It is heartbreakingly difficult to read the New York Times series on kids living on the streets — especially during the holidays, when we are all celebrating with our loved ones in our homes. Sadly, recent studies confirm our observation that homelessness among young people is on the rise — a trend with potentially devastating consequences.
Our nation's public schools reported a record 1.2 million homeless children and youth in 2012, and the weak economy bears much of the blame. Since the beginning of the recession, the number of homeless children in America's public schools has increased 72 percent.
And for kids in foster care, homelessness is all too often a reality — especially within their first few years after aging out of care. At the Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative, nearly half of the young people engaged in our Opportunity Passport™ matched savings program have been homeless at some point since transitioning from care.
A study published this month in the American Journal of Public Health analyzed data from a longitudinal study of youth aging out of foster care across the Midwest. It suggests that youth aging out of foster care are at high risk for becoming homeless during the transition to adulthood: by age 26, at least 30 percent of study participants reported having been homeless for at least one night. And a new report on youth in foster care in Connecticut found that of 98 homeless kids, 40 had come from foster care.
Last month I recalled the story of Antwone Fisher, who was informed upon aging out of foster care at 18 years old that he was on his own. He was directed to a nearby homeless shelter, and left to figure out the rest himself. That continues to happen every day across the United States.
As a society, we cannot sit by and watch this happen any longer. We can fix this, and it's time to act.
For the past 12 years, the Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative has been committed to creating a better path for young people transitioning from foster care to adulthood. We do this not simply to help them avoid homelessness, unplanned pregnancy, or other negative outcomes associated with aging out of foster care. We do this because we believe that all young people deserve equal opportunities for success in work, school and life — the fundamentals of adulthood.
Our recommendations center upon a key premise: young people in, and transitioning from, foster care must have access to housing options that meet their needs as emerging adults. This means states and child welfare agencies should design placement options that:
• Support Brain Development. Recent research has helped us understand that between ages 14 and 25, a person's brain experiences a period of major growth and development. This period shapes the planning, decision-making, judgment, and coping skills a person needs as an adult. It is critical that young people's living arrangements provide the opportunity to develop and practice these skills.
• Enhance Social Capital. Social capital — the relationships and networks that support healthy development — is essential for everyone. For older youth in foster care, social capital is especially critical as they prepare to transition to adulthood. In designing placement options for these young people, state leaders should consider housing options that afford opportunities for young people to continue existing positive relationships, and to develop new healthy relationships.
• Reflect Personalized Needs and Preferences. State leaders should seek the perspectives of young people themselves. For example, state or local youth leadership boards or foster care alumni associations offer a great opportunity to gather the perspectives of young people who have experienced foster care.
States and child welfare agencies can help young people in foster care achieve a better path to adulthood by providing an array of developmentally appropriate placement options. These options can take numerous approaches — from helping young people remain with guardians or extended family, to designing supervised independent living programs.
The holiday season is the perfect time to remember that all young people deserve a place to call home. Not just an address, but the warmth that only a permanent home can provide — during the holidays, and every day.
For more about our work to promote better living options and services for young adults in foster care, please visit the Jim Casey Initiative website.