Each year, more than 20,000 foster children in the U.S. are sent into the world on their own when they turn 18. Within four years, nearly a quarter of them experience homelessness, often setting the stage for a lifetime of personal and financial struggle.
Ryan Jones of the Department of Housing and Urban Development was struck by the urgency and depth of the problem in 2019 as he listened to former foster care youth from Ohio describe the impact housing insecurity had on their ability to finish school and hold a first job. Then he heard a galvanizing proposal from these young people: Close the persistent housing and social service gaps facing those leaving foster care.
Jones sprang into action and, with his team at HUD, advocated for, developed, implemented and now runs an innovative new housing voucher program that started as a pilot project and has won bipartisan congressional backing. The program, known as the Foster Youth to Independence Initiative, provides 18- to 24-year-olds aging out of foster care with rental assistance and other support services, so they can work toward their educational and employment goals and reach economic self-sufficiency.
“It’s an extraordinary shift in American social policy,” said Ruthie White, executive director of the National Center for Housing and Child Welfare. “I’ve talked to hundreds of youth who have these vouchers and the stories are poignant and, in many cases, a near miss to experiencing homelessness.”
One of those individuals is Adaora Onuora, a recent graduate of the University of Maryland, who left foster care, was on her own and has since received a housing voucher and other support through this new program.
“I can honestly say that without this housing voucher, my life would be in a very different place,” Onuora said. “Just having the certainty of knowing where I would be sleeping really helped me focus on my studies and prepare myself for self-sufficiency. This program has been life-changing for me.”
Just four months after getting the go-ahead from HUD leaders, Jones and a team that included housing program specialist Michelle Daniels and program analyst Charles Eldridge launched the first-of-its-kind housing voucher program using existing federal funding. Partnering with local nonprofits, public child welfare agencies and public housing authorities, the team started helping those leaving foster care get into stable housing.
“This program found a way to move faster than usual. We all came together, the housing authorities, the field offices, all of us gave our 110% best to move the program along and get these youth housed successfully,” Eldridge said.
After the program’s successful pilot, Congress approved $20 million for fiscal 2021 for the foster youth initiative.
“This program is giving foster youth the best chance for success as they start out their lives as adults,” said HUD Deputy Assistant Secretary Danielle Bastarache.
While Jones has led much of the policy development, direction and oversight, Daniels has overseen the review of applications and Eldridge has worked with HUD’s 44 regional field offices to ensure local officials are familiar with all aspects of the program. As of March 2021, HUD had issued more than 1,000 housing vouchers in more than three dozen states with the expectation that the program will expand in scope in coming years.
“The trio worked together to ensure a cohesive vision for the initiative,” said HUD Deputy Assistant Secretary Dominique Blom.
Rep. Michael Turner (R-Ohio) praised the HUD team, pointing out that they listened directly to foster youth, understood their needs and created “an opportunity to end homelessness for extremely vulnerable young people.”
The housing voucher program begins with at-risk youths getting referred to a local public housing authority by the child welfare agency that manages their foster care. Applying for the assistance automatically enrolls the individuals in HUD’s family self-sufficiency program, which provides the youths with support in areas that include basic life skills, money management, compliance with lease terms and the program’s requirements for job preparation and education.
These individuals, in theory, would have been eligible for housing vouchers prior to the launch of the new initiative. The federal Family Unification Program targets families at risk of losing children to foster care—or unable to get them back—because of housing instability. Assistance for youth aging out of the foster care system had been included in this program, Jones said, but about 95% of the funds have gone to families, leaving the youth homelessness problem unaddressed.
The new program fills a longstanding gap in the social safety net and has expedited the much-needed assistance for those leaving foster care. Under the program, recipients receive rental assistance for three years and have an opportunity for a two-year extension.
Daniels said the recipients keep her dedicated to the program. “For every application I process, I know there’s a youth on the other end who will not be homeless, and they will have a place to call home.”
For Jones, working on the initiative and creating a new program in such a unique way has been the highlight of his 11 years at HUD.
“As a result of this program, these young people, who have already been through so much in their lives, now have some stability. That’s what keeps me going every day,” Jones said.
Photo credit: Sam Kittner