When we provide better opportunities, we get better outcomes. This maxim is proving true again in improving the futures of young Americans who “age out” of foster care.

We know that homelessness can affect mental health and create barriers to education and employment, among many other problems. 

During my tenure as secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, one of our priorities was combating youth homelessness, especially homelessness among those who age out of foster care programs. 

May is Foster Youth Awareness Month, and with programs that support and empower these young Americans, one day we will eradicate homelessness among them. 

The numbers are sobering. The Department of Health and Human Services estimates that more than 20,000 young people age out of foster care each year when they turn 18. 

Approximately 25% of them experience homelessness within four years of leaving foster care, and an even higher percentage are precariously housed, according to the National Center for Housing and Child Welfare

This sets the stage for a lifetime of personal and financial struggle. 

In 2019, a group of foster youth who had to navigate the child welfare system met with me in Washington. These young people weren’t shy about telling me and my team what worked and what didn’t work. 

We realized that the program that sought to address this need, the Family Unification Program, left gaps because not every housing authority had access to the relevant vouchers and timing did not always work, which lowered utilization rates.

In response, we created the Foster Youth to Independence program, or FYI, to fill the gap and issue housing vouchers when they are needed.  Under the initiative, HUD provides housing vouchers to young adults under age 25 who are in, or recently left, the foster care system. Program participants receive rental assistance for three years and have the opportunity to get a two-year extension.

These vouchers help prevent or end homelessness. We announced the FYI program in July 2019 and provided the first vouchers that September, just three months later. In all, it took four months to pull the initiative together, and then another month to get vouchers to those who needed them.

Usually when you say “at the speed of government” it is a pejorative term. But I am proud that we could turn that perception on its head, particularly with this successful program. 

But the Foster Youth to Independence initiative is more than just rental assistance. In addition to receiving vouchers, these young people may enroll in the Family Self-Sufficiency program, which provides support in areas such as basic life skills, money management, and compliance with lease terms. The program allows participants to save money through an escrow account that they take over at the end of the program.

When I met with foster youth, one thing they were adamant about was a work or education requirement as part of the program. They didn’t want a handout. They wanted empowerment.

These committed young adults had goals, and the Foster Youth to Independence program supports those goals and puts them on a pathway to self-sufficiency. 

As of March, HUD has issued more than 1,000 housing vouchers under the FYI program. That is 1,000 individuals who got on a pathway to success. 

Take Adaora Onuora, who went into foster care as a 15-year-old after her mother died. When she aged out of the foster care system, Adaora got a housing choice voucher through Foster Youth to Independence and enrolled in the Family Self-Sufficiency program.

Because she is stably housed, Adaora was able to focus on her education. She recently graduated with a double major in criminal justice and communications. She also is successfully navigating Family Self-Sufficiency and is on the home ownership track with plans to purchase her first home next year.

I am proud of all the young adults like Adaora Onuora who are succeeding with this type of support. Again, when we provide better opportunities, we get better outcomes.

I am also proud of the team at HUD who developed and implemented Foster Youth to Independence. They are finalists for a prestigious public service award. The FYI program continues to grow, with Congress approving $20 million in new funding for fiscal year 2021. 

When we come together, listen to those who know the issue best, and put commonsense solutions to work, there’s no limit to the opportunities for success we can provide.

And when each success means that a young person at risk has a chance for a life of prosperity and dignity, then that means we are doing exactly what government’s social safety net programs are meant to do. 

We all can be proud of that.

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