Taking the leap into adulthood is difficult for most people. A lot of things need to come together: finding housing, money for startup costs, and finding a stable source of income. Most of us are fortunate enough to have family and friends to help out. Youth aging out of the foster care system, however, rarely have any resources or supports at all. Combined with other risk factors, this means foster youth often transition directly into homelessness.
About 26,000 young people age out of the foster care system every year. Statistics show a large percentage of these youth will become homeless. Yet society is failing to address this pipeline to homelessness. By better understanding the factors causing foster youth to become homeless, we can prevent this outcome and better help those who are already on the streets.
Foster Youth Face Numerous Challenges
This pipeline to homelessness has existed for decades in the U.S. Designed to get youth through childhood, the foster care system does little more. There has long been a strong correlation between foster care and homelessness. A study of outcomes of former foster youth in the Midwest found that by age 26, between 31% and 46% had been homeless at least once.
Former foster youth are more likely to experience just about every risk factor there is for homelessness. A few of the major ones include:
Trauma and mental illness
Foster youth start out at a disadvantage. They likely were victims of abuse or neglect, then cast off onto a government system. Many spend their childhood and teenage years moving from home to home, never feeling that they truly belong anywhere. Tragically, many of these youth go on to face abuse in their foster homes, too. Up to 80% of foster youth suffer from mental health issues like post-traumatic stress disorder, bipolar disorder, or depression. Without the right treatment, these disorders make it hard to find and keep employment.
Research shows that LGBTQ youth are over-represented in the foster care system. This means that there’s a greater percentage of LGBTQ youth in foster care as compared to the general population. It often results from young people coming out to family members and finding hostility and rejection. A national survey found that about 40% of youth served in homeless centers and other agencies serving youth identify as LGBTQ. Up to 56% spent time homeless because they felt safer on the streets—resulting from rejection even in the foster homes that should be accepting them.
Girls in the foster care system, particularly those close to the age of transitioning out, are at an extremely high risk of becoming pregnant. A study of older foster youth found that whereas 20% of young women in the general population become pregnant by age 19, over 50% of those in foster care do. Young mothers have a much harder time securing housing, financial assistance, and education.
The foster care system can act as a pipeline into something else: prison. Youth placed in group homes are 2.5 times more likely to get involved in the justice system. 90% of youth with 5 or more foster placements will enter the justice system. Having a mental illness or being a person-of-color already predisposes people to having the police called on them, and so does simply being in foster care. Many youth report that foster parents are quick to call the police on them for small crimes. Many group homes are also quick to report misbehaving young people to the police.
What’s Being Done About the Crisis?
Statistics as shocking as these beg the question: why isn’t more being done? As stated above, the foster care-to-homelessness pipeline has long been an invisible problem. There are sparks of hope, though.
The Annie E. Casey Foundation works on many fronts to help youth transitioning out of foster care. They fund research on why so many foster youth become homeless, and promote numerous programs and initiatives around all of the above risk factors and more. Their work has educated and inspired countless others to join the effort. Their grants have created many new programs that otherwise might never have gotten off the ground.
Standout Solutions to Ending Homelessness Among Former Foster Youth
There are several actions you can take to help end homelessness. The following have shown particularly beneficial outcomes and are worthy of more attention, funding, and support.
- Mentorship programs connect youth with adults who can be caring, supportive, and, most importantly, consistent role models in their lives. Becoming a mentor yourself is a great way to make a tremendous difference in the life of a child.
- Better mental health programs around a more complete understanding of complex trauma are needed. Complex trauma is trauma that happens repeatedly over an extended period. Examples include severe child abuse, domestic violence, and experiencing war. There are many ways you can work on your end to destigmatize mental health.
- Advocacy for higher wages and more job opportunities for those with criminal records goes a long way. Lawmakers are starting to take notice of the fact that wages have nowhere near kept up with inflation. Things like calling and writing to legislators and studying up on policy yourself will make you an effective advocate.
- Donate to agencies that get the word out about the causes of homelessness and equip people to be agents of change.
At the foundation of these solutions is the fact that all youth deserve stable, safe, and affordable housing. It’s important for us to remember how difficult it can be to get going on our own. The fact that so many young people are living with their parents for longer is proof of that. If we remember the many challenges facing youth aging out of the foster care system and take proactive action, we can help keep these young people out of homelessness.