No Place to Call Home: Moving Toward Homelessness

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A review of the literature available on homelessness reveals surprisingly more than expected on the link between out-of–home placements during childhood and homelessness. ....Findings from these studies, conducted throughout the United States, support the premise that out-of-home placements during childhood are a significant contributing factor to homelessness.”

(Roman and Wolfe, 1995)

Foster Care Runaways

Running away from a foster care placement expresses homelessness as a deliberate choice. The foster youth apparently prefers the “freedom” of homelessness to imposed temporary care and systemic transience. According to a nationwide study of runaway youths, more than one-third had been in foster care before they took to the streets. (www.liftingtheveil.org)

The Congressional Research Service in 2007 reported that at the close of fiscal year 2005, close to 11,000 foster youth had run away from their placement, and that 24,000 youth “age out” of foster care each year without “proper supports to successfully transition to adulthood.”

Homelessness

The authors of this book have had many older foster children. Most came to their home with a grocery sack of their few belongings. Even after years in state care, all that they owned could be carried in a bag. Better than any other term or condition, “homeless” describes the state of a child in foster care. By definition the foster child is a transient, without a permanent home.

Children who are emancipated into legal adulthood without a permanent home have no safety net, and no fallback family of origin. If they have been in foster care for an extended time, temporary living and the lack of a true home is a state they have learned while growing up. Small wonder then that foster care is correlated with homelessness. Research shows that children in foster care have a significantly high chance of becoming homeless adults.

“All sources of data support the primary finding that people with a foster care history are over-represented in the homeless population.” (Roman et al, 1995) Three in ten of the nation’s homeless adults report a foster care history. Child placement in foster care also correlates with a substantial increase in the length of a person’s homeless experience. Their report adds that homeless parents who report a history of foster care are almost twice as likely to have their own children placed in foster care as homeless parents with no foster care background.

In a front page story, the Sunday New York Times (1991) reported that “A large and disproportionate number of the nation’s homeless are young people who have come out of foster care programs without the money, skills, or family support to make it on their own.” This finding was preceded and documented by a 1984 report from the Citizens’ Committee for Children of New York and studies by Schaffer et al (1984), Mangine et al (1990), and a 1991 report by the National Association of Social Workers.

Adult homelessness has its roots in childhood impermanence. Extended foster care with its built-in impermanence and multiple moves represents a major risk. Little has changed over the years. The following researchers all report large numbers of homeless adults with a history of foster care: Susser et al (1991), O’Brien (1993), Blankertz et al (1993), Piliavin et al (1993), Calsyn et al (1994), Rosenbeck et al (1994), Koegel et al (1995), Herman et al (1997), Bassuk et al (1997), Zlotnick et al (1998), Cauce et al (1998), and Sumerlin et al (1999).

Roman and Wolfe (1997) in The Relationship Between Foster Care and Homelessness summarize: “There is indeed an over-representation of people with a foster care history in the homeless population…Physical and mental health problems also interact in the homelessness-and-foster-care equation…It is clear from this study that what happens to children has a lifelong impact on them. When you see homeless adults, it is quite possible that they are homeless because of people and systems that failed them as children…If it is necessary for children to enter the foster care system, extraordinary measures should be taken to move them as quickly as possible into a permanent living situation (family reunification or adoption), taking all steps necessary to avoid multiple placements.”

A two-year follow up of 265 adolescents in foster care in a large urban setting revealed that 43 percent had problems finding a stable residence and 20 percent were chronically homeless. (Fowler et al, 2009)

In summary, 65 percent of emancipated foster youth leave the system with no place to go. Fifty percent will become homeless within the first 18 months. Twenty-seven percent of the homeless populations were former foster children. Fifty-eight percent of all young adults using federally funded youth shelters in 1997 had previously been in foster care. These stats are shocking but should not surprise us. By definition a foster child is a transient without a permanent home. (www.childrensrights.org)

So what can we do? The Adoption and Safe Families Act wisely allots one year as the maximum time in which to find a permanent home for children in out-of-home care. Society’s challenge is to follow that mandate.