On the morning of February 9, 2015, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced his preliminary 2016 budget proposal, which earmarks over $26 million in new funding for New York City's Administration for Children's Services over the next three years.
That night, the city's Department of Homeless Services conducted its 2015 Homeless Outreach Population (HOPE) Estimate survey, which for the second time included homeless youth in its population parameters.
The coincidence in timing reflected the real-world connection between foster care and youth homelessness. Research shows that youth who have experience with foster care are at a greater risk of experiencing homelessness – and for longer periods of time – than other children. The exact causes are hard to pin down.
Solutions – or at least the political will and financial commitment to implement them – have also proven elusive, advocates say. Despite strides made by de Blasio's administration, the advocates say, gaps in ACS programs are among the contributing factors to youth homelessness in the city.
"What we do find lacking is some kids don't get that one-and-one attention that's needed to their issues, to their needs," says Carolyn Strudwick, associate vice president of Safe Horizon's Streetwork Project, the city's oldest street outreach program. "They are just out there and there is nothing in place to help sustain them."
ACS acknowledges that more work must be done. But Jackie Roth, the ACS associate commissioner of Family Permanency Services, feels critics sometimes provide "an inaccurate depiction of how youth are being prepared for adulthood." She adds: "Our policies and protocols are in place to absolutely support the staff that actually do this work with the young people on how to engage and how to prepare."
In fiscal 2013, when some 13,000 children were in foster care in New York, nearly 4,800 children entered the system. More than 5,000 left, most to reunite with families, some to be adopted. But 15 percent of the discharges involved children aging out of the system at age 21.
Strudwick says ACS fails to address the underlying issues facing foster-care youth, such as mental illness, discrimination, disabilities and experience with abuse or neglect. Instead, she says, foster care somewhat works like a shuffleboard, where youth are placed in a home or congregate care and moved through the system without proper attention. This can create instability for youth who have a history of trauma, says Strudwick. And the limited resources around education and job skills, as well as awareness and training around trauma-based care, compound this instability, she says.
"If a young person is not in that emotional state where they're able to take those services, it's not going to work," says Strudwick*. "It's like they're putting a Band-Aid on a big wound."
But not adequately addressing mental health is just one reason why foster care youth are more likely to experience homelessness. Advocates say caseworkers fail to implement a stable discharge plan for youth aging out of care, leaving youth without the secure housing and employment options needed to survive outside the system. This lack of a concrete discharge plan leaves youth at an increased risk of poverty, violence and abuse, they say. Some 80 percent of those who are discharged are left to their own devices without family, financial or housing support to fall back on, according to a 2014 report released by the Office of the New York City Public Advocate.
"Many foster care youth are underprepared for independent adulthood," says Kate Barnhart, executive director and founder of New Alternatives for LGBT Homeless Youth.
Barnhart's assertion is one heard before. Four years ago, ACS, along with the Bloomberg Administration, found itself in court, fighting claims that it systematically denies youth the legally required services needed to prevent homelessness upon discharge. It's an accusation the city faced in 1985, when a State Supreme Court justice found that 18-year-old youth discharged from foster care were "often forced" into homelessness.
A 2011 report by New York think tank Center for an Urban Future found that one out of five former foster youth who discharged in the mid-2000s entered a Department of Homeless Services shelter within three years of leaving care.
ACS reached a proposed agreement with the Legal Aid Society and Lawyers for Children the month the class-action lawsuit, D.B. et al. v. Richter, was filed in 2011, although the settlement wouldn't receive approval until a year later.
The discharge from foster care is just part of the picture, however: Some youth become homeless when they are still in foster care. In fiscal 2013, for instance, 1 percent of kids who left foster care were deemed unaccounted for. Maureen Blaha, executive director for the National Runaway Safeline, says that many youth run away from foster care because they are running back to their family and friends.
There's a magnified displacement youth in foster care experience because they are taken away from their support system, even if "it wasn't a great situation," she says. "It's what they knew. It's what they came from," says Blaha. "Even perhaps things are not terrific at home, let's remember the age of these kids [who] are running typically, their friends are a huge, huge, part of their lives and they want to be connected with them."
But youth are also not receiving the proper support while in placement, advocates say. Many of the youth Safe Horizon has helped reported that they've never received benefits from the stipend their foster parents get from ACS for taking youth in, says Strudwick. Foster parents are paid a monthly stipend as compensation for care and maintenance associated with childcare, and must submit an annual financial report proving the stipend was not their sole source of income, according to the New York State foster parent manual. Children also receive an allowance not to be used for basic needs, the manual states.
Furthermore, she says, youth have reported experiencing a lack of emotional and cultural support from their foster caregivers, which can drive them to run away from a situation they deem volatile.
