A surprising link between youth homelessness and foster care emerged today from a research project at the University of Chicago’s Chapin Hall.
Researchers already knew that a high proportion of homeless youth have been in the foster care system.
“We knew it from studies of young people who have aged out of foster care,” said Amy Dworsky, a research fellow at Chapin Hall, the youth policy research center at the University of Chicago. She said many young people become homeless immediately upon aging out of the system, others several months later.
But the report, released today, pointed out that most youth who have been in foster care are either reunited with their family (49%, based on the project’s street outreach survey), released to a legal guardian (10%) or adopted (24%). These groups have a high likelihood of becoming homeless, according to the report. Dworsky is the lead author.
“Very little attention has been paid to young people who have supposedly achieved permanency,” she said. “They too are at risk of homelessness.
“It’s a much broader population,” she said.
What tends to happen is that the child welfare system feels it has done its job when kids are reunified with their family or adopted, Dworsky said. “There’s not a lot of post-reunification and post-adoption support,” she said.
The information comes from the project Voices of Youth Count, which included a national survey of 26,161 households, a survey of 4,139 young people experiencing homelessness and in-depth interviews with 215 of them.
The report, “Missed Opportunities: Pathways from Foster Care to Youth Homelessness,” is the seventh issue brief to come from the project. It finds that one-fourth to one-third of homeless youth and young adults have been in foster care.
Homeless young people who were in foster care have had more adverse experiences that other homeless youth, according to the report.
Their entry into foster care was connected with family instability. In fact, 47% of youth in the survey who had been in foster care had been homeless with their family at some point.
Loss of relationships
Tuesday, Chapin Hall researcher Matthew Morton testified before a U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Human Services.
“For youth, homelessness is about more than the loss of housing; it is about the lack or loss of relationships and connections that most people had to rely on more consistently for love, support, safety, and stability. Housing instability is but one factor that characterizes their journeys,” he said.
The report recommends ways that existing federal law — Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act, Chafee Foster Care Program, Family Unification Program and Family First Prevention Services Act — can address the high rate of youth who have been in foster care who become homeless.
Among its recommendations:
—Better prepare youth for independent living.
Either youth are not receiving services and supports possible under the Chafee Foster Care Program, including employment and basic life skills training, or the services are not effective, the report said.
Young people exiting from foster care through reunification and adoption may be eligible for services but not know it, the report said.
In addition, more states should extend the age of foster care, Dworsky said.
“In 2008, federal legislation allowed states to extend foster care to age 21. Just under half have done that,” she said.
—Provide far more housing assistance.
States are allowed to spend 30% of Chafee funding on housing, but few spend that much, Dworsky said. The report urges states to spend more, and it recommends that communities provide Section 8 housing vouchers to youth aging out of foster care under the provisions of the Family Unification Program.
—Connect youth to caring adults.
Extend the efforts in some child welfare agencies to make sure a young person has at least one adult connection (a mentor, extended family member, etc.) when leaving foster care, Dworsky said.
—Extend the reach of trauma-informed services.
Young people in foster care have so many adverse experiences that addressing trauma is critical, the report said.
“States could potentially leverage some of the new funding [under the Family First Prevention Services Act to offer services] to prevent them from coming into care,” Dworsky said. “Other funding allows for some post-reunification types of services.”
—Deal with family homelessness and thereby lessen the likelihood those children would end up in foster care.
Housing vouchers through the Family Unification Program may be available in some cases.
—Provide funding for programs that keep kids out of foster care through the
Family First Prevention Services Act.
—Provide services to help stabilize foster kids who reunify with their families or are adopted.
—Research the interventions that work to prevent homelessness among foster youth.
“We need more research to understand how it is that young people who have achieved so-called permanency have ended up homeless,” Dworsky said. “We need to look at it systematically.”