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How to Become Homeless: Age Out of Foster Care, Part 3

please lend a handIn Part 2 of this discussion, House the Homeless blog traced progress in the quality of support offered to youth who “age out” of foster care. Members of this group are very much at risk for experiencing homelessness, and even short-term homelessness can have devastating effects on a young person.

Apparently, unless some kind of intervention scoops a kid up off the streets quickly, the prognosis worsens dramatically. There seems to be an interval of opportunity, a window that, once closed, is very difficult to reopen.

In 2004, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) scrutinized the situation in an attempt to measure the effectiveness of various programs and check up on how vigorously various plans were being carried out. Quoting ourselves:

The accountability agency identified the lack of uniformity in the states’ information-gathering that made them unable to coordinate with each other and with the federal government to combine their numbers and make any sense out of things. Academia supplied some of the missing answers, which involved ‘extremely poor outcomes’ and even ‘dismal outcomes’ for large numbers of young people.

Along with sloppy compliance, the GAO also found “gaps in the availability of mental health services, mentoring services, and securing safe and suitable housing, particularly in rural areas.” In 2008, the states were told to follow up on kids set loose from the system to see what kind of “outcomes” or lives they were having, and to start doing it by October of 2010.

Compliance, of a sort

When did the first National Youth in Transition Database report see the light of day? In late 2012, meaning that so far, there has only been one national annual report on how these programs are working out, and its information is centered on 2011. The basic number the compilers worked with was 98,561 — the total of youth and young adults who received at least one independent living service. About half were in the 14-17 age group, which means they were probably still officially in foster care; and half were in the 18-21 age group, which means they were probably not under the court’s jurisdiction any more.

About 17,000 17-year-olds answered a survey about their “outcomes,” which is kind of a misleading term in this case, because they hadn’t “aged out” yet. A total of 93% of this group were going to school. The same percentage said they had at least one adult available for advice or emotional support. About one in five had some kind of job experience, which is broadly defined to include training programs and unpaid internships. Among the foster kids in this demographic, only 6% had been homeless at some point. And guess what — more than one-third of these still-in-the-system kids had experienced incarceration.

Making their way in the world

The National Resource Center for Youth Development keeps track of every state, so it is worth taking a microscopic look at one state, California, because it has big numbers and is often the pioneer in social movements. This report is less currant than the 2012 federal one — it harks back to 2009 — but it is more detailed and gives some idea of the situation.

Eighteen was the maximum age for youth in foster care to be funded by the state, except in certain particular cases. If they were still in high school and going to graduate before turning 19. Or if they were in college, which might be difficult, because the state provides no waiver of tuition for foster kids. Or if they were incapable of activities or had other barriers to employment, or if, conversely, they were working 80-hour weeks (in other words, holding down two full-time jobs). If any of these conditions were fulfilled, the law allowed them to remain in the system until age 21, and also to continue receiving Medi-Cal benefits.

Sounds pretty good, right? So why, in 2011, in the great progressive state of California, in the city of San Francisco, was there a bitter fight over something called the Cow Hollow housing project? The proposal was to buy a former “boutique tourist hotel” with 30 rooms and turn it into a housing project for 24 young people. Opponents claimed that 24 people was too many, according to the current zoning ordinance. (If so, how did that 30-room hotel operate?)

Matthew S. Bajko reported:

The development is being vehemently opposed by some nearby neighbors and merchants, whose concerns range from seeing property values plummet to whether the site is an appropriate location for at-risk youth. They point to the fact that nearby is the Bridge Hotel, a magnet for criminal activity that the city attorney’s office targeted last year for numerous code violations.

The Supervisor of the district, Mark Farrell, called the area “fraught with a lot of risk.” Meanwhile, a resident of the area wrote an open letter to the city’s politicians:

The Chestnut Street area is and has always been family friendly with little or no drunkenness or rowdiness and any changes to this would be most undesirable.

Do you see what they did? They argued it both ways. The area is both too rowdy for the tender sensibilities of former foster kids at risk of homelessness, AND too civilized to tolerate the presence of former foster kids at risk of homelessness. The area is too dangerous for older teenagers, yet so prime that the plummeting of property values is a dreaded possibility. The young people who need a place to live are characterized as both too threatened, and too threatening, and the whole thing is just a lousy idea, so please go do it in somebody else’s backyard.

Indeed, Supervisor Farrell suggested selling the property and using the money to buy another parcel somewhere outside his district. It’s not clear whether the Cow Hollow project is still in the appeal process, or the organizations gave up. In 2012, a similar establishment for the same clientele opened in the Tenderloin district. The main service providers concerned with the project were the Community Housing Partnership and Larkin Street Youth Services. Bajko quotes Larkin Street’s executive director, Sherilyn Adams, as saying:

I think that likely some of those concerns are based on not knowing or understanding the issues about youth in the foster care system or on the streets who are or were homeless… These are young people we are all responsible for ensuring have opportunities as full members of society.

Reactions?

Source: “First Report from National Youth in Transition Database,” Alliance1.org, 10/26/12
Source: “California,” NRCYD.ou.edu
Source: “Youth housing project causes uproar,” ebar.com, 07/14/11
Image by aprilzosia.