Ensuring that Homelessness Never Follows Foster Care

On Tuesday, June 24, 2014, I had the privilege of joining community leaders from across the country at Assuring Stable Homes: Strategies to Prevent Homelessness for Youth Transitioning from Foster Care, a conference hosted by the Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative, the Melville Charitable Trust, the Butler Family Fund, and the Sisters of Charity Foundation of Cleveland. I was asked to join a panel with Ira Cutler, Vice President for Policy and Strategic Planning at Metis Associates; Sam Criss, President and CEO, Indiana Connected by 25; and Courtney Noble, Impact Manager, United Way of King County, Washington. Our charge was to highlight community-wide approaches to prevent foster care from leading to homelessness.

Opening Doors sets the goal to end and prevent youth homelessness by 2020. To guide our efforts, the Council adopted a Framework to End Youth Homelessness in 2012. The framework focuses on four core outcomes for youth: stable housing, permanent connections, education and employment, and social-emotional wellbeing. To achieve these outcomes, the framework lays out two interrelated strategies:

  1. Data strategy: Improving our ability to identify and count youth, coordinating data systems, and planning and implementing a national study to better assess the number and needs of youth experiencing homelessness
  2. Capacity strategy: Improving capacity to end youth homelessness by developing and disseminating an intervention model that guides efforts at a system- and youth-specific level, identifying screening and assessment tools and effective interventions, and refining intervention strategies through evaluation and continuing national dialogue

Across USICH's efforts, we focus on helping communities and our nation establish systems to end homelessness. A system is not a single program. It is not a single funding source. It doesn’t come from a single agency. Instead, a system is a dynamic, resilient, adaptable series of relationships and linkages between resources focused on a common purpose. A system response means that it is not just any one of our responses -- it is all of ours. We all own it, we all define it, we are all responsible for contributing to it, and we are all accountable for its successes and failures.

Ending youth homelessness means putting a system in place to do so in every community. Here, having a common purpose is a key ingredient. Luckily, at the interface of the child welfare system and the homeless response system, we should agree on a common purpose. The child welfare system wants to see successful transitions to adulthood, which includes all of the outcomes of the framework to end youth homelessness, including stable housing. The homeless response system is certainly eager to close what has been called a pipeline from child welfare to shelter, and to see youth in stable housing instead of outside a shelter door. We should not have to debate our shared purpose.

Where it seems to me that our efforts get stuck is in sorting out our shared responsibilities to achieve that purpose. Often, members from both the child welfare system and the housing and homelessness services sector look to each other hoping for a different type of response to the issue. Where efforts sometimes flounder is when we approach our shared purpose with a presumption that because there is a problem, someone is not doing his or her job properly. We presume that homelessness among youth is someone else’s fault.

I understand this temptation. But in addition to the tactical question about whether that approach will engender meaningful partnership and trust, let me also challenge us to realize that pointing fingers is a great way to let ourselves off the hook.

Instead, I would challenge us to realize that we owe it to every young person facing homelessness today that our response to youth homelessness makes a “searching moral inventory” of our successes and failures a core feature that demonstrates the seriousness of our commitment. Searching moral inventories is different than finger pointing. If we are “part of the solution,” if we “are the change we seek,” then so long as youth continue to experience homelessness, none of us are above reproach. We, all of us, need to see youth homelessness not as a problem that someone else created, so much as a problem we all must fix. Urgently.

We have an opportunity right now. Federal agencies are partnering with communities and deploying resources to help us all learn together how to effectively support youth exiting foster care. Examples include HHS's planning grants to 18 states and communities to develop interventions that prevent child welfare from leading to homelessness. HUD convened a research and policy forum with Mathematica Policy Research titled “Housing Supports for Youth Aging Out of Foster Care”  last November. HUD’s Office for Policy Development and Research recently published new research on this topic, which includes special focus on the Family Unification Program (FUP).  Although FUP itself is small, and the number of youth served even smaller, FUP can be an important gateway for partnership between the child welfare and housing worlds. Use these tools in your community. Put these resources to work.

HUD is also creating an important opportunity for child welfare systems and homelessness response systems to collaborate through the coordinated entry and coordinated assessment systems that every Continuum of Care in the nation must establish. These coordinated entry systems are a different kind of front door to the homeless response system, which asks not “are you eligible for my program,” but instead, “what resource across our whole community’s assets is best equipped to meet your needs?” Coordinated entry and coordinated assessment systems could be a path for the child welfare system to access the housing resources and expertise it typically does not possess by itself. It could be the bridge between the homeless response system and the great depth of expertise on supporting youth in child welfare.

And creating a system to end youth homelessness is not only about child welfare and housing. Youth enter systems through many doors, and the resources that can support youth in successful transitions also include schools, the juvenile justice system, and youth employment services. Across these systems, our practices can benefit from approaches with strong affinity in child welfare and runaway and homeless youth services:  positive youth development and trauma-informed care. These approaches help us ensure that young people heal and thrive. Let’s also remember the important opportunity that Medicaid provides under the Affordable Care Act by offering expanded coverage for youth up to age 26 who have aged out of foster care. This coverage is not only about improving their access to healthcare, it is also about creating innovative financing options for the services that can help youth succeed in the transition.

But the barriers remain: our resources are still fragmented and not scaled to meet the need. We have a lack of critical information at the national level— knowledge gaps we are working to fill. We must better illuminate and understand the trajectories of youth from foster care toward stability. When we still can’t confidently answer the most basic questions about what strategies are most effective at intervening for which young people, it will be very difficult to establish the resources needed to solve the problem. And, in the context of these resource and knowledge challenges, too often we succumb to the temptation to point fingers, instead of pulling together.

I find the engagement of committed partners who convened and attended Assuring Stable Homes a source of hope and energy. I’m energized by what is possible at a community level, where progress can happen quickly that will be slower to scale up nationally. Communities can look to their own data to understand the linkage between youth transitioning from foster care and entries into your homeless response system. Local leaders may be more persuaded by their own data—however limited or partial it may be—that is corroborated by national research, than by basing decisions on the national research alone. Most importantly, at a community-level, leaders can form the partnerships and relationships that are an essential ingredient to creating systems.

We are called to understand the role we all can play and to act together with urgency so that no youth experiences homelessness. What role can you play?

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