Jamole Callahan is turning 40 this year. He’s carved out a successful career in advocacy and motivational speaking (his Twitter handle is @MrMotivator). But in college, as a youth who had aged out of foster care, his path was far from stable.
“My issue after aging out was there was just nowhere for me to go when school went on break,” Callahan said in a recent interview.
During those college breaks in Ohio, he stayed with classmates, or sometimes with a friend of his high school science teacher. But many teens in his situation lack such options.
“We see kids attempt postsecondary and fail just because they don’t have housing,” Callahan said. “They have to work to maintain an apartment, then school becomes the background. And it becomes all about survival.”
There are some competing ideas about how best to legislate new federal support for housing for youth after they exit foster care. But a group of advocates and former foster youths recently convinced top federal housing officials that there’s no need to wait for Congress to act.
A group called the Fostering Stable Housing Opportunities (FSHO) Coalition—which includes Callahan’s youth-led ACTION Ohio and the National Center for Housing and Child Welfare—met with Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Ben Carson in early March to make the case for a $20 million voucher program aimed at preventing homelessness for transition-age foster youth in which HUD would tap existing funds to provide on-demand vouchers and assistance for foster youth who needed stable housing.
After reviewing the proposal, HUD announced its approval of the Foster Youth to Independence initiative, and has issued notice of the new voucher capability to all public housing authorities. The initiative could be a game changer for the thousands of teens and young adults who age out of foster care each year.
The Stakes Are High
Even after decades of reforms aimed at preventing children from becoming young adults in foster care, the number of youth who age out of the system has stubbornly ranged between 20,000 to 25,000 per year. And research shows that the percentage of foster youth who end up experiencing homelessness is still very high—28 percent experience homelessness by age 21, according to the National Youth in Transition Database. In some states, it’s above 40 percent.
“They are doing something that could mean a seismic shift in housing and child welfare policy,” said Ruth Anne White, executive director of the National Center for Housing and Child Welfare.
How Would It Work?
Through its Tenant Protection Fund, HUD is allocated money to provide tenant protection vouchers, which are designed to provide rent support to people when changing circumstances threaten to leave them homeless. Surely, one such circumstance would be a person aging out of foster care at age 18 or older, with no affordable housing option on the horizon.
There are several different types of tenant protection vouchers that target different populations. One is called the Family Unification Program (FUP) voucher, which can be used for two child welfare-related groups:
- Families for whom a lack of housing portends a foster care removal or problems reunifying with a child in foster care.
- Youth between the ages of 18 and 21 who lack adequate housing as they age out of foster care.
Alongside the FUP voucher is the Family Self-Sufficiency (FSS) program, which provides assistance aimed at helping public housing residents increase their earned income and decrease reliance on the social safety net. This support includes job training, child care, transportation subsidies, and financial literacy classes.
The FUP voucher lasts for three years. But continued FSS participation allows a FUP voucher recipient to receive an additional two years of support, so pairing the two could mean post-foster care housing support could last for up to five years.
Under the plan pitched to HUD by the advocates, a child welfare agency would file FUP paperwork in the year leading up a youth’s emancipation from foster care—whether that occurred at age 18, 21, or some point in between. HUD would issue the FUP voucher, and the local public housing authority would administer both the voucher and the FSS services. Currently, most public housing authorities do not offer FUP vouchers, but the coalition’s plan would negate that barrier.
FUP has had an up-and-down ride when it comes to funding, White said. It has been an allowable version of the Tenant Protection Vouchers since 1990, and there was a regular carve-out for it until about 2002, after which it faded out of the annual appropriations process.
A line item for FUP resurfaced in fiscal 2008, written into appropriations that year by Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and former Sen. Kit Bond (R-Kansas). The two wrote instructions for HUD to spend $20 million on FUP. More recent allocations for FUP have ranged from $10 million in 2017 to $20 million in 2018.
But the Fostering Stable Housing Opportunities coalition told HUD officials that there is a bigger bank of unspent HUD funds that could be used to create a dedicated FUP youth program. The congressional justifications for President Trump’s 2019 budget noted $133.2 million in carryover funds in the area of “rental assistance.”
