“A lot of youth in care do not have a stable foundation. They need help setting goals and seeing whether they want to be in a permanent foster home, independent living, or other place and how they will gain the skills to do it.”
Youth Network Coordinator
Youth may not understand the impact that housing will have on their ability to achieve both their short- and long-term goals. They also may not understand how expensive housing can be. We need to help them understand the connection between housing and success, and help them find a safe, stable, affordable living arrangement.
Ask youth questions about where they want to work or study, how close they need to be to public transit, food stores, laundromats, their school or job and tell them about programs for youth aging out of foster care. Help youth develop an understanding of their housing options so they can make a choice that matches their needs.
Is the youth in your care ready for independence?
Evaluate with the youth how ready they are to live on their own. Do they know what they can afford? Can they take care of laundry, buy food and make meals? How about cleaning the house and paying bills on time? Youth in foster care may be so used to moving around that they think “couchsurfing” is a housing plan. It’s not. It’s being homeless.
“Housing is so much more than just a place to stay. It’s the freedom of being clean, having food, a bed to sleep in, and the comfort in knowing you have somewhere safe to stay. Housing or no housing makes a tremendous impact on all the other aspects of your life.”
— Devitta, Former foster youth who experienced homelessness
A homeless person is an individual without a permanent address. If a person is floating from friend to friend, he or she can be kicked out at any time and can’t be sure of a place to sleep, eat, or shower from one day to the next. Of course, homelessness also includes living on the streets, staying in a shelter or mission, sleeping in an abandoned building or in a car. Having no long-term address is a serious problem when it comes time to fill out job and school applications or sign up for services. It is a barrier to success after foster care.
Certain behaviors make youth more likely to be homeless as they transition out of care. Look for these signs before the youth transition out of foster care.
“Behaviors exhibited while in foster care also predicted whether young people became homeless. Specifically, running away more than once and engaging in delinquency both increased the odds of homelessness.”
— U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Office of Policy Development & Research
Housing factors for youth to consider
When choosing a living arrangement, youth should think about three factors:
- The area they would like to live in. Ask youth where their support system is, such as their permanent relationships, and if transportation is nearby so they can get to work or school. Some neighborhoods are more expensive to live in but, if important support services or people who help them are nearby or transportation to school and work costs less, they may want to pay the extra money and live in a smaller place.
- How much money do they have? Young people need to save money before leaving the foster care system. Moving into an apartment or room has upfront costs, such as a security deposit, fees for turning on utilities and buying basic furnishings.
- How well can they take care of themselves? Do they realize the responsibilities they will be assuming, from washing dishes to doing the laundry and making sure they have the supplies they need?
Do youth leaving care have to live on their own?
Some youth in foster care can continue to live with their foster parents or other family members. If they have a permanent relationship with someone who is willing to provide a place to live, that’s good. You and the youth can discuss how this might be arranged. But if they can’t or don’t want to continue living as part of a family, we must help them plan how they will live on their own.
How do we prepare youth to live on their own?
Remind youth that the first place they live after foster care may not be the home of their dreams; it is only a step on the road toward that home. When they first age out, they may only have enough money for a rented room but after working for awhile, they may be able to pay for an apartment of their own. Or they may go back to school and become eligible for on-campus housing.
The cost of living on their own
The thought of living on their own after foster care can be both exciting and scary for youth aging out of care. Exciting because they can take charge of their lives. Scary because being in charge is a big job for which they may not be trained.
It’s great to be able to decide where to put the couch and to come and go at will. But a place to live on their own can be hard for former youth in foster care to find, uses up a lot of their income and requires doing work they may not be ready for. Rent is not the only cost they will have to cover. They will probably have to pay for electricity, gas, phone and internet service as well as food and clothes. They will also have to keep their home clean, wash clothes and prepare food. That’s a lot for youth still in foster care to think about but they need to do so.
What are the housing choices youth have?
A young person may be able to rent a place to live without any financial help. But it is likely that youth aging out of foster care may have to consider other options, such as renting a furnished room rather than an apartment. Or they may want to consider living with a roommate in order to split the costs. If the youth is going to school, on-campus options may be available.
If a youth leaving foster care lives with a roommate, rents a furnished room or lives on a college campus, start-up costs (as well as ongoing expenses) will probably be lower than moving into an apartment on their own and can let them share the job of keeping the place clean and livable.
It is critical that youth have permanent housing when they leave foster care.
