BrandonCrawfordBrandon L. Crawford s one of four 2014-2015 OK Policy Research Fellows. Brandon is a Sociology Ph.D. student at the University of Oklahoma’s Norman Campus. He is also a research assistant at the Oklahoma Department of Human Services’ Office of Planning Research and Statistics, where he is working on a federal Youth at-Risk of Homelessness grant.

For most Oklahoma teenagers, turning 18 is an uncomplicatedly exciting time in their lives. However, for foster children, turning 18 means exiting the state’s foster system – and that can mean transitioning to a world fraught with intense uncertainty and anxiety, including a significant risk of experiencing homelessness. Through federal funding, a new program in Oklahoma is identifying the factors that place former foster youth at risk of homelessness.

Most Oklahoma foster youth exit the system with a support network servi­­ng as a safety net. Between 2009 and 2012 in Oklahoma, nearly 90 percent of youth exiting care were reunified with their family, adopted, or had someone other than the state step forward as their guardian. This is referred to as “achieving permanency,” and these placements provide a safety net for these young adults as they transition to adulthood.

 However, within that period, 7.4 percent of youth exited without permanency. These young adults had no family or guardian to go to after leaving foster care. They may not have had the opportunity to find a job, learn to drive, or learn to make simple decisions – such as whether to get a haircut, or how to stock a refrigerator – on their own. Aging out of the foster system leaves them without any help to learn these skills that so many of us take for granted. And for a variety of reasons, pre-exit planning with a caseworker may insufficiently equip foster youth for the future.

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Although these young adults should be eligible for Medicaid and have access to some support services through the Oklahoma Independent Living program, these programs can be cumbersome to use, especially without a caseworker to help them navigate the processes. And in addition to a lack of permanent connections, former foster youth frequently still carry the traumas of the abuse and neglect that led to their entry to foster care in the first place, making the transition even more difficult.

From 2009 to 2013, 1,639 young adults in Oklahoma aged out of foster care without permanency. At least one in four went on to experience at least one episode of homelessness within 1-5 years of aging out of care, although due to difficulties in identifying youth experiencing homelessness, they are likely undercounted. Young adults who age out of foster care without permanency may be one of the most at-risk populations for experiencing homelessness while at the same time having the least amount of support. In 2014, Oklahoma Department of Human Services (DHS) established The Road to Independence (RTI) Network to identify youth most at risk of experiencing homelessness, as well as a variety of other poor outcomes, including low educational and job skills attainment.

Young adults who are transitioning from foster care to adulthood need services that focus specifically on housing and the skills to achieve self-sufficiency.”

 RTI identified risk factors both while in care and within five years of leaving care that are associated with a greater likelihood of a former foster youth experiencing homelessness after aging out of care. Among other factors, RTI found that former foster youth who access safety net services such as SNAP and TANF after exiting care are more likely to experience homelessness. The fact that those young adults who are accessing services are more likely to experience homelessness does not mean that these services are causing homelessness, nor does it mean that these services are ineffective. What it means is young adults in need are reaching out for help – but the services available to them aren’t designed to prevent or alleviate homelessness. Young adults who are transitioning from foster care to adulthood need services that focus specifically on housing. They need services that not only provide housing but also the skills necessary to retain that housing and achieve self-sufficiency there.

The RTI team will continue compiling data from a variety of state and local agencies to inform how we combat homelessness among young adults formerly in foster care. With the data collected, the RTI team is preparing an intervention strategy to provide youth with housing-specific services to alleviate their risk of homelessness.

When children enter foster care, they become the responsibility of the state. However, too many former foster youth are falling through the cracks. These former foster youth need more support in their transition to adulthood, and the Road to Independence Network is developing solutions to provide it.