FCYU127 cover image See all stories from issue #127, Winter 2017

Ease the Path to Stable Housing in NYC
Represent staff

Students at Columbia Law School’s Adolescent Representation Clinic provide free legal help to youth aging out of foster care in New York City. A few years ago, several students noticed that almost all of their young clients shared a common problem: finding a stable place to live.

It’s illegal to discharge foster youth into homelessness, but youth still end up there way too often. In 2011, for example, about a quarter of the youth who aged out of foster care in New York City spent time in a homeless shelter within three years of aging out. Others spent nights couch-surfing or sleeping on the street.

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The Columbia students decided to research the issue and figure out what policy changes could make a difference for youth aging out of care. They found that while housing instability is a serious problem, it’s also a manageable one. Only about 800 or so youth age out of care each year in New York City, and some relatively small policy adjustments could have a big impact. Their report, drawn from the experiences of youth they worked with, was released this summer. (Go to bit.ly/agedoutcastout to read the report.)

Relax the Rules

To make it easier for youth aging out to find public housing, the report recommends loosening some of New York City Housing Authority’s (NYCHA’s) rigid admissions standards and deadlines. For example, a youth’s application can be delayed for years because of minor criminal offenses or drug use. This provision, the report says, “allows NYCHA to deny applicants on the suspicion that the applicant, or a member of the applicant’s family, is guilty of such minor offenses as occasional marijuana use.” The students argue that NYCHA should let in people who have minor drug offenses and minor criminal convictions.

The report also suggests
• allowing foster youth to apply for housing with foster siblings;
• not forcing them to choose a single borough when requesting housing;
• eliminating the practice of deeming applications “dead” if youth miss a deadline;
• holding NYCHA orientations to explain the public housing system’s rules so young people don’t lose their apartments.

Make Other Supports More Accessible

There are other housing supports currently in place that could be tweaked to be more effective. Supportive housing, which gives residents access to social workers in addition to an apartment, provides an alternative to NYCHA. But in order to qualify, foster youth must get a psychiatric evaluation. Some teens don’t want to do that, and there’s no reason for them to. The report suggests eliminating this requirement for youth who are not applying for mental health support, and simplifying the application process.

Several of the writers in this issue were helped by getting an Exception to Policy (ETP), a discretionary benefit that allows youth to remain in foster care after age 21 while waiting for housing to come through. The report recommends that ACS (New York City’s child welfare agency) have clear standards for who is eligible for an ETP, so youth and their caseworkers know what to expect.

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Report authors also recommend expanding and increasing the ACS housing subsidy, a monthly grant that can be put toward the cost of rent. To be effective, the subsidy must be increased—it’s currently only $300 per month, the same amount as when the program started in the 1980s (adjusted for inflation, that would now be $850 per month). Another recommendation: Make the subsidy available to youth up to age 25, like supportive housing, and let youth use it on a sublet room or shared apartment. Currently, youth must have their name on a lease to get the subsidy.

Improve Supports for College-Bound Youth

Finally, the report addresses the difficulties many young adults face in trying to plan for college while also finding housing. Too often, youth worried about paying for college don’t get good advice from foster care staff. They end up thinking that they have to choose either college or stable housing.

Since only about 20% of foster youth attend college, the report notes, most caseworkers lack experience in helping young people plan simultaneously for college and housing. The students suggest that foster care agencies connect all young people considering college with education liaisons who are trained on how housing and college fit together.

To make it easier for foster youth to pay for college, the report recommends that New York get rid of all tuition and fees for young people aging out of care. For youth who want to attend college out of state, the report suggests preserving those students’ priority status at NYCHA, so that they can still apply for public housing after they graduate and return to New York.

Lastly, they suggest some changes to make dorms a more viable option for foster youth: At CUNY schools, where on-campus housing is extremely limited, foster youth and others who urgently need housing should get top priority for dorms. For the statewide SUNY system, the report suggests a central place to get housing information, so youth can compare housing options more easily. (Right now, students must research housing options for each of the 60 schools on their individual school websites.)

The report also recommends that colleges keep dorms open during school breaks. For example, at San Francisco State, 10 furnished apartments (housing 40 young people) are reserved for former foster youth. They are available to students during holidays and summers at no cost, and also come with a free meal plan.

Overall, the report provides