A furnished room
Renting a furnished room is inexpensive, requires very little start-up money, and is often used as transitional housing. The youth will have fewer responsibilities, such as cleaning. But furnished rooms have some disadvantages. Lack of privacy, visitor restrictions, house rules, other tenants, etc., are some of the drawbacks the youth should consider.
An apartment of their own
Finding an apartment can be difficult for young people starting out. Some landlords do not rent to tenants who do not have references, a good credit history and a job, so finding an apartment can take time. If youth can show a history of responsibility, find solid references and has proof of a steady income, they probably can find an apartment more quickly.
The start-up costs of an apartment are high, usually first and last month’s rent and a security deposit. The youth will probably be asked to fill out an application so the landlord can check references and credit history. If the youth is approved, utilities, such as electricity and internet connections, must be turned on, which usually requires a deposit. A security deposit may also be required. Totaling up these costs early, when youth are still in foster care, may give them the incentive to manage their money and save.
Living with a roommate
A friend whose company the youth enjoys may not be the best choice for a roommate. Living with someone requires a lot of compromise and agreement, such as how how to split food costs. Roommates also need similar goals and lifestyles. If one person likes to party and the other wants to study, the arrangement may not work out. Also, having a roommate ties people together legally. If one roommate runs the air conditioner a lot or damages something, the other roommate may be held liable. Encourage youth to choose someone who is reliable and will pay his/her share of the rent and other expenses on time.
Key questions to answer are:
- Who will sign the lease and the contracts for utilities?
- Who will be responsible for making sure that the money actually gets to the landlord and the electric company when it is due?
“Let’s do it!” and a high five are not enough to set up a roommate deal. Encourage youth to think and talk about:
- Personality: Will you and your proposed roomate be able to get along when you have to share chores and expenses, not just have fun together?
- Lifestyles: Do you and your roommate keep the same hours? Enjoy the same things? Is one of you a smoker and the other a non-smoker? Does one value quiet and the other want to have lots of friends over?
- Expenses: How will you divide the costs of living? Will you share food or each buy your own? Do you need to buy furniture? If so, who will own it when the arrangement ends?
- Family and Friends: Do you need an agreement about visitors? Will long-term visitors be allowed? If so, will they be asked to contribute to household costs?
- Will you have to get your roommate’s approval to have a party? Will s/he have to get yours?
- Household Chores: Who will do what? When? What if chores aren’t done? Keeping a rental clean can affect whether the security deposit is returned. That deposit may be an important part of getting the next place to live.
Many four-year and some two-year schools offer housing and optional meal plans to students. The rooms are usually furnished and shared with a roommate. Costs are different at each school. Campus housing is usually a convenient, safe and cheap option for students. On-campus housing gives the youth a chance to meet new people but doesn’t offer much privacy. On some campuses, students may also be asked to leave campus during the semester breaks, which means they have to find someone to stay with during the holidays and the summer. If the school has this policy, the student needs to arrange a place to stay when on-campus housing is closed.
What if the youth can’t find housing?
“I was homeless for two years. The majority of time, I stayed in shelters. I constantly moved. During the day, we had to be out in the community, which made it difficult due to the summer heat. I was sometimes hungry. The challenges of being homeless were being hungry, not having the luxury of showering when needed and knowing that I wasn’t completely safe.”
— Devitta, Former foster youth who experienced homelessness
Nonprofits and churches in cities often provide overnight shelter to those who are homeless but these are closed during the day so those who sleep there must go out into the community during the day.
In addition to nonprofits, state and federal agencies help people who do not have a place to live. Some of these help only one category of homeless people, such as families, women or men. The Virginia Housing Development Agency has information about shelters and housing options for every county. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development also has an extensive list of places to stay and resources for getting help if they are homeless. But you really don’t want them to need this help. A better option is to help them plan ahead so they have a safe, long-term place to stay when they age out of the foster care system.
Government policies and programs for housing
Federal and state programs are available to help former youth in foster care obtain and retain housing.
Chafee foster care independence program
The Chafee Program gives states money to help children aging out of foster care. Under current law, youth aging out of foster care are eligible for Chafee-funded services if they:
- Are likely to remain in foster care at least until their 18th birthday.
- Have aged out of foster care but are not yet age 21.
- Exited foster care through adoption or kinship guardianship when they are 16 years old or older.
Up to 30 percent of Chafee funds may be spent on housing subsidies, transitional housing, independent living stipends or other housing-related costs.
