Predicting the risk for homelessness among foster youth

A new United Way report shows how to identify the young adults most likely to become homeless in their first year out of foster care - and how to keep them off the streets.
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Multiple foster care placements, changing schools, teen parenthood and other experiences raise the risk of homelessness.

A new United Way report shows how to identify the young adults most likely to become homeless in their first year out of foster care - and how to keep them off the streets.

Jordan and Julia are in foster care, but they won’t be for much longer. Both are 17 and when they turn 18, they'll "age out" of the foster care system. What happens next is a question the many King County agencies and organizations that serve homeless youth would love to have answered.

With limited staff and funds it’s a struggle to look after every 17-year-old nearing graduation from the foster care system. But what if they didn't all need looking after? What if there were a reliable way to predict which foster kids are most at risk after exiting the system?

The United Way of King County set out to do just that. On Thursday, it released its Youth at Risk of Homelessness (YARH) report, which calculates that foster-care-to-the-streets risk. Based on the report's methodology, the composite foster youth Jordan and Julia have vastly different chances of winding up homeless after they leave their foster homes: 62 percent for Jordan vs. 1 percent for Julia.

The YARH's two-part report was funded by the Administration for Children and Families (ACF), which resides within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS). Part one of the report collects and analyzes data on youth leaving foster care. Part two uses that data to develop a plan of action. “We realized we were doing this planning around young people who were homeless,” says Courtney Noble of United Way of King County. “But we weren’t doing any upstream investigation.”

In other words, there was too much focus on the symptom and not enough on the cause.

Based on 2013 data from DSHS, the report identifies 1,213 young people, 17 or older, who left the state foster care system and did not return. About 25 percent, or 335, found themselves without a home at some point in the 12 months following their exit.

For the report, United Way enlisted DSHS to analyze available data on foster care alumni. including personal stories, in an effort to tease out who is more likely to end up homeless and why. Data came from the state's child welfare, public school and health care systems as well as homeless service and housing assistance agencies. Data points included the number of foster care placements and any reports of abuse; high school GPAs and the number of school changes; use of emergency shelters and transitional housing; and the number of injuries or reports of mental health issues and substance use.

The report's authors found that unstable housing, multiple foster care placements or changing schools a lot put young people at greater risk of homelessness. The report also concluded that “those [young people] who had experienced a disrupted adoption were three times as likely [to become homeless] and those who had parented a child were over twice as likely.”

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Odds of experiencing homeless after aging out of foster care. African American youth, for example, are nearly twice as likely to become homeless after exiting the system. Source: Youth At Risk of Homeless report.

For youth with "protective factors," such as one foster care placement with a relative and a high grade point average, the odds of experiencing homelessness decreased dramatically.

The fictional Jordan and Julia have a higher chance of becoming homeless (3.9 percent) in their first year out of foster care, due solely to the fact that they were in the system. That's the baseline risk. When the report's authors start plugging in other the aforementioned risk factors, Jordan and Julia's risk goes up.

For example, if Jordan was homeless in the 12 months before he left foster care, his score rose 13.2 percent. Multiple (four or more) foster care placements, school changes, convictions (in the two years prior to exiting foster care), time in juvenile rehab and a history of behavior problems each adds 5-10 percent to Jordan's score. In the final tally, his 3.9 percent risk of homelessness ballooned to 62 percent.

Julia is a different story. She had just two foster placements — one with her grandmother — and a high GPA. These “protective factors” knocked 6.8 percent off her score. She does have a history of mental illness and more than one foster care home, which added 4.9 percent and 5.6 percent, respectively, to her score. Still, her starting 3.9 percent chance of becoming homeless in her first year out of foster care shrunk to 1 percent.

In some ways, these risk factors for youth homelessness are obvious.

“Changing schools is hard, especially since credits don’t always transfer," one young man told the report's authors. "You can be on track at your old school but fall back a grade at your new school.”

“You can’t get child care without a job, and you can’t get a job without child care,” shared one young parent.

It seems obvious that chronic instability or teen parenthood would raise the chances of homelessness, but the United Way report is the first time that a statistical value has been assigned to those kinds of indicators. “I’ve never seen anything else like it,” says Noble, crediting DSHS’s deep base of information for enabling the unique report.

Now that we know a kid like Jordan is far more likely than Julia to become homeless, what do we do with that insight? That's where the second part of the United Way grant comes in.

The first step is engagement that “is peer based," says Noble, "where alumni of foster care connect with young people at risk.” Next is using data to "screen those young people” and identify the obes most at risk. Caseworkers often juggle as many as 40 clients. This case load makes it extremely difficult to provide personal services that is customized for individual needs. But by quantifying risk, caseworkers will be able to prioritize, saving time and money and increasing the effectiveness of their work. The third step is providing every young person with "natural support," says Noble. An aunt, uncle, grandmother, coach, some trusted adult who has a history with the youth and can guide them through their transition out of foster care.

Homelessness can happen to anyone. To identify who is most at risk can help to focus resources and keep more youth off the streets. “You hear from a lot of people that you can’t predict homelessness," says Noble. "This [report] shows that that may not necessarily be true."

Correction: An earlier version of this article stated the funding came from a Washington State planning grant, when in fact the funding is federal money to be used for planning within Washington State. 


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About the Authors & Contributors

David Kroman

David Kroman

David Kroman is formerly a reporter at Crosscut, where he covered city politics.