HUD Report Explores Options for Youth Aging out of Foster Care

written by Mindy Mitchell
June 2, 2014

Even though we’re all legally adults in this country at age 18, most Americans experience a longer transition into “practical adulthood” and economic independence. And for most of us that transition is supported, often financially, by our families. Many youth aging out of foster care, however, have no family support to rely on. For them, the transition to adulthood just happens overnight when they exit the foster care system, whether they’re ready or not.

The federal government attempted to address this reality by raising the age of foster care eligibility from 18 to age 21 through the Fostering Connections Act. But even at age 21, many foster youth still aren’t ready for self-sufficiency and are at increased risk for homelessness and housing instability. What do we know about this subset of homeless or unstably housed youth? A recent report from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, “Housing for Youth Aging Out of Foster Care,” gives us a look at the connection between homelessness and aging out of foster care.

According to the report, more than 70,000 youth in foster care are between the ages 16 and 20, and every year some 28,000 of those youth “age out” of the system with very few resources to help them transition into economically independent adulthood. As we know from the “housing first” model, housing stability is an essential foundation for making positive changes in one’s life. This may be even more true for the change from adolescence into adulthood.

Between 11 and 37 percent of youth aging out of foster care experience homelessness after they transition. And an additional 25 to 50 percent are unstably housed after transition. Youth aging out of foster care also face many barriers to housing, including individual ones like lower education levels and higher involvement with the juvenile justice system, and structural ones like insufficient child welfare system resources and a lack of affordable housing.

One strategy that many states have already adopted is extending the length of time that youth spend in foster care:  18 states and the District of Columbia have implemented extended foster care, which has surely kept some older foster youth from becoming homeless by keeping them engaged in the child welfare support system for a few more years. But what programs are most effective for preventing and ending homelessness for foster youth after they leave foster care?

One program that the report examines is the Family Unification Program (FUP) voucher system. It provides youth who are aging out of foster care with a housing voucher and supportive services for 18 months. Unfortunately, with less than half of all public housing authorities currently providing FUP vouchers to youth, youth make up only 14 percent of FUP participants. The 18-month time-limit also makes FUP vouchers for youth difficult to administer. In its report, HUD recommends that public housing authorities maintain a set number of vouchers just for youth and extend the time limit on vouchers to at least 24 months.

If anything, the most revealing part of “Housing for Youth Aging Out of Foster Care” is its call for more extensive and rigorous research on this population of homeless and unstably housed youth. While a variety of federal, state, and local housing and homelessness prevention programs exist to serve youth aging out of foster care, we still have very limited research to guide us.

Once we better understand these youth and their needs, we’ll be better able to help them make the transition into the healthy and stable adulthood they all deserve.