When the federal government announced it was looking for housing and support service providers who could work together to ensure young people leaving foster care did not end up on the streets, the head of the Jefferson County Housing Authority thought to herself:
“We’re already doing this.”
Lori Rosendahl consulted with contacts at her county’s human services department and her region’s Court Appointed Special Advocates office and put together a proposal for U.S. Housing and Urban Development. At the end of October, a Jefferson County project was among 11 in six states, and only two in Colorado, to receive funding to provide three years’ rental assistance for young people who have been in foster care and are at risk of or are experiencing homelessness.
In all, HUD’s new Foster Youth to Independence Initiative awarded $1.7 million, including $218,449 to Jefferson County and $73,548 to Garfield County.
Rosendahl said she and her partners had been considering building housing specifically for young people leaving foster care. That’s still the goal, but one in very early planning stages, she said. With the new HUD vouchers, she said she hopes to start moving young people into housing in a few weeks.
Rosendahl credited Leah Varnell, executive director of Court Appointed Special Advocates for Jefferson and Gilpin counties, with putting Jefferson County on the path to supporting young people coming out of foster care. Court Appointed Special Advocates, usually simply referred to as CASA, is a national network that trains volunteers to act on behalf of children in neglect and abuse legal cases. Some of those children end up in foster care. Varnell said that about a year and a half ago, she visited a CASA office in Montrose and found her counterpart there was working on a housing project.
“If they can do that in Montrose, we surely can do that in Jefferson County,” Varnell said.
Across the Denver area, Varnell said, “housing is such a challenge for everybody.”
The Jefferson County partners have a list of two dozen young people who have been in or are leaving foster care that they consider to be in greatest need of housing. Some are homeless, Varnell said.
“They could be couch surfing. They could be in poor housing,” she said.
Varnell said some CASA volunteers will provide mentoring to the young people receiving federal housing vouchers.
“I know we have volunteers who want to continue to be involved with young people,” Varnell said. “It just doesn’t seem right to say at age 18, ‘OK, now you’re on your own.'”
“These kids, in most cases, don’t have family to fall back on,” Rosendahl said. “This is a part of our population that really has been left behind.”
Funding is being sought to ensure participants have furniture, transportation and money for deposits and other expenses the HUD money doesn’t cover. Varnell said other support could come from organizations such as Shiloh House, a nonprofit that provides therapy, educational and other services to young people across Colorado, and the Jefferson County Business & Workforce Center, which provides job training and placement.
Urban Peak is the main nonprofit in the Denver area that serves young people experiencing homelessness. Urban Peak has an overnight shelter in south Denver, a drop-in center downtown, a street outreach team, long-term housing and educational and jobs-training programs. Urban Peak Executive Director Christina Carlson said more housing options for young people in Jefferson County are important for the whole region.
“So many youth come out of foster care and become homeless the day they turn 18,” said Carlson, who is not involved in the Jefferson County project. “The foster care cliff that people talk about so much is a real thing.”
HUD, citing the National Center for Housing and Child Welfare, said an estimated 20,000 young people across the country age out of foster care every year, and about 25 percent experience homelessness within four years.
Urban Peak’s Carlson cautioned that rental assistance does not always translate into housing. Rosendahl, executive director of the Jefferson County Housing Authority, acknowledged that some landlords don’t want tenants who use federal vouchers to pay all or some of the rent because they believe too much red tape and oversight is involved.
Finding willing landlords is “a challenge for our best renters, even our most experienced renters,” Rosendahl said.
Varnell, Rosendahl’s CASA partner, said, “I anticipate we’ll run into a few obstacles.”
“But I think we can do it,” Varnell said. “I think our kids need us to do it.”
As they planned the building project and before they got the HUD support, staff at the housing authority, human services and CASA had embarked on a pilot in which a young college student who had been in foster care received rental assistance.
“She really didn’t need much support. All she needed was the housing,” Varnell said, adding that others will need more help.
Ben Kinghorn, who supervises Urban Peak’s shelter, said young people can emerge from foster care with strengths, including self-sufficiency and experience overcoming adversity.
But they may not know how to maintain a household budget or put together a resume. Urban Peak offers training in such practical skills as well as in counseling and advice on building healthy relationships, particularly with adults they can trust. Creating community — a network in place of family to fall back on when something goes wrong — is crucial to remaining housed, said Ramsey Cox, a social worker who works with minors at Urban Peak.
Cox has seen young people leave Urban Peak’s shelter for foster care, only to return to the shelter when they age out of foster care. She described one young man who could have extended his foster care stay, but chose Urban Peak instead, believing the connections he had made there would help him reach independence more quickly.
“He felt safe here, had made connections here” he believed that would help him reach independence more quickly than more time in foster care.
“We got him connected to housing,” Cox said. “He’s out and doing his own thing.”