May 1, 2010

Barriers of adulthood: Foster youth face homelessness

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Where were you when you turned 18?

I was a senior in high school, celebrating the chance to finally call myself an adult. My family threw me a big birthday party complete with grilled chicken on the barbeque, grandma’s homemade pie, and plenty of presents. I had worries about which university I would choose or how prepared I was for fastpitch try-outs. What was definitely NOT on my mind was homelessness.

When a foster child turns 18, they are welcomed into adulthood with a notification that they are utterly on their own. Their foster family no longer receives benefits to house them. If the foster family is kind and able, the family will voluntarily agree to care for the foster child until he or she graduates high school, but not even half are so lucky.

According to a 2004 study by the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS), only 50 percent of foster youth graduate high school or earn a GED. The study goes on to say that within the first year of turning 18 years old, 57 percent of foster youth were unemployed. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that on average, only 23 percent of people between the ages of 18 and 19 years old are unemployed. Therefore, a foster child is more than twice as likely to be unemployed than a child not in foster care within the first year of adulthood.

Without an education, employment, and traditional family support, many foster youth end up on the streets. Not only is it unfair to the foster child to be forced out of their home when they turn 18, it also creates a major roadblock to their economic survival. I can’t say it any better than the DSHS study, which concludes by saying, “Foster youth need more concrete services in the areas of daily living skills, skills in obtaining housing, employment and education to help them transition successfully to independence.”

Where their families and their state fail them, organizations with dedicated staff step in for foster youth. One such organization for those aging out of the system is the YMCA Young Adult Center in the Central District. They have programs that teach life skills, such as budgeting, conflict resolution, and time management. They also have housing and job training for young adults in transition. The community needs to support these structured organizations to give foster youth a fighting chance at education, employment, and ultimately a better life than the one they were given. A foster child’s hope is not just personal, it is communal. The  hope of a country lies in the hands of its most vulnerable populations.

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