There HAS been much progress made....BUT.....and it is a very big BUT.....once again a vital component has been left out of the conversation, out of the stories, out of the press. The only way to truly end chronic homelessness is to stop the pipeline into homelessness....the biggest one of which is the 20,000 eighteen year olds who age out of the foster care system every year in the United States.
The statistics are dismal. Within two years of aging out, up to 48% of these teens will have been homeless at least once. One in four will be incarcerated. Only 58% of foster youth receive highschool diplomas as compared to 87% of the total teen population, making them very UNemployable.
Worse than these statistics, though, is the fact that these kids know NOTHING about how to survive in life (the failure of the Foster Care System is another story). Without intense support, they flounder, they drift, they become the next generation of chronically homeless aduts. IN FACT, a significant percentage of chronically homeless adults were in the foster care system as kids!
The equation seems easy enough to me. Aging out with no support equals high risk of becoming homeless. Why, then, have we created solutions only at the end result i.e., chronically homeless adults, but none for shutting the door INTO homelessness through support for the young people who are most at risk of becoming the next generation of chronically homeless adults?
The tragedy of this is, they are in this highest risk category THROUGH NO FAULT OF THEIR OWN. They were removed from their homes with no say in the matter, most likely shuffled through many different placements throughout their young lives, and then told "Bye!" at age 18.
AND, instead of helping them THEN, when prevention services can have great impact at a reasonable cost, we wait until they are deep into chronic homelessness, mental illness, substance abuse, etc....when the cost of help for them is extraordinary! What is wrong with us?!
To win this race, it is time NOW to turn our attention to these kids. Here is what needs to happen:
- HUD (The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development) needs to lift its restrictions on the type of new projects Continuum of Cares can propose. Currently, the only new projects eligible are permanent supportive housing projects, which are for chronically homeless adults with a disability. Eighteen - 24 year old kids are too young to qualify for chronic homeless status and most do not have a long-term disabling condition. Transitional housing projects for this specific age group should not only be allowed, but encouraged or mandated by HUD.
- Congress should appropriate MUCH more funding for the Runaway, Homelesss Youth Act, through the Department of Health and Human Services, in particular the Transitional Living Program funding. Further, DHHS should lift its restriction on this funding that disallows foster youth from taking advantage of these transitional living programs.
- Every state should have a line-item in their budget specifically for transitional housing funds WITH supportive services for this age group. The State of Texas, through the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs, agreed to funding for several large cities to help end homelessness. However, the funds were for chronic homelessness.....again.
- Every county and city should channel funding into transitional housing projects for homeless young people, again, WITH supportive services. Dallas County decided to divert all its Emergency Shelter Grant funding as of January 2010 to the Bridge, instead of dividing it between several shelters, as it had done in the past. Again, this funding now will help only chronically homeless adults.
- Mike Rawlings, Homeless Czar, Mike Faenza, CEO of Metro Dallas Homeless Alliance, John Castle, incoming Chair of the Metro Dallas Homeless Alliance Board of Directors, the MDHA Board of Directors, and all agencies who are members of the alliance MUST turn our attention to these kids and ensure they are taken care of . It's time, and it's the next logical step. Aside from the moral issue of ignoring these kids, the economics of prevention v.s. the economics of long-term intervention are stunning. Why can't we get this?
- The Dallas Morning News needs to turn its attention long-term to this group of homeless young people. The News' influence in this city can go a very long way to bringing attention and funding to this issue.
- We need the influential individuals in this city (you know who you are) to rally around the cause of these homeless young people just as you did for the cause to end chronic homelessness. These kids are the missing piece to completing the task.
- Every discussion regarding ending homelessness MUST include solutions for this age group. AND institutions that regularly deal with young people i.e., school systems, colleges, churches, should be at the table and should be offering help.
It would truly be a shame to be crossing the finish line of the race and think we have won, only to look over our shoulder and see thousands of homeless young people coming up fast behind us.
Is that what we want?