Some 26,000 young people age out of foster care every year. One-fifth of them have nowhere to go. But an initiative in Washington state is looking to change that.
In 2021, the state passed legislation to ensure that no young adult exiting the child welfare system be discharged into homelessness. This summer, that legislation was significantly expanded to better meet the needs of the state’s youth, extending the program’s age limit to 25, increasing funding and tools available to providers, and better coordinating the cooperation between agencies.
The result is a first-of-its-kind program that provides flexible funding to agencies to best address the needs of the population they serve.
“I think we all look to Washington state for passing this type of legislation and, then, also are eager to see ‘How is it implemented? How does this work?’ so that it can be replicated in other states,” Darla Bardine, executive director of the National Network for Youth, told the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange.
Youth in Foster Care Are More Likely to Have Experienced Adversity That Can Lead to Homelessness
The Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative authored a report on the so-called “highway to homelessness” created by the child welfare system in 2014.
“The back door of the foster care system is the front door of the homeless system,” the report states. “Just as responsibility ceases for one system, it begins for the other. Some observers describe foster care as a ‘pipeline’ to homelessness.”
There are several reasons kids in foster care are more likely to be homeless, as outlined by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.
“The transition to adulthood is a significant and challenging developmental phase of life for all young people, but youth aging out of foster care on their own must face this without the support of a stable, loving family,” the foundation’s website states. “Children and youth who experience trauma, including abuse or neglect, are at increased risk for long-term emotional, behavioral and physical health problems, among other challenges.”
As many as 80 percent of foster youth suffer from mental health issues like post-traumatic stress disorder, bipolar disorder, or depression. Youth in foster care are disproportionately African American. They have a higher rate of teen pregnancy and parenthood and a lower high school graduation rate than their peers in the general population. Children in foster care were likelier to have experienced lifelong instability involving abuse and neglect, parental struggles with mental illness or drug addiction, and poverty. Almost half of young adults who had spent time in foster care had first experienced homelessness with their birth family at some point, while 6 percent of their peers who had no foster care history had done the same.
Depending on the state, youth age out of foster care—meaning they’re no longer provided housing and care at the state’s expense and are thus emancipated—at either 18 or 21. About 20 percent of those youth have not found a permanent home to go to by that point.
But it’s not just kids who age out who have trouble finding permanent homes. Those reunited with their families or adopted were also highly likely to find themselves without adequate shelter. Some were kicked out or ran away from an abusive situation. Others described relationships, particularly with adoptive families, where they felt they “did not belong, did not fit in, or were treated differently than their adoptive siblings.” Others’ struggles with drug abuse and criminal activity got them kicked out, while others faced eviction along with their birth families.
Washington Program Identifies At-Risk Youth, Provides Flexible Funding, Rapid Response Team to End Homelessness
In order to address the problem, Washington state passed SB 6560 in 2018. The measure ordered the Department of Children, Youth, and Families and the Office Of Homeless Youth Prevention and Protection programs to create a system to identify the youth most at risk for being discharged from state care into homelessness.
In June, the legislature expanded on the law with HB 1905. The law establishes a rapid response team to prepare at-risk youth up to age 25 to exit foster care, the juvenile justice system, or a mental health facility and to help them secure housing. It provides a five-year budget of $5 million in flexible funding to be distributed at the discretion of the agency for whatever the individual needs to “support their housing stability, education or employment or to meet immediate basic needs,” be it car repairs, rental application fees, security deposits, short-term rental assistance or something else. The program has been authorized to launch in a minimum of six counties.
Also of note in this legislation is that it requires coordination among agencies to serve its target population, including:
- Funding training for all professionals working with young adults that are exiting publicly funded systems of care
- Calling for a dedicated housing stability coordinator in each participating county
- Creating an identification and referral system to flag at-risk youth and refer them to the coordinator
- Providing a full system of follow-up support, including legal aid, peer navigators, education and employment support, and family reconciliation or engagement services.
Washington State Rep. Tana Senn, who sponsored HB 1905, said the expanded bill better addresses the “highway to homelessness” created by the child welfare system. She hopes it can end the pipeline once and for all.
“Each youth has unique needs,” she said. “With these customizable tools, we’re providing personalized plans and flexible supports a young person may need to find and remain in safe, appropriate housing.”