Nearly all of that money is from the Tenant Protection Fund, where FUP lives. It is held in reserve at the moment for housing complexes affected by demolition or expiring affordable housing contracts, and to help situate some people in the federal witness protection program. The FSHO Coalition asked for $20 million out of this contingency fund to be dedicated for FUP youth.
The most critical piece of the advocates’ plan is a change in the way that FUP vouchers are made available to youth.
Currently, FUP’s youth vouchers are awarded in blocks through a competitive process in which public housing agencies are the applicants. This, White said, is an inefficient way to get at a finite group of youth who are all over the country, as there are thousands of housing authorities, yet only the winners would receive vouchers.
In a place where the demand by foster youths is low, or a housing agency is bad at connecting with child welfare agencies, those vouchers might sit idle. And elsewhere, foster youths who might badly need the help wouldn’t get vouchers because they were awarded to the nearby agency.
Other HUD voucher programs are processed on-demand, meaning that a single family or person applies and is considered for an available slot. This centralizes the approval process to HUD, removing the local housing authorities and their individual store of vouchers from the equation.
“Converting to an on-demand process is key,” White said, “because youth continue to be in purgatory for pilot projects. We appreciate all the efforts to build housing around the country for youth—but 40 new units in Cincinnati won’t help the youth in Athens. This complements those efforts.”
The result is that most areas of the country end up with no FUP vouchers, and among the public housing authorities that do offer them, most go to families, not foster youth. A 2014 study found that just 91 of the 195 FUP programs served foster youth, and among those 91 programs, only a third of the FUP vouchers went to that population. “The most common reason [public housing authorities] cited for not serving any youth was a lack of referrals,” said the study. “The lack of youth referrals likely did not arise from lack of demand.”
Converting FUP’s foster youth vouchers to an on-demand process would solve that, and allow child welfare agencies to deal directly with HUD in preparing for these teens to age out of foster care and into stable housing for up to five years. And when a particular youth had completed the FUP-FSS program, that voucher would recycle back to HUD to be used for the next youth.
Winning HUD Over
The FSHO Coalition sat down with HUD Secretary Carson on March 4 to lay out what they believed to be an actionable plan that the agency could start setting up without any help from Congress.
Carson was engaged in his meeting on the plan, said Callahan of ACTION Ohio. “He was very intrigued about the info we had, and had questions about where the data came from.”
HUD, after reviewing the proposal, agreed it is allowable under existing authority and is moving forward on it. The agency did not cap the voucher availability either, which means the total spending on foster youths could exceed $20 million.
In a recent study based on interviews with 215 young adults who experienced unaccompanied homelessness as youths, foster care was identified as a major factor. Ninety-four out of the 215 interviewees had a history in foster care; of that group of 94, nearly half said entrance into foster care was the “beginning of their housing instability.”
The coalition that met with HUD originally conceived of this plan in a 2018 bill, called the Fostering Stable Housing Opportunities (FSHO) Act, which would guarantee a housing voucher starting from emancipation through age 25 for any youth aging out of foster care who could demonstrate the need for a subsidy.
The bill, sponsored in the House by Reps. Mike Turner (R-Ohio) and Karen Bass (D-Calif.), and in the Senate by several members of the Senate Caucus on Foster Youth, ran up against some opposition in the previous Congress because it included a work requirement. That requirement was removed, and White said that the group had also garnered the support of House Financial Services Committee Chairwoman Maxine Waters (D-Calif.).
With HUD approving the plan, the legislation becomes a potential check on reconsideration by future HUD leadership. It would establish the foster youth voucher as a distinct program within FUP that is to be carried out using an on-demand process. The plan could ensure a key stabilizing factor for one of the most likely groups in the nation to end up on the streets.
“The child welfare system knows when a kid will be terminated,” Callahan said. “Now we can make sure there’s a voucher anywhere in the country for them to provide assistance.”
This article was produced with The Chronicle of Social Change, a nonprofit news publication that covers issues affecting vulnerable children, youth, and their families.