A recently released federal study found that more than half of America’s homeless youth became homeless for the first time after a parent or caregiver forced them to leave. But for foster kids, the results of the study are even more startling. Almost half the homeless youth across the country have previously been in foster care.
The study, conducted by researchers at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, polled 873 youth, ages 14-21, in 11 cities, including New York City and Chicago. The goal of the study was to obtain information on service utilizations and needs from the homeless youth.
However, one of the things that was discovered was that homelessness is more prevalent and harder on those youth with a foster care background.
“Participants with a foster care history had been homeless for a significantly longer period of time than their peers with no foster care history, 27.5 months vs. 19.3 months,” according to the study. “In addition, 66.4 percent of participants who had been in foster care scored in the range indicating need for further assessment for depression, compared to 57.1 percent of participants who had not been in foster care, a statistically significant difference.”
The study also found that more participants with a history of foster care had been arrested, compared with participants who had never stayed in foster care.
“Research has consistently demonstrated the association between leaving institutional or foster care and experiencing homelessness,” the study states. “A California study of youth who were homeless in San Francisco found that 25 percent of street youth had become homeless after their most recent separation from foster care, a group home or juvenile detention.”
Homeless Youth and Foster Care: Why the Connection?
In order to understand the homelessness problem for many former foster care youth, it’s important to remember that nearly 24,000 youth age out of foster care a year. What that means is that 24,000 people each year are no longer eligible for specific financial, educational and social supports. Many of these people have no place to go and no one to turn to. It’s not hard to imagine that many of these individuals are at risk of homelessness.
The results of study suggest that youth, particularly those in foster care, need to utilize all support services that are available to them.
“It is essential that intervention strategies are trauma-informed in all aspects of how they approach and support young people to facilitate healing and recovery, including engagement or reunification with families when it is appropriate,” the study said. “Youth also need interventions that can help them to reach positive developmental milestones and become healthy, productive adults, such as interventions that enhance youth skills, competencies and existing strengths.”
Homeless Youth and Foster Care: What Can Be Done?
Nonprofits, like The Center for the Study of Social Policy (CSSP), are trying to create strategies for youth that can be integrated into policy and practice for states across the country. CSSP, a non-profit that promotes public policies that strengthen families and protect and lift children from poverty, created a “Youth Thrive” initiative that is based on five interrelated protective and promotive factors. According to their website, they are:
• Youth resilience – Managing stress and functioning well when faced with stressors, challenges or adversity. The outcome is personal growth and positive change
• Social connections – Having healthy, sustained relationships with people, institutions, the community and a force greater than oneself that promote a sense of trust, belonging and feeling that she or he matters
• Knowledge of adolescent development – Understanding one’s behavior and stage of maturation in the context of the unique aspects of adolescent development (e.g., brain development, the impact of trauma); services that are developmentally and contextually appropriate (e.g., positive youth development strategies)
• Cognitive and social emotional competence- Acquiring skills and attitudes that are essential for forming an independent identity and having a productive, responsible and satisfying adulthood (e.g., self-regulation, executive functioning and character strengths)
• Concrete support in times of need – Understanding the importance of asking for help and advocating for oneself; receiving quality services designed to preserve youth’s dignity, providing opportunities for skill development and promoting healthy development (e.g., strengths-based, trauma informed practice)
Following this approach, as CSSP has asked public child welfare system administrators, supervisors and caseworkers across the country to do, will hopefully lead to more positive outcomes for the teens, including less homeless youth throughout the country.
Homeless Youth and Foster Care: New Jersey and Foster and Adoptive Family Services
In New Jersey, Foster and Adoptive Family Services (FAFS) has several programs in place to help at-risk foster youth transition safely to adulthood, including an entire Scholarship Department.
FAFS’ Director of Scholarship Millicent Barry, who works with foster care youth in the New Jersey Foster Care (NJFC) Scholars Program, said she isn’t surprised by the study’s results.
“When average youth run into normal obstacles such as housing issues or support for meals, they have adult figures they can fall back on for help,” Barry said. “Foster youth have no one to turn to.”
NJFC provides financial and educational assistance for eligible youth while also supplying a supportive coaching relationship through Project MYSELF.
Project MYSELF, a direct-service program run through Rutgers School of Social Work, is designed to help young adults aging out of the New Jersey foster care system improve their academic performance, complete post-secondary education and develop essential life skills and competencies.
The majority of youth in NJFC are eligible for both Education Training Voucher (ETV) and Tuition Waiver (TW), which means their case history eligibility is 9 months or more of foster care after age 16. In most cases, the time spent in foster care after age 16 is far greater than 9 months.
“More often than not that means they did not find permanency with anyone, aged out or are still in foster care and transitioned straight to independent living,” Barry said. “Without permanency, they have no safety net to fall back on if something goes wrong which makes their homelessness risk very high.”
Barry said the numbers of the study are actually misleading because there’s actually more homelessness among foster youth if you include those who don’t have a permanent address, live at school or simple couch surf.
In many of these cases, the youth themselves don’t consider themselves homeless, despite not having a permanent address.
Barry urges foster care youth to keep their case open, if they can. In New Jersey, foster youth can keep their case open until 21, although they have the option of voluntarily closing it at 18. However, once they close their case, they lose all the financial, education and support services they’ve become accustomed to.
She also pointed out various programs that can help foster youth avoid homelessness, including an independent living stipend. Youth 16-17 years of age in an independent living placement and youth 18 to 21 receiving independent living are eligible to receive money for rent, food and other incidentals.
Just as important, Barry said, is adult support and guidance. “Permanency Pacts” are a “pledge by a supportive adult to provide specific supports to a young person in foster care with a goal of establishing a lifelong, kin-like relationship.”
This pact gives the foster youth a sense of connection outside of the world of foster care – and there’s no expiration date. It’s a commitment that provides structure and support for foster youth who are in need. To learn more about Permanency Pacts, visit Foster Club.
For youth in care, who are at higher risk of homelessness than the general public, it’s important to take charge early and often, Barry said.
“For youth that are in care, try to be proactive as possible,” Barry said. “Keep your case open, if you can. But eventually realize your case will close at some point. Take preemptive steps to figure out how you will survive having your case being closed.”
If you are a foster youth in NJ and are interested in learning more about the NJFC program, click here.