The basic needs we take for granted are often what stand in the way between young people and success. As more and more children age out of foster care into a world they’re unprepared to navigate, housing is of primary concern, while resources and options to address this need are often scarce.
While housing initiatives for homeless and underserved populations continue to pop up, there is an urgent need for safe, affordable, livable housing. The transition from foster care into an adult world is difficult enough without the threat of homelessness. Aging out of the foster care system looks different for different states, and some youth have the benefit of transitional support services or an extended time in the system with services until they’re 21. In every case, proper resources, education opportunities, and community support are essential to success.
Consider the life of a foster child, entering the system due to an undoubtedly traumatic event, often bearing the emotional—and often physical—scars of the ordeal and failing to find the permanency every child deserves. Whether they’re bounced from foster home to foster home, moving back and forth between family and the system, or spending time in an institutional or group setting, when most reach age 18, their less-than-typical life deals them a new challenge—moving into the world alone.
A lucky few are able to transition successfully into a military or education program, where structure and support are still on hand. Many transition into a job to pay for their living needs. Far too many end up lost in the criminal justice system, their mental health needs unmet and no advocate to bring them through brushes with the law successfully.
The goal to leave the system and live independently is loftier than those of us looking in from the outside can truly understand. The gap between foster care and adult life is real, and many are lost in it. Roughly 20,000 foster children age out of care each year and are immediately met with challenges.
It’s important to remember that foster care is a last stop for children who can no longer live with family, and the trauma of that removal from home is compounded throughout the foster care journey. As foster children get older, the likelihood that they will find permanency through adoption dwindles. Their likelihood of securing proper grades, successfully engaging in sports and other group activities, and overall mental and physical health diminishes exponentially every year they remain in the system.
The burden of aging out of foster care successfully falls on the child—not the social worker or the child advocate or the court system. Understanding this dynamic and the lack of preparedness and provision offered to youth as they age out of the system lays a foundation for affecting change in the system.
Programs designed to serve foster youth aging out of the system must address the basic needs of this population of young adults, factoring in education needs, job skills, and life skills. But let’s not put the cart before the horse. Without food, clothing, and housing, no youth can be successful, especially during times of Covid-19.
The statistics regarding foster youth and housing are alarming. According to iFoster, 1 in 5 foster youths become homeless after age 18 and less than half of former foster youth have secure employment by the time they turn 24.
Social service organizations continue working to meet the unique needs of foster youths by providing housing, life skills education, and other resources for success. Much of this support relies on government or grant funding, and efforts are often exhausted on securing or maintaining the funds to sustain housing for foster youth.
Providing living space meets that basic need for shelter and becomes empowering, serving as a base of operation and eventually providing a sense of permanence. Adding a community component is often the next step in ensuring a well-rounded and successful transition from the system into adult living situations.
“After potentially years of instability in the foster care system, young people deserve stable housing as they move into the next challenge—adulthood,” said André Chapman, Founder & CEO of Unity Care. “Stable housing is the first step in a long journey to healing and securing a sense of belonging and permanency. Foster Youths are in crisis, and setting them up to see successes is vital.”
Foster children or foster parents looking ahead to ‘the gap’ can likely find some services in the community, such as local non-profits. Some may be part of general support for disadvantaged populations and some might be for specifically foster or post-foster children.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services provides some funding to assist young adults in this group with independent living services, but those resources are scarce and do not begin to address the greater need. Without intervention at the community level, foster youths languish in the void where the limited serves that were keeping them afloat are now completely gone. The notion of leveling the playing field becomes obsolete, as these youth aren’t even able to enter the game.
Hope comes in the form of non-profits and government-funded housing initiatives, but communities must engage to raise funds, educate themselves, and continue supporting efforts to provide safe, stable housing and transitional services to the children left to languish in a broken system.