“Housing is so much more than just a place to stay. It’s being clean, having food, a bed to sleep in, and the comfort in knowing you have somewhere safe. Housing makes a tremendous impact on all the other aspects of your life.”
Former foster youth who experienced homelessness
Given the choice, I’d like to live…
Why can’t I just couch surf?
Because then you are homeless and have no stable, reliable place to stay. You can be kicked out at any time and can’t be sure that you will have a place to sleep, eat, or shower from one day to the next. A homeless person is an individual without permanent housing. That may mean living on the streets, staying in a shelter or mission, sleeping in an abandoned building or your car. You are also homeless if you are “doubled up,” that is, staying with one friend then another, with no long-term address.
Do I have to live on my own?
Some youth in foster care can continue to live with their foster parents or other family members. You may have a permanent relationship with someone who is willing to provide you with a place to live. You and your worker can discuss how this might be arranged. But if you can’t or don’t want to continue living as part of a family, you must plan how you will live on your own.
How do I plan for living on my own?
When planning how you will live after aging out of the foster care system, remember that the first place you live may not be the home of your dreams, it is only a step on the road to that home. When you first age out, you may only have money for a rented room but after you have been working for awhile, you may be able to pay for an apartment of your own. Or you may go back to school so your options may change.
The cost of living on your own
Living on your own can be both exciting and scary. Exciting because you are in charge of your life. Scary, because being in charge of your life is a big job.
It’s great to be able to hang pictures where you want, and come and go as you please. But a place to live on your own can be hard to find, use up a lot of your income and require extra work for you. Rent is not the only cost. You will probably have to pay for electricity, gas, your phone and internet service. You certainly will have to pay for food.
Factors that will affect your choice
You need to consider many things and make many decisions before deciding what kind of living arrangement would best fit your needs. The way you live will depend on three important factors:
- The area you would like to live in. Be sure to consider where your support system is, transportation, and location of work or school when deciding where to live. Some neighborhoods are more expensive to live in but, if important support services or people are nearby or transportation to school and work is less costly, you may want to pay the extra money and live in a smaller place.
- How much money you have. You will need to save money for leaving the foster care system. Moving into an apartment or room has upfront costs, such as a security deposit, fees for turning on utilities in your name for the first time.
- How well you can take care of yourself. When you live on your own, you are responsible for washing the dishes, doing your laundry and making sure you have the supplies you need, from toilet paper to food. How well you can take care of yourself and your home may make a difference in your choice.
What are my housing choices?
You may be able to rent a place to live without any financial help. You may decide that renting a furnished room rather than a whole apartment is all you can afford. Or you may want to consider living with a roommate so you can split the costs. If you are going to school, you may be able to live on campus.
If you live with a roommate, rent a furnished room, or live on a college campus, your start-up costs (as well as your ongoing expenses) will probably be lower than if you move into an apartment by yourself. You may also be able to share the job of keeping your place clean and livable.
A furnished room
Renting a furnished room is inexpensive, requires very little start-up money, and is often used as transitional housing. You will have fewer responsibilities, such as cleaning. But furnished rooms have some disadvantages. Lack of privacy, visitor restrictions, house rules and other tenants are some of the drawbacks to consider.
My own apartment
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 you can show that you are a responsible person and have proof of a steady income, you probably can find one more quickly.
The start-up costs of an apartment are high, usually first and last month’s rent and a security deposit. You may be asked to fill out an application so the landlord can check your references and your credit history. If you are approved, you will have to have utilities, such as electricity and internet connections turned on. Some of these will also ask you for a security deposit.
Living with a roommate
A friend you enjoy going to the movies with may not be the best choice for a roommate. When you live with someone, you have to agree about a lot of things, like how to split food costs. You also need to have goals that are similar. If one person likes to party and the other wants to study, it may not work out at all. Also, having a roommate ties you together legally. You may have to pay for things your roommate used or damaged. You want to choose someone who is reliable and will pay his/her share of the rent 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?
A “Let’s do it!” and a high five are not enough to set up a roommate deal.You also need to think and talk about:
- Personality: Will you be able to get along when you have to share chores and expenses, not just have fun together?
- Lifestyles: Do you 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?
- Family and Friends: Do you need an agreement about visitors? Will overnight or long-term guests be allowed without any discussion? 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 your place clean can affect whether you will get your security deposit back.
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 you the chance to meet many 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 you have to find someone to stay with during the holidays and the summer. If the school you attend has this policy, you need to plan where you will stay when on-campus housing is closed.
What if I end up without a place?
“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 stays and resources for getting help if you are homeless. But you really don’t want to need their help. A better option is to talk with your worker and plan ahead so you have a safe, long-term place to stay when you age out of the foster care system.
What Are My Next Steps?
Deciding where you will live after foster care is very important and very complicated.
- Talk over your options with your worker and other adult advisors, including the person who is your permanent relationship.
- Check out transportation options to help you decide the areas you can live in and still get to where you need to go.
- Look at listings for rooms and apartments to see how much they cost in the area you want to live.
- Plan a budget, based on what you think your income will be and the costs you found for the living arrangement you’d like to have.
- If you want a roommate, make a list of what is important to you.