To that end, Barnhart says that gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender youth in foster care face discrimination, harassment and physical violence from group home staff and peers or from foster parents, which pushes LGBT youth to runaway into homelessness."I recently had a trans man who ran away from his placement and preferred to live on the street because he was not comfortable," says Barnhart. "He chose to live on the street rather than stay in placement. That's saying something, right?"
Olivia*, 22, says she left two foster care families because they were unsafe. She entered the first placement at 16, a year after her great grandmother died, and was put in the care of a family friend who she says sexually abused her – and had a history of sexually abusing her mother. Olivia claims ACS only checked in on her once during her time there, and failed to help her when she told the agency he wasn't providing basic needs.
She ran away from his home a year later and went to Safe Horizon. The victims' services agency helped put her in a homeless shelter where she stayed for two months before returning to foster care, Olivia says. ACS then placed her in the second home in 2010, but she found that home unsafe because of the foster parents' hostile behavior. Olivia left placement after a couple of weeks, "laying low" until she could discharge from foster care at 18, she says. "I knew it was a matter of weeks until my birthday," Olivia says, who now lives in a Hell's Kitchen homeless shelter with her two-year-old son.
Sizing it up
In order to develop sustainable solutions and policy changes that effectively address the root causes of youth homelessness, the city first needs to understand the current reach of it, says Blaha. "Part of getting our arms around ending youth homelessness is finding out how many kids are on the street, how many are homeless," she says.
That's proven difficult. Eight years ago, the Empire State Coalition of Youth and Family Services conducted a study of homeless youth in New York City – the first survey of its kind since 1986. At the time, the coalition found that 3,800 homeless youth live on the streets every night, 28 percent of who reported having experience with foster care, according to Coalition for Homeless Youth Executive Director James Bolas.
Homeless Services' 2013 HOPE count, however, estimated only 128 street homeless youth – the latest city data available on the population.
Bolas attributes much of the fall-off between the two counts to differences in the criteria used to label a young person "homeless." The latter count did not include unaccompanied youth with temporary shelter, those forced to stay with friends or move among homes, or youth engaging in "survival sex," in which they trade sex for food and a place to sleep, he says.
"Considering U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development doesn't support counting 'doubled up' or 'couch surfing' unaccompanied youth, we may be challenged by potential inaccuracies in this youth count," says Bolas. "However, we understand that nothing changes overnight and that this is a process."
Whatever the accurate number of homeless youth, some – including de Blasio, before he was mayor – have pushed ACS to do to track how much foster-care discharges contribute to it. At a 2008 hearing, de Blasio, then General Welfare Committee chairman, pushed ACS to answer why it couldn't determine how many discharged youth were at risk of homelessness.
The data gap led the City Council to pass legislation last year requiring ACS to release public reports tracking the nearly 1,000 youth who discharge from foster care each year. The first wave of data on discharge outcomes, high-school graduation rates and the agency's efforts to obtain government-issued personal identification (such as state IDs, social security cards and birth or death certificates) for foster care youth was released earlier this year.
Strides toward reform
Under the 2012 agreement in D.B. et al. v. Richter, ACS was obligated to create a specialized housing assistance unit for young adults aging out of care. The Housing Academy Collaborative, launched in spring 2013, offers eligible youth support, networks and weekly workshops around housing and employment, says Benita Miller, ACS deputy commissioner of Family Permanency Services.
The settlement also reaffirmed ACS's responsibility to supervise youth until the age of 21. The agency will reach out to discharged youth, which includes roughly 240 youth who've exited the system last year, to assess their progress, says Miller.
"If need be, if they're eligible for re-entry, we will engage them about coming back into foster care," says Miller. Miller says she is "well aware" of the concerns raised by advocates about foster care youth aging out to homelessness. ACS continues to address those issues through its variety of established programs such as the Housing Academy, she says, and has recently filed a concept paper looking to fund community-based organizations that actively work with youth.
And, for the first time in the agency's history, ACS released last year a first-ever best practices guide for servicing transgender and gender non-confirming youth in the child welfare, detention and juvenile justice systems.
Strudwick acknowledges that de Blasio's ACS has made some effort to improve the foster care system not seen in the previous administration. The mere fact, she says, that ACS reached out to Safe Horizon to provide training to staff in the agency's Children's Center, which provides pre-placement services to youth entering foster care, is "a different approach."
But the implementation of those "long overdue" efforts need to "be more rapid" and should exist agency-wide, she says. "Young people are still aging out of the foster care system without any resources, dealing with a wide range of mental health issues and lack of resources and skills toward independence," says Strudwick. "The system needs to revamp in a lot of ways."
*Olivia is a pseudonym; she spoke to City Limits on condition of anonymity for fear of her and her son's safety.