The Chronicle of Social Change is highlighting each of the policy recommendations
made this summer by the participants of the Foster Youth Internship Program (FYI), a group of 12 former foster youths who completed Congressional internships.
Each of the FYI participants crafted a carefully researched policy recommendation during their time in Washington. Today we highlight the recommendation of Marcia Hopkins, 26, a graduate school student at Temple University.
First, amend the definition of “homeless” in the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act to include people who lack a “regular nighttime residence” and people who are “facing imminent housing loss.”
Second, Hopkins proposes to require a fully funded housing plan covering “at least” six months for anybody set to age out of foster care. This would be accomplished through an amendment to the Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act of 2008.
Hopkins starts with an alarming estimate from the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness: about 25 percent of all foster youth will experience homelessness within the first four years of leaving care. The proportion is much higher when one hones in on the group of foster youth most at risk of that outcome: teens aging out of the system without having been adopted or reunified with family or kin.
McKinney-Vento is the federal legislation that protects and supports, among other things, the educational rights of homeless youths. But it identifies people as eligible for assistance based on a definition of homelessness that Hopkins describes as “outdated.” Youth who “double up” in a friend’s apartment, or who “couch surf,” are not counted as homeless.
A piece of pending legislation — the Homeless Children and Youth Act of 2015 — seeks to redefine homelessness under McKinney-Vento in a way that would include those youth.
The Adult Functioning of Former Foster Youth, a three-state study of former foster youth, found that 30 percent experienced homelessness at least once. A whopping 98 percent of those youth experienced it within the first 30 months of leaving care.
The Fostering Connections Act was set up, in part, to curb those types of outcomes for teens aging out of care. But this study found that the law had made no difference when it comes to homelessness. Kids who aged out at age 21 experienced homelessness at the same rate as those who left care at 18.
In Her Own Words
Hopkins writes that she was fortunate to have a supportive foster home for eight years and was then reunified with her biological parents. But she relates a story from Jackie, a young woman she interviewed:
“Jackie grew up in foster care and did not find permanency or a family before aging out. With her belongings in hand, Jackie was forced to enter into adulthood without housing, employment, education or guidance. As a former foster youth and a transitioning young adult, I am well aware of these difficulties.
Jackie and others like her who struggle in placements should also have the opportunity to succeed. Instead, due to the inability to gain secure, safe and stable placements, many foster youth transition from care without guidance and face homelessness, incarceration and substance abuse.”
The Chronicle’s Take
Taking the two recommendations separately, it is probably time for an update to federal definitions when it comes to homelessness, especially for youth. There should be an appropriate concern on the part of Congress to keep the definition narrow enough, though, so that it cannot be exploited to help those that don’t really need it. Homeless services should be, by definition, designated only for those in serious crisis.
An example close to home: many advocates that champion services for the homeless do not like that foster youth in shelter care are included for eligibility under McKinney-Vento. Are those youth in need of government assistance? Of course, but they are not at risk of homelessness. McKinney-Vento appropriations are pretty modest, and there are child welfare funding streams that can be used to help kids in shelters fully realize their educational rights.
Now, as for the requirement of a six-month housing plan: we say, Bravo. Consider two key pieces of evidence:
A high rate of aging-out foster youth experience homelessness, and for most it happens quickly.
A law aimed at helping older youth before they age out has made some strides in certain aspects of life, but has made little difference on homelessness.
Add that up, and it’s clear that housing is a piece of the puzzle that can derail an aging-out teen regardless of how long they stay in care. Some level of housing guarantee for those youth could stave off a significant portion of those homelessness incidents.
Fostering Connections already requires that agencies develop plans for housing after care. Frankly, given the outcomes and the fact that current law has not helped, it is the least that states can do to guarantee some short housing bridge into post-foster care. If any jurisdiction had some solid numbers on how many of its young adults were homeless, this could be an issue ripe for the pay-for-success world.
Click here to read Hopkins’ entire proposal and those of her fellow FYI participants.