New York, July 14, 2016—One in four young people aging out of foster care in New York City are likely to spend time in a homeless shelter within the next three years, according to a report released today by Columbia Law School’s Adolescent Representation Clinic (ARC), but “the problem of housing instability for youth aging out is manageable.”
Though state law prohibits discharging youth from foster care to homelessness, many former wards of the state land in unstable environments, ill-prepared for the challenges of independence, the report finds. They stay temporarily on friends’ couches, or sleep in the streets. Of the 800 young people between 18 and 21 who aged out of foster care in New York City in 2011, as many as 231 used homeless shelters within three years, according to an earlier report by the Federation of Protestant Child Welfare Agencies.
Leading experts on child welfare—including Columbia Law School Professor Jane M. Spinak
, who directs the ARC—say that young people who experience housing instability in this vulnerable transition period are at a greater risk of developing mental health issues, struggling with substance abuse, and becoming victims of criminal activity. Housing instability impedes their ability to attend school or to get a job, threatening their long-term prospects.
The report—researched and written by Columbia Law School students under the supervision of Spinak—recommends simple policy changes that would have a major impact. It is aimed at lawmakers, government officials, and advocates.
“We wanted to offer a range of solutions that would make a difference,” said Spinak. “Some require no monetary cost at all—just tweaking some rules to take account of the special needs of aging-out youth—while others have short-term costs that will lead to long-term savings, like adjusting the housing subsidy for aging-out youth to take account of inflation so they can maintain stable housing in the first few years after they leave foster care.”
The report identifies three major barriers to obtaining housing: problems and confusion with the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) application process; deficiencies in supportive housing programs like NY/NY III and the housing subsidy from the city’s Administration for Children’s Services (ACS); and the challenge of balancing the demands of school with the necessity of housing.
Among the report’s recommendations:
Let foster youth applying to NYCHA indicate that they are flexible on the location of housing sites and allow them to elect to live with their foster siblings; eliminate the practice of deeming foster youths’ applications “dead” during the waitlist period;
Improve housing advice for foster youth; adjust the ACS housing subsidy from $300 per month (the same amount when the program was founded in the 1980s) to $850 a month to account for inflation and the higher cost of housing; and
Give priority for City University of New York dorm housing to aging-out foster youth; and preserve NYCHA priority for foster youth attending college outside of New York City until after they finish their studies.
“For foster youth, completing a college degree is already a huge challenge,” says Jessica Maxwell, a former foster youth and the coordinator of the Fostering Youth Success Alliance at The Children’s Aid Society. “These young people are often working to cover gaps in tuition assistance while navigating college with little or no adult guidance. Adding on unstable housing conditions makes a difficult achievement that much harder…The Columbia Law School Adolescent Representation Clinic has offered some excellent recommendations and will help make a college degree within reach of the foster youth who could truly benefit from it.”
The ARC is a part of Morningside Heights Legal Services, Inc., and is supervised by Spinak, the Law School’s Edward Ross Aranow Clinical Professor of Law. A member of the Law School’s faculty since 1982, she co-founded the clinic to represent youth and young adults aging out of foster care or other institutional settings. Most of the clinic’s clients range in age from 16 to 23. Their issues extend across a broad spectrum of needs and may include: housing and homelessness prevention; teen pregnancy and parenting; health and health benefits; income and support benefits; education, tuition, and financial aid benefits; financial planning; civil rights, including LGBTQ issues; job training and career planning; identity theft and credit; and inheritance.
“I’ve been working with teens in foster care for more than seven years, and it’s hard to advise them about housing when their options are so limited,” explains Virginia Vitzthum, the editor of Represent
, a magazine for foster youth. “The Columbia clinic has come up with practical, workable, affordable solutions for the number one problem foster youth face in New York City.”