While millions of California residents have been pushed into financial peril under the crush of the coronavirus pandemic, new research shows that more than a quarter of the state’s former foster youth struggled with homelessness and housing instability well before the virus’ economic devastation hit.
More than 1 in 4 foster youth surveyed by the University of Chicago’s Chapin Hall reported experiencing at least one night of homelessness in the past two years, according to the final installment of the eight-year, high-profile research project. Nearly 30% said they had “couch surfed,” or crashed with friends, because they didn’t have anywhere else to go.
And since sharing their struggles in the surveys, these already-vulnerable young people have been faced with unprecedented new challenges.
“California is simultaneously facing a pandemic, an economic crisis, and a housing crisis, and transition age youth are struggling with the effects of all three,” said state Sen. Scott Wiener (D) in a news release this week introducing legislation to create more housing opportunities for this population.
In addition to housing challenges, the Chicago researchers found that a quarter of respondents had experienced food insecurity, and a third struggled with mental health or substance abuse — all issues that have been exacerbated during the pandemic.
The new data comes from the fourth and final installment of CalYOUTH, a four-part study that tracked foster youth from ages 17 through 23, interviewing them periodically over the years to learn about how they fare as they navigate the transition from life in government care to independent adulthood. In addition to housing, young people shared their experiences with education, employment, family relationships and self-esteem. For some metrics, the researchers compared their findings against data from the overall youth population.
The findings from this report build upon well-established research that young people who grew up in the foster care and juvenile justice systems are far more likely to struggle with meeting their basic needs, like shelter and food, as young adults. They also face extra barriers to steady, sustainable employment.
A handful of bills aimed at addressing youth homelessness, particularly among more vulnerable populations like foster youth, have been introduced in the California statehouse.
San Francisco Sen. Wiener’s Senate Bill 234 is focused on financing more housing options for youth coming out of foster care and the justice system. The bill would create $100 million in forgivable loans for developers and nonprofits to create supportive housing units, with 50% earmarked for building out more housing options for 18- to 21-year-olds in extended foster care.
“Senator Wiener’s proposal will break the cycle of homelessness for many young people by incentivizing the development of stable and supportive housing for our youth,” said Kristin Power with the nonprofit Alliance for Children’s Rights in a statement.
Another legislative proposal introduced last month would create an ongoing $2.4 billion annual investment to end homelessness by taxing corporations and ultra-wealthy individuals. It would require 10% of that funding to go to serve young people in need.
A third bill tackling the problems addressed in the Chapin Hall study would convene a working group to analyze the state’s extended foster care program, which serves young adults through age 21 with a focus on improving housing access.
All the youth surveyed in this last installment of the study — almost three-fourths of them kids of color — had been out of foster care for at least two years, and the vast majority of them reflected favorably on their experience with the child welfare system. Two-thirds felt they were “lucky” to have been placed in foster care, and more than half felt “generally satisfied” with their time in care.
Yet within those numbers are significant discrepancies for different racial groups. Black youth were far less likely to have reported satisfactory treatment in foster care than their peers. They were also less likely to report feeling lucky to have been put in foster care in the first place.
The researchers suggest that the overall positive feedback from youth should encourage governments and philanthropic foundations to continue investing in supports and services for this population. These young people have “amazing resilience and enormous potential,” the researchers wrote and expressed optimism for their futures.
“Despite the histories of trauma that accompanied them into foster care and the challenges many of them faced since then, the CalYOUTH participants as a whole have much going for them,” the report states.