More than 20,000 youths age out of foster care every year, and about 25 percent of them become homeless within four years of exiting the system, according to the National Center for Housing and Child Welfare (NCHCW).
Others, although not homeless, might nonetheless find themselves living day-to-day in a motel, vehicle, or with friends or relatives.
The Foster Youth to Independence (FYI) initiative, begun last year, seeks to end that pipeline from foster care to homelessness.
A group of current and former foster care youth with ACTION Ohio spent six years researching the problem and consulting housing experts to find a solution. In March 2019, they pitched their proposal to Ben Carson, secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Four months later, the FYI program was live.
“You can imagine what that’s like at the tender point in your life, not having the security of a place to call home,” Carson said in an interview with The Epoch Times for the “American Thought Leaders” program.
Such foster youth “can be tremendous contributors to our society, and we need to make sure that we give them a solid foundation from which to launch.”
Since the start of the program in late July 2019, HUD has awarded more than $2.4 million in funding for FYI, which helps former foster youth cover the cost of rent for up to three years after they transition out of the system. Each public housing authority can award up to 25 vouchers per year.
So far, 497 former foster care youth across the country have received housing subsidies. The latest round of funding was announced on Feb. 6, with $258,606 going to public housing authorities in seven states.
The FYI program is available to foster youth between 18 and 23 years old who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless after aging out of the system. In addition to housing subsidies, it also provides other forms of guidance and job support to help build self-sufficiency.
‘An Anxious Time’
Aging out is “an anxious time,” former foster youth Adaora Onuora said. “There’s so many things going through your head.”
When you’re in the system, it’s easy to take housing for granted, she said.
But by the final year, “the social workers are kind of banging it into your head,” she said. “What are you going to do? Where can you go? What resources do you have? What family do you have?”
The FYI program is an extension of the Family Unification Program (FUP), which also helps former foster youth avoid homelessness. But FUP is only available to 280 of the approximately 3,400 total public housing authorities in the United States.
“It wasn’t anywhere near sufficient enough to deal with this problem,” Carson said.
After jumping through bureaucratic hoops, Onuora was fortunate to receive a housing voucher with FUP just a few weeks before her 21st birthday.
Onuora has been a vocal advocate of the FYI initiative, with the hope that the housing vouchers she was fortunate to gain could be universalized across America for all foster youth aging out of the system.
Jamole Callahan, a former foster youth and one of the founders of ACTION Ohio, told The Epoch Times: “Out of all the years we’ve been meeting with HUD, Secretary Carson was the first sitting secretary we physically met with.
“He was the first one that sat down and had an honest conversation with us.
“As one of my sisters in care said it, we are cutting off the spigot of aging youth out into homelessness with this program.”
Ruth Anne White, executive director of the NCHCW and one of the main advocates for the FYI program, said Carson “heard their proposal, and essentially said, ‘This is fundable, it’s within my authority, it doesn’t require action from Congress. Let’s move.'”
“I’ve never seen anything move at that speed absent something like a natural disaster,” said White, who has worked on affordable housing policy for two decades in Washington.
The program initially included a requirement that participants work or attend school, but that was eliminated following criticism from poverty advocates.
The program is nonetheless built with the idea of being a stepping stone to self-sufficiency, “in a similar way that we would treat our own children,” White said.
“This is the only voucher that’s time-limited in HUD’s entire portfolio.”
While FYI makes housing vouchers far more accessible to former foster youth than before, certain limitations still remain. Only public-housing authorities that aren’t participating in FUP can apply for the new FYI program. Unlike FYI, FUP is a competitive resource, meaning the funds may not be available to everyone and may not be available immediately when a foster child ages out of the system.
“We just kind of have to go through this limbo with the youth as they’re aging out in that last year to find out whether it’ll be available for them,” Onuora said. If they’re unlucky, they can be stuck on waiting lists for years.
The gap could be closed soon with a bipartisan bill that White, Callahan, and Onuora hope will pass in Congress. The Fostering Stable Housing Opportunities Act would guarantee a housing voucher for foster care youth when they age out if they demonstrate a need for it. The bill, which unanimously passed the House, is under consideration by the Senate.
Onuora is currently working toward a double major in criminal justice and communications at Bowie State University, a historically black college. After that, she plans to head to law school.
“My calling is law. I want to be a politician, and I want to make changes for my community,” Onuora said.
“American Thought Leaders” is an Epoch Times show available on Facebook, YouTube, and the Epoch Times website.