By Sloane Shabelman, AmeriCorps State & National Member
With an annual increase in homelessness throughout the United States, one statistic must be discussed more: of the U.S.’s homeless population, 50% have spent time in foster care, according to the National Foster Youth Institute. If we as a nation are committed to fighting homelessness, we must take this statistic into account and figure out what changes need to be made to the foster care system to decrease its impact on homelessness.
A report by Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago called “Missed Opportunities: Pathways from Foster Care to Youth Homelessness in America” dives deeper into the connection between foster care and homelessness. Three of the briefs’ main findings are as follows: between one-quarter and one-third of youth and young adults experiencing homelessness have a history of being in foster care, some young people perceive their entry into foster care as the beginning of their homelessness journey, and there are multiple pathways from foster care into homelessness (Dworsky et al., 2019).
One major pathway from foster care into homelessness is aging out of the system. Youth who remain in foster care after their 18th birthday (or 21st in some states, including Illinois) are emancipated and no longer legally in the care of the state. However, with often little money and familial support, it is estimated that 20% of these young adults become homeless as soon as they are emancipated, according to the National Foster Youth Institute.
The Midwest Evaluation of the Adult Functioning of Former Foster Youth, published in 2010, was one of the largest studies ever conducted on the experiences of young adults who have aged out of the foster care system. The study found that between 31-46% of their participants had been homeless at least once by the time they turned 26. As some states’ have increased the emancipation age to 21, homelessness has been delayed in many young adults who now have more time to learn self-dependency and life skills. However, the study showed that by age 23 they were just as likely to become homeless as those who aged out at 18, emphasized Dr. Mark Courtney, head publisher of the study. In an article by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), Courtney shared a potential solution to this issue.
“[Housing] service providers need to account for the significant mental and behavioral health challenges facing these young people as a result of their trauma histories,” Courtney said.
There needs to be a more trauma-informed approach when it comes to housing, especially in cities and neighborhoods where homelessness and the number of children in foster care is at an all-time high. There must be more knowledge, understanding, and compassion among those who provide housing towards people looking for housing with less resources and privilege because of their background, such as young adults coming out of the foster care system. With increased education, specifically aimed at housing providers, about the foster care system, emancipation, and the trauma many foster children endure, they are less likely to end up on the streets and more likely to be on the path for a successful future.
Additionally, whether the foster care system ages the children out at 18 or 21, there needs to be more focus on providing more behavioral and mental health support from trained professionals both while the young adults are still in the system and once they have left. These children and young adults have often dealt with severe trauma that could put them at a disadvantage moving forward in their education, socialization, physical abilities, and later on, in their careers. Currently, so many of these children lack the proper resources, such as therapy and support groups to help them move forward, and those who do have these resources often find them to be inadequate and underfunded. If we ever want these children to have a chance at a successful life outside of the foster care system, it is crucial that we are giving them the proper support and tools they need to cope with all they have been through and become sufficient, capable adults.
It is important to emphasize that extra support should be provided to all foster children as they are preparing to leave the system, not just those who have aged out, as all children and young adults exiting the system are at risk of experiencing homelessness at some point. According to the Chapin Hall brief, “About half of the young people interviewed who spent time in foster care [and experienced homelessness] exited through reunification or adoption. These young people achieved permanency in the eyes of the child welfare system, but still found themselves on pathways into homelessness” (Dworsky et al., 2019).
The researchers at Chapin Hall shared that in addition to providing better services and programs to prepare the young adults for leaving the system, allocating more funds and resources to housing assistance for young adults leaving to live on their own could have a big impact on their potential for experiencing homelessness (Dworsky et al., 2019). Providing extra support both financially and mentally/emotionally for reunified and adoptive families could also prevent many children and young adults from starting on a pathway into homelessness, as many find themselves put in this position when their homes become unstable and unsafe..
All of these proposed solutions, while potentially very impactful if implemented, are merely responses to a crisis that needs to be prevented in the first place: children entering the foster care system. According to the Chapin Hall brief, most child welfare funding received by states has been allocated to help children after they have already entered the system as opposed to preventing them from entering at all (Dworsky et al., 2019). If more funds and resources are allocated to strengthening and stabilizing families and providing support to new or struggling parents, less children will enter the system and less of our country’s citizens will be at risk for experiencing homelessness.
In conclusion, with the proper support and help for children leaving the foster system, and with more funds allocated to prevent them from being removed from their homes in the first place, children and young adults all over the country will be better prepared for a successful future - one that hopefully does not include homelessness.
Child Welfare Information Gateway
Illinois DCFS: 800-232-3798 / 217-524-2029
Children’s Home + Aid Foster Care Services: 877-282-4274
To Report Suspected Child Abuse or Neglect: 1-800-25-ABUSE (252-2873)
National Domestic Violence Hotline: 800.799.SAFE (800.799.7233)
National Parent Helpline: 855.4APARENT (855.427.2736) (available 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., PST, weekdays)
Dworsky, A. & Courtney, M. (2010). Extended Foster Care Delays but Does Not Prevent Homelessness. Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago. Retrieved March 19, 2023, from https://www.chapinhall.org/research/extended-foster-care-delays-but-does-not-prevent-homelessness/
Dworsky, A., Gitlow, E., Horwitz, B., & Samuels, G. M. (2019, July). Missed opportunities: Pathways from Foster Care To Youth Homelessness in America. Missed Opportunities: Pathways from Foster Care to Youth Homelessness in America | National Clearinghouse on Homeless Youth & Families. Retrieved March 19, 2023, from https://www.chapinhall.org/wp-content/uploads/Chapin-Hall_VoYC_Child-Welfare-Brief_2019-FINAL.pdf
Kuehn, B. M. (2022, October 24). Chicago professor shares findings from Foster Youth Study. SAMHSA. Retrieved March 19, 2023, from https://www.samhsa.gov/homelessness-programs-resources/hpr-resources/chicago-professor-shares-findings-foster-youth-study
National Foster Youth Institute. (2021, May 27). Homelessness & Foster Youth: The National Foster Youth Institute. NFYI. Retrieved March 19, 2023, from https://nfyi.org/issues/homelessness/