MOUNT VERNON — Each year, 20,000 youths age out of foster care. According to the National Center for Housing and Child Welfare, 25 percent will be homeless in four years.
The number climbs when you include youths living in their car or couch surfing day-to-day between friends, relatives, or a motel.
Locally, four to six youths age out of foster care every year. In 2019, six youths aged out. In 2020, four youths will leave the foster care program and go out into the world on their own.
The Knox Metropolitan Housing Authority (KMHA) and Knox County Children and Family Services are partnering together to help these youths avoid homelessness and put them on the path to self-sufficiency. The Foster Youth to Independence (FYI) tenant protection voucher aims to give them a leg up by providing a rent subsidy and supportive services for three years.
Youths between 18 and 24 years old who are homeless or at risk of being homeless are eligible for the program.
“This is a population that receives little, if anything, in the way of assistance,” said Ed Tharp, director of KMHA.
The FYI program grew out of six years of research conducted by a group of current and former foster care youths through ACTION Ohio. They took their idea to Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson in March 2019.
The federal program launched in July 2019. Since then, it has awarded more than $2.4 million for housing vouchers for 497 youths aging out of foster care.
“This is not a congressional mandate, it's something that Housing and Urban Development did on their own,” said Tharp.
Tharp, who is also director of Mansfield Metropolitan Housing, is requesting $36,000 from HUD to cover eight vouchers for Knox County. He received funding for six vouchers in Mansfield last November. COVID-19 halted the Mansfield program before it got up and running.
In addition to a rent subsidy, the youth receives what Carson calls “wrap-around services” from Knox County Job & Family Services. Support services include:
- Basic life skills information/counseling (money management, use of credit, housekeeping, proper nutrition/meal preparation, and access to health care)
- Counseling on compliance with rental lease and voucher requirements, including utility hook-up fees and security and utility deposits
- Job preparation and attainment counseling (where to look, how to apply, how to dress, grooming, and relationships with supervisors)
- Educational and career advancement counseling (GED, attendance/financing of technical school, trade school, or college, and successful work ethic and attitude models)
- Provide assurances to landlords in an effort to enlist their aid in assisting eligible youth
Landlord participation concerns Tharp.
“This is where I think we are going to have a problem,” he said. “When you have an 18-year-old with no rental history, we are going to have a problem getting landlords.”
Tharp suggested a “double pot of money, or something like that, to make landlords more comfortable and make it more feasible for landlords to work with us.” He asked the Knox County commissioners to contribute $4,000 to $5,000 to the program as reassurance to landlords that they will receive their rent.
“An 18-year-old who's never lived on their own can be daunting for the landlord,” he said.
Tharp will use a list of landlords who already participate in the metro housing choice voucher program.
“Once we get the ball rolling on this, I think it will sell itself,” he said.
The FYI rent subsidy is $375 a month.
“They're going to have to have something to make up the difference if the rent is $500 a month,” said Tharp, referring to the youth having “skin in the game.”
Tharp said the youth will sign an agreement stating he or she agrees to access JFS services and will be liable for damages to the rental unit. He anticipates a Sept. 1 start date for Knox County's FYI program.
As a former director of KMHA, Commissioner Teresa Bemiller said such a program is needed.
“We do hear a lot about the kids that are aging out,” she said. “They really don't get much help. I think it could be a really good program.”
County Administrator Jason Booth, also a former director of KMH, agreed.
“The number one barriers are housing and food,” he said. “If you can come up with a way to take care of the number one thing, getting some housing, it will allow [the youths] to progress toward the other goals.
“The housing is the key to providing self-sufficiency toward their other goals,” he added.
Matthew Kurtz, director of KCJFS, said the foster youth voucher program is a wonderful program.
“This year four [aging out] youths will graduate from high school,” he said. “Two are planning on going to college, so that is a positive. Their housing situation is kind of attached to that, but not entirely.”
Kurtz said that youths who opt for a technical school such as Central Ohio Technical School will need housing.
“Two are not going to college. This is a wonderful program that gives them an additional way to make that transition,” he said. “Normally, we have funds where we can get them established, pay the first and last month's rent, maybe buy them some dishes. But we don't have funding for month to month.
“Given that many of the jobs we have now don't pay much without education, they don't really pay enough to establish a home. So they have to find something to do to get established while they are learning a trade. Some foster parents allow them to stay after they age out, but we can't pay them.”
How other counties are faring
Lexington-Fayette Urban County Housing Authority in Lexington, KY, launched its FYI program in late December 2019. In addition to Children and Family Services, the housing authority partners with the Office of Homeless and Prevention and Intervention through the city of Lexington. Twenty-five youths participate in FYI.
“Some are already enrolled in college before coming to the program. Some need their GED, so I have a wide spectrum,” said Program Director Beverly Bowens.
Bowens said that coming out of the foster care system, the youths are accustomed to having case management services and very familiar with being accountable to a person. She works with them to set goals and conducts an orientation.
“One of the beautiful things that I really like about it is we say what you did in the past is in the past. It's your future that matters; that's what's important,” she said.
To better help the youths, Bowens sought out mental health training.
“Many have mental health issues,” she said. “I need to know the signs. I don't want to miss something that could be an important sign for mental health.”
Of the 25 youths, five are waiting to hear whether they are eligible. The other 20 are in various stages of the process; six are in a house, and eight to 10 are searching for a house.
“So far it's been a good experience,” said Bowens. “There are smart kids, and this will put them ahead of the game. I also have some who have to do a bit more in terms of time management and efficiency.
“I always ask them about if they have a support system if they get challenged,” she added.
COVID-19 interrupted the program for several months. The coronavirus also affected the program in Oregon City, OR.
“COVID presented challenges because we were just getting started, but we quickly created a process to work with the caseworkers and get things done remotely,” Beth Byrne, Community Relations Specialist with Clackamas County Public and Government Affairs, said via email.
The Housing Authority of Clackamas County received $68,820 in January to start its program. It received an additional $9,831 in March. As of July 14, nine families are leased within Clackamas County.
“There are five more looking for units, and we are in the process of getting a few more referrals approved by HUD,” said Byrne. “We consider it to be a very successful program. Only four of the first 18 referrals have not followed through with the program, and one of those received assistance elsewhere.”
Back in Ohio, several other housing authorities recently received funding for FYI programs: Erie County (Sandusky, $5,937), Lorain County (Lorain, $12,772) and Portage County (Ravenna, $6,981).
In Knox County, the commissioners are supportive of the program but will wait until the KMHA receives the vouchers before putting Tharp's request on the agenda for formal approval.