increase Financial and Housing Support for Youth Who Exited Care

The legislation includes a $400 million increase to the John H. Chafee Foster Care Independence Program. $350 million of this increase can be used to help youth who were in foster care at age 14 or older to prepare for independence. It can also support youth who have already exited foster care.  It can be used to provide youth with the two supports they identify as their most urgent needs: direct cash assistance and housing support (including rental assistance).

Under the legislation, and throughout FY 2021, youth who were in foster care at age 14 or older are eligible to receive financial and housing support (along with other Chafee Independence Program services) until they reach age 27. Further, the legislation temporarily removes the cap on the amount of Chafee funds that be used for room and board expenditures.

Expand Youth’s Access to Education and Training Opportunities

The legislation provides an increase of $50 million for Education and Training Vouchers under the John H. Chafee Independence Program. Youth can use these to access higher education and training opportunities. The legislation also provides greater flexibility in the use of the vouchers throughout the pandemic. It waives enrollment and academic progress requirements, and increases the amount of assistance available to youth. The legislation also includes important provisions to make it easier for youth in foster care and youth experiencing homelessness to access student aid, primarily through simplifying the application and recertification process.

Increase Access to Affordable Housing

The legislation includes $25 million for Family Unification Program (FUP) vouchers. Of that, $20 million of which will be dedicated for youth exiting foster care. The FUP program provides Housing Choice Vouchers for child welfare-involved families identified by child welfare agencies, to prevent family separation and to facilitate family reunification.

FUP vouchers are also used to provide time-limited rental assistance to youth aging out of foster care.  The legislation will allow $10 million of the FUP program to be made available to public housing agencies working with child welfare agencies on a noncompetitive basis. This will help to streamline access to Housing Choice Vouchers for youth as they are preparing to exit care.

The Fostering Stable Housing Opportunities Act was enacted with the Consolidated Appropriations Act. This legislation prioritizes access to Housing Choice Vouchers to be used as FUP vouchers for youth aging out of foster care. It also allows for extension of housing assistance for youth participating in the HUD Family Self-Sufficiency Program. This is a permanent change and will not require Congress to specifically dedicate vouchers for the FUP program on an annual basis.

Improve Coordination of Services for Youth

The legislation sets aside $82 million of the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Program for Youth Homeless Demonstration Program (YHDP).  An estimated 25 Continuums of Care will be awarded funding to improve the services at-risk and homeless youth receive.  The focus of the existing Youth Homeless Demonstration Programs is much broader than youth exiting foster care. However, improving child welfare practices so fewer youth enter homelessness after exiting foster care is a key focus (and outcome) of their work.

Looking Ahead

The COVID-19 pandemic has heightened the danger to young people of exiting foster care without sufficient support to stay safe or housed. Congress has responded by providing new funding, new flexibility, and new expectations for states. This can not only protect them from COVID-19, but also provide safeguards against homelessness while opening up educational opportunities.

Many of these opportunities and obligations are temporary. This includes: the requirement for states to extend foster care for all youth, increased Title IV-E reimbursement, and increased funding for financial and housing support under the John H. Chafee Foster Care Independence Program. We have a chance to protect youth now and build the case for institutionalizing these practices for the future. The measures outlined in the FY 2021 bill are designed to help states make significant strides in the coming months; they can change the trajectory for young people involved with the child welfare system.

The Alliance will be working with national partners to explore these opportunities in greater depth in future blog posts. We look forward in working with our state and local partners to take advantage of this opportunity to end homelessness once and for all for young people exiting foster care.