Growing up, my family’s nomadic lifestyle was a defining characteristic of my childhood. Unbeknownst to me at the time, our constant movement from place to place was far from the norm. The underlying reason for our frequent relocations became apparent as I grew older: we were experiencing homelessness, seeking refuge wherever we could find it. This formative experience caused me to struggle to understand the concept of stability. I felt ashamed and feared judgment from others, especially from my peers.
Over time, I became aware of the unique challenges my family faced. Homelessness and foster care had been a recurring issue in my mother’s and my grandmother’s lives, deeply embedded in our family’s history and a legacy that would follow me into my own life. This knowledge highlighted the intergenerational struggles and connections that shaped not only our lives, but the lives of countless others. Foster care and homelessness are intertwined in the stories of vulnerable young people and families, reflecting a legacy marked by adversity, resilience, and systemic failures.
For many of us, the instability of homelessness and the foster care system perpetuates a recurring theme throughout our lives and disrupts our sense of security and belonging, making it difficult to form lasting relationships, find stability in education, and acquire essential life skills. To address this issue, we must tackle one of the biggest root causes of entry into foster care: poverty.
The traumatic experiences preceding foster care can have lasting effects, with many of us entering the system after enduring economic instability, inadequate housing, limited access to resources or supports and education as well as abuse, neglect, and inevitably, the loss of family connections. These adversities often manifest as emotional and psychological challenges, often leading to mental health issues, substance abuse problems, and a lack of trust in authority figures. Without proper support and resources to address these traumas, we become vulnerable to further life-altering challenges, like homelessness. Once in foster care, the hope is that these adversities are alleviated. But often, they are worsened and penetrate beyond system involvement and into the adult lives of the young people connected with the child welfare system.
Many young people exiting foster care end up experiencing homelessness. Research shows that between 31% and 46% of youth exiting foster care become homeless at least once by age 26. To break this cycle, it is crucial to advocate for policies at federal, state, and local levels that protect young people involved in state systems. Comprehensive measures are needed to address the challenges faced by youth leaving foster care and aim to provide them with a brighter future.
Preventive measures of removing children and youth from their families are essential in breaking the foster care-to-homelessness pipeline. Early intervention programs addressing root causes like poverty, substance abuse, and mental health issues can keep families intact and prevent children from entering the foster care system. Strengthening family support networks, providing accessible resources, and promoting community-based services can provide support earlier in youth’s lives by offering assistance to families before separation becomes inevitable. When removal must take place, there should be more supportive systems to wrap around youth and maintain their connections with their families.
Further, we should remove barriers that hinder youth from enrolling in extended foster care, ensuring equitable access to these options and reducing the risk of homelessness upon exiting the system. Support services should extend beyond the age of emancipation. Access to affordable housing, education, healthcare, and counseling should continue, ensuring a smoother transition into independent living. Gradual independence, with ongoing support, helps foster youth build a solid foundation for a brighter future. Practical training in areas such as financial literacy, job readiness, and household management can increase their chances of obtaining stable employment, securing housing, and breaking free from the cycle of homelessness. Some programs are already showing incredible success with these methods but funding and capacity are often an issue in keeping extended foster care programs running smoothly.
Recognizing the financial and housing challenges faced by youth leaving care, we should look at bolstering financial assistance programs, facilitating access to safe and affordable housing, and fostering collaborations with community partners. Collaboration and coordination among child welfare agencies, nonprofits, housing agencies, educational institutions, and community organizations are vital. Sharing information, resources, and expertise can create a cohesive support system, ensuring foster youth receive comprehensive support without falling through the cracks.
Additionally, increasing educational and training opportunities is essential. Tailored support programs, vocational training initiatives, and scholarship opportunities empower youth and young adults to pursue their aspirations and break free from intergenerational struggles.
Lastly, a comprehensive system of wraparound support is vital for youth both in care and aged out of care. Providing mental health services, counseling, peer support, mentorship programs, and life skills training offers the necessary support and guidance to navigate the challenges they face, promoting resilience and a sense of belonging.
Through this multifaceted approach, we can dismantle the barriers perpetuating homelessness among youth exiting foster care. By addressing root causes, expanding resources, and prioritizing a supportive environment, we strive for a society where every young person leaving foster care can embark on a path of stability, growth, and self-fulfillment. Every foster youth deserves a chance to move beyond surviving into thriving, and it is our collective responsibility to systematically change the way in which we move towards a brighter future.