Katrina Lawson was hardly a good candidate for homeownership, what with a tangled credit history and a landlord fining her for paying the rent late. Then she found a program for aging-out foster youth that helped straighten out her finances. And late last year, that same program helped her buy a four-bedroom, $200,000 house in an Atlanta suburb.
The key to Lawson’s new home was the Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative and its Youth Opportunities Passport program, which among other things provided a 4-to-1 match for her down payment – $4,000 to her $1,000.
After four years, Passport is starting to show results and is getting national attention. The program says it has helped approximately 1,500 foster and former foster youth, ages 14 through 23, in 12 metropolitan areas and a rural section of northern Michigan. Those youth have an aggregate of $666,000 in deposits and have purchased 283 assets (mostly cars), Casey says.
But the initiative is entering its own aging-out stage, as the Annie E. Casey Foundation and Casey Family Programs, which jointly fund the initiative, plan to stop funding the pilot projects after five years. Can the programs survive without the Casey funds covering most of the cost, which totals $6 million a year?
It is an apt – or perhaps ironic – question for a program that teaches financial independence, along with life skills. Passport has three main components: Providing matching funds for savings accounts, known as Individual Development Accounts; helping youths establish debit accounts to pay for short-term expenses; and providing “door openers” in the youths’ communities to help them with life skills and connections.
“We chose [to target] economic success because it’s something of an umbrella concept,” says Gary Stangler, executive director of the Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative, based in St. Louis. The initiative, founded in 2001, focuses exclusively on community-based efforts to help foster youth gain independence and transition to adulthood.
Robin Nixon, executive director of the National Foster Care Coalition, says many programs help foster youth earn money, but few are so tightly tied “to specific opportunities that they can leverage to support transition. And that’s really important.”
“They speak with you about life obstacles,” says Lawson, who moved into her first apartment when she was 17 and has a young daughter. “It has been very rough, and hard, not having an adult or family members to fall back on. … They become that family that you have when you need help.”
At each site, a lead agency collaborates with local partners. The lead agencies include the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta, the Child and Family Policy Center at Vanderbilt University’s Institute for Public Policy Studies, in Nashville, and the Michigan Department of Human Services (DHS), which is the only state agency directly involved.
Each type of agency offers advantages and challenges. In Atlanta, the community foundation provides a neutral meeting ground for the program’s six major partners. In Nashville, the family policy center benefits from the university’s research prowess. In Michigan, the state agency brings political support but suffers from typical bureaucratic logjams – it’s hard, for instance, to get checks cut quickly, says Shannon Brower, a consultant to the DHS.
“I wouldn’t say we’ve identified, ‘This is the entity that’s best suited for this,’ ” Stangler says.
At each site, Passport tries to provide what many youths get from their parents: lessons in financial and life skills, and small infusions of cash to pull them out of trouble.
When Lawson joined Passport four years ago, she received both money and financial advice to get square with her landlord and straighten out her credit. Then she learned that the Atlanta program provides a 4-to-1 match for the down payment on a home. (At other sites, the match is 1-to-1; Atlanta’s match is augmented through a partnership with the United Way of Metropolitan Atlanta.)
“I immediately started saving up for that,” says Lawson, now 24, who has worked as a deputy sheriff and as a lab technician and phlebotomist at Emory Children’s Center. “I wanted one ASAP.”
First, she had to take a home-ownership seminar and attend one-on-one budget counseling sessions provided through the Atlanta Urban League, one of the local partners, which typifies the types of “door openers” that Casey sites provide. The budget counselor helped to structure Lawson’s mortgage to ensure that it was affordable, says Tyronda Minter, a program officer at the community foundation.
“We want to see her keep her home,” Minter says. “They provided the counseling, but ultimately it’s her decision” about what to buy.
Lawson was especially ambitious; more typically, youths save money for cars. Surveys of 700 Passport participants since its launch in 2002 have shown that having an automobile is their most common financial goal, Casey says.
Getting a car often involves both saving and borrowing money, which youth workers in Passport programs have learned require special attention. Once their bank accounts are set up, many of the youths need to be monitored to make sure they don’t overspend.
“They ran into a little trouble when they would run over their bank account,” says Audrey Corder, executive director of the Office of Family and Child Well-Being for the state of Tennessee, which works with the Passport program in Nashville. “It’s harder, when you’re not making a lot of money, to try to re-coup.”
The programs have also tried to shield participants from predatory lenders, who can strip the youths of both their money and their optimism about improving their lives, Stangler says. “A big question we got from the kids early on was, ‘How do you not get ripped off?’ ” he says.
The payoff is well worth it, says Stangler, former director of the Missouri Department of Social Services. “The liberating part of that [buying a car] … has been a little more than we expected,” he says. “The sense of accomplishment is something they’ve never likely had much of.”
The surveys by Jim Casey also show that the youth boards at each site, which encourage newcomers and advocate for funding, have a powerful impact on the kids.
The boards, composed of 10 to 20 youth, communicate with local business and political leaders about the needs of foster youth. They have helped to “puncture” negative stereotypes about foster youth and gain support among legislators and other potential funders, says Kim Crane, project director at the child and family policy center at Vanderbilt.
“I talk less and less as this initiative goes on, and they talk more and more,” she says. “They know they’re the experts.”
Brower, the consultant to the DHS in Michigan, says the youth board there produced an advocacy publication called Voice that has been presented to county and state officials, including legislators and members of the newly formed Statewide Task Force for Permanency, Transition and Advocacy for Foster Care Youth.
“We’ve watched these kids go from when they first come in, slouched in a chair, reluctant to speak, maybe even a little angry, to … articulate spokesmen for change in the system,” Stangler says.
A third major finding of the surveys, according to Stangler, would be no surprise to many youth workers: A stable relationship with at least one adult is the best predictor of youths’ success.
For the lead agencies, the best predictor of their own success will be stable relationships with funders. The local sites will need to become self-sufficient, because the Casey funding in each site will run out by the end of five years, Stangler says.
That direct funding has totaled $10.2 million so far, he says. Casey has spent another $20 million on such services as technical assistance and support, data systems that handle program evaluation and media outreach.
In Atlanta, the community foundation plans to work with Georgia’s Independent Living Program to find funding and partners throughout the state, Minter says. The Atlanta program is the oldest; it has served 225 youth in three years.
Michigan’s program will go statewide in 2007, Brower says, as the state DHS plans to fund Passport through the federal Chafee Foster Care Independent Living Act and other sources. In Tennessee, the Vanderbilt child and family center is talking to the state about stepping up state funding, Crane says, while the local Oasis Center, a shelter for runaway and homeless youth, will become the lead agency.
Like the kids, the agencies should be prepared to go move out on their own. “All sites have to start planning for sustainability from Day 1,” Stangler says.