Family Unification Program (FUP)
FUP is a HUD program that provides a pool of housing choice vouchers and supportive services to families involved in the child welfare system who are experiencing housing problems, as well as to youth ages 18 – 21 who have aged out of foster care. The local public housing agency administers the program in collaboration with the child welfare agency.
Reasons for not using FUP
Although FUP vouchers for families are permanent, those for youth formerly in foster care expire after 18 months. Some Independent Living counselors are hesitant to use the vouchers because they do not feel the time period is adequate to provide a solid transition out of foster care. Some public housing authorities are not keen to use FUP vouchers for youth either. They feel the potential problems with youth tenants could jeopardize the housing authority’s relationship with landlords.
Reasons for using FUP
Some agencies that make use of FUP vouchers for youth do so as part of a broader strategy, using the 18-month period as a bridge to another program. In several cases, FUP provided the time necessary for the youth to clear the regular Section 8 waitlist. Some states give priority on the Section 8 waitlist to youth who have aged out of foster care, either immediately upon emancipation or at the termination of their FUP voucher.
The FUP requires that vouchers for youth be accompanied by services. These services are generally provided as part of the state’s Chafee services for transition-age youth. Chafee room-and-board funds can also be used for start-up costs, such as acquiring furniture.
Public housing and section 8 housing choice voucher program
Young people aging out of foster care in jurisdictions without an allocation of FUP vouchers, as well as those who are not eligible for or who do not receive a FUP voucher, may benefit from three other HUD programs for low-income individuals and families: the Public Housing Program, the Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher (HCV) Program, and privately owned, subsidized housing.
Public housing residents live in projects that are typically owned by a local public housing agency. The units are subsidized, usually so that tenants pay rent equivalent to only 30% of adjusted gross income. If the youth moves, the subsidy goes to the next resident.
HCV recipients rent housing from landlords or property managers in the private housing market, and their subsidy is paid directly to the landlord or property manager. Like public housing residents, HCV recipients typically pay 30% of their adjusted gross income in rent. However, unlike public housing residents, they may live in any housing that meets minimum health and safety standards. Moreover, given that the voucher is attached to the tenant (i.e., tenant-based), it moves with the tenant if the tenant moves.
Low-income individuals and families may also live in subsidized apartments that are privately owned (i.e., project-based Section 8). Although tenants pay rent that is 30 to 40% of their adjusted gross income, the voucher is attached to the property (i.e., project-based); if the tenant moves, the voucher does not move with the tenant.
While none of these programs is designed to address the housing needs of young people aging out of foster care, the low income of many former youth in foster care makes them eligible for the programs. That said, the extent to which the programs can address the housing needs of young people aging out of foster care is limited. In most communities, the demand for housing assistance far exceeds supply. Waiting lists are long or even closed, motivating some public housing agencies to identify former youth in foster care as a preference group. Although young people who receive housing assistance from one of these programs rather than through FUP do not lose eligibility after 18 months, they also do not have direct access to the supportive services that former youth in foster care may need.
Any income-based housing assistance will be lost when the youth’s income exceeds the maximum allowed. Planning for that event is an important part of success. Having a plan for housing after a job promotion bumps them out of publicly financed housing can prevent homelessness.
Help youth plan for living on their own
Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act
The Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act of 2008 introduced several major reforms to federal child welfare policy. One requires child welfare agencies to help young people develop a personalized transition plan during the 90 days immediately before they age out of foster care. Housing is among the needs the plan must address. As of October 2010, eligibility for Title IV-E reimbursement was extended from 18 to 21 years old if youth are enrolled in school, working at least 80 hours per month, engaged in activities to promote employment or remove barriers to employment, or have a medical condition that precludes any of the above. As a result, states now have a financial incentive to allow young people to remain in foster care until their 21st birthday.
How you can help
Have a dialogue with youth about where they see themselves in the short and long term. This will help them realize the importance of housing. By assessing youth’s ability to take care of themselves and going over policies and programs for youth aging out of foster care, workers can recommend the right option to meet the needs of young people and help them develop a plan to implement those options.
More information on housing:
- Chafee Program
- Virginia Housing Development Agency
- U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development
- Family Unification Program (FUP)
- Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher (HCV) Program
- The Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act of 2008
- http://www.casey.org/media/CLS_ResourceGuides_subdocs_PAYAModule2.pdf a resource for youth in foster care in Massachusetts with good worksheets to help you choose a roommate and find an apartment.
- Housing and Home Management