Stable Housing Can Launch Youth Leaving Foster Care on a Path to Success

by Aaron Shroyer and Maya Brennan

For the more than 20,000 youth who age out of foster care each year, adulthood brings new challenges—the most immediate of which is finding stable housing. Coordination between child welfare systems, youth advocates, and housing providers can bridge this gap.

Youth aging out of foster care—especially LGBTQ youth—are at high risk of experiencing homelessness. More than 40 percent of youth aging out of the child welfare system experience housing instability within two years of leaving foster care. Despite specialized services to facilitate the transition, many young people who age out of foster care struggle to adapt to independent living. Education, employment, financial literacy, and savings gaps may all impede their capacity to achieve or maintain housing stability. Meanwhile, youth spend more months in extended foster care—getting additional time to transition to independence—when service systems in their communities (such as health, employment, or housing systems) collaborate well with the child welfare system. Importantly, such collaboration could also help the subset of young adults who reject the sense of extended childhood that accompanies continued engagement with child welfare agencies.

To enable a successful launch into adulthood after foster care, child welfare and housing agencies can coordinate to improve access to the resources and guidance that many young people will need after foster care. A 2019 report from the Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative estimated that, if foster care youth were supported well enough to achieve average US youth outcomes, each year’s class of youth aging out of foster care could earn an additional $2.2 billion or more over a lifetime and avoid both the trauma and costs of their heightened risk of criminal justice system involvement. In total, better supporting a single year’s cohort of youth from the foster care system could yield around $4.1 billion in increased gross income and savings from decreased contact with the homeless and criminal justice systems.

Current programs for housing youth transitioning out of foster care

The US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and state social or human services departments fund housing programs, including extended foster care, for young adults emerging from foster care. Such programs may provide short-term or long-term rental assistance or subsidized housing with supportive services. The financial housing assistance available to youth aging out spans a broader spectrum than mainstream HUD programs, including initial housing costs, emergency assistance, ongoing rent subsidies, and room and board for youth attending postsecondary education or training. In addition, youth may get housing assistance support from HUD, whether through mainstream housing assistance and homelessness prevention programs or specialized programs like the Family Unification Program.

Nonprofit organizations and local or state agencies play key roles in running supportive or service-enriched housing programs, often with federal funds from HUD or HHS. The models include transitional housing developments with on-site staff and supportive services; scattered-site housing—rented either by a lead agency or directly by the youth—paired with case management and community-based services; and programs that offer a mix of housing and service models.

An example of stability and supports for youth aging out of foster care

First Place for Youth, a California nonprofit, operates a service-enriched housing program called My First Place to enable youth who aged out of foster care to have a stable platform on which to build a future. My First Place provides up to 36 months of housing and services to youth ages 18 to 24 who either experienced homelessness after aging out of foster care or are enrolled in the state’s extended foster care program. Participants receive free rent for a shared apartment and have consistent weekly support from a youth advocate, biweekly check-ins with an education and employment specialist, and assistance from a housing specialist in developing the knowledge and skills needed for a good rental history.

Although robust evaluation of housing programs for foster care youth is rare, the early evaluation and subsequent outcome report (PDF) suggest beneficial outcomes for housing, employment, education, and more. After the first six months with My First Place, more than two-thirds of participants started a new education program, and the share with a high school credential increased from 58 to 72 percent. Participants’ incomes increased from a mean of $634 per month to $761 per month. The more recent results, though not designed as a formal evaluation, indicate that 93 percent of participants who spent at least 12 months in the program maintained residential stability after leaving the program.

Affiliates in counties with different resources and populations have operated the program and its components as designed, and the early evaluation saw similar outcomes between participants with different backgrounds. These findings suggest the potential for replication in other communities. Currently, partnerships in Massachusetts, Mississippi, and New York are implementing the approach.

In the years following its evaluation, My First Place has refined its model based on the findings of the evaluation and to adjust to policy changes in some of the locations where it operates. After California passed extended foster care in 2010, First Place for Youth refined their program model to include career pathways training and to expand on supports that prevent involuntary exits.

Partnerships with other agencies can lead to better outcomes

According to First Place for Youth staff, people who make contact with the child welfare system often become clients of local homeless assistance systems—and many people experiencing homelessness have experience in the child welfare system. In other words, Continuums of Care (CoCs), housing authorities, and child welfare systems see many of the same people come through their doors. Partnerships across agencies and with local governments could help with coordination, planning, early intervention, continuity of services, and even pooling resources for greater impact. “Understanding this dynamic, it’s important for us to be at the homelessness and housing tables and work in partnership with these groups,” reflects Emily Jensen, interim vice president of programs at First Place for Youth. “For example, in Alameda, we have a project, Building Bridges, that combines funding from child welfare and HUD through the Oakland Housing Authority. We have other projects through the Alameda County HUD CoC for homeless youth as well as a partnership between the City of Oakland and the Housing Authority for projects for homeless youth.”

“Waiting for youth to age out and then hoping to house them has always struck me as a poor design,” says Mike Pergamit, senior fellow at the Urban Institute. “And one that could be solved by addressing the disconnect between the child welfare system, homelessness system, and housing providers.”

The field must build knowledge about promising interventions while also scaling proven programs

Many questions remain—especially about how the program models may need to shift to account for the varying needs and experiences of youth aging out of foster care. For example, teens in foster care have higher rates of teen pregnancy, so programs should incorporate supports for expectant and parenting youth into their services. In addition to embarking on more partnerships between housing and child welfare systems, organizations serving youth who aged out of foster care also need to adopt a culture of continuous improvement—trying what seems likely to work, sharing the theory for replication or constructive feedback, testing and assessing it, changing it, and repeating the process. A continuous improvement process—driven by quantitative data and a youth-driven quality review process—informs the work of First Place for Youth in developing their practices, especially for young people with intersecting risks, such as justice system involvement. Whether through adopting the My First Place program or other approaches that engage practice and learning together, all foster youth deserve the best services, stability, and support that society can provide. Federal and state decisionmakers, local officials, housing providers, child welfare agencies, and nonprofit service providers can work together to make this possible.

Author’s note: Maya Brennan has lived experience in the New Jersey child welfare system.