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Monday, June 6, 2016

One group of homeless youth in Howard County

       I have been addressing the issue homelessness in Howard County for the past few weeks.  Today I wanted to focus on one group of this population--youth who have aged out of foster care.  I recently had a chance to talk with Pam Grady and Erica Byrne from Voices for Children, the local CASA program.  Erica and Pam have been heading up a program in Howard County called Fostering Futures.   I have been serving on the program's advisory board and have seen the program grow to be a valuable community resource for youth aging out of foster care in Howard County. Fostering Futures has created greater community engagement with local residents providing assistance in many ways to assist the youth with transitioning.  Recently a job fair was held for transitioning youth to help them explore job opportunities.  Unfortunately this type of community engagement doesn't exist in all jurisdictions of Maryland.
      This year we have had eight youth age out of foster care in our County.  The case plans for each youth are designed to assist each youth to successfully transition to independence as they leave foster care.  It has become apparent that for older youth in foster care these plans need to begin years before they will age out.  Unfortunately that transition can be a bumpy one for many of these youth.  Many of these youth have become disconnected from family and community supports while they have been in foster care.   For many youth foster care has been their life for a decade or more.  The abuse they have experienced often leads to developmental delays that results in emotional levels of youth much younger than what you would expect from a youth at age 21.   I experienced this reality in visiting a Maryland group home called San Mar.  This is a residential program that is often used by our local foster care program.  What I saw on my visits were girls in their late teens and early 20's that emotionally appeared to be much younger.  I often left San Mar wondering how these emotionally immature young women would not face exploitation when the they left San Mar.
     One of the biggest challenges faced by youth aging out is that the abuse they have experienced and the impermanence of  their life in foster care has led them to be "short term" focused.  This short term focus often makes it difficult for these youth to have plans that realistically that have a good chance of success.  Many times their plans of staying with a family member or friend will only be a short term housing solution.  After a month or two in transition they may find themselves "bed hopping" from one place to another or homeless.  This is how Human Rights Watch described this situation:
   "For some youth leaving foster care, homelessness comes the day they emancipate from the foster care system; others move from a foster home into a bad housing situation only to find themselves without shelter shortly thereafter. They may feel lucky to crash on a friend’s couch, or they find themselves sleeping in a car, at an emergency shelter, or in the park. Some are without a steady roof over their heads for days that turn into weeks or even years. Those leaving foster care with special needs often face a particularly rough road: mental health problems or cognitive limitations can bar entry to a transitional living program. So can being a parent. Youth who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender often have even fewer community resources and support to avoid homelessness."

   "Too many foster children face poverty, early pregnancy, educational failure, criminal victimization, or incarceration in early adulthood. Homelessness, with its attendant dangers—including exposure to predatory crime, drugs, HIV/AIDS, and violence—is probably the worst outcome for a young person. Yet homelessness is a predictable future for many foster youth. Social workers know it. Many policymakers know it. Research confirms it. California’s own Department of Social Services concluded that 65 percent of emancipating youth lack safe and affordable housing at the time of emancipation. Although conclusions as to the rate vary, homelessness is a certainty for too many youth leaving foster care."

     The chart below is another graphic of the outcomes of transitioning foster youth in a Midwest Study of Transitioning Youth.  The graph shows that over one third of the youth had experienced homelessness at some point since leaving foster care.

     So where do we still lack resources needed by fostering youth?  The biggest area in Howard County still remains with providing affordable housing and job opportunities.   The Housing Voucher program in Howard County is closed to new applicants.  Those on the list now may have to wait up to eight years before a voucher becomes available.  For youth aging out of foster care this system is unworkable because foster youth are ineligible to get on the list until they are out of care.  The answer might be a certain number of vouchers that are designated for foster youth as a few locations have developed.
     Finally our community, as any community, needs to recognize a responsibility for youth we remove from families and place in foster care beyond the age of 21.  Without available safe housing options and other support resources we may be as neglectful of the needs of these youth as the families from which they were removed.  It is probably an uncomfortable reality but without these supports in some ongoing manner the reality of homelessness for transitioning foster youth should not be an unexpected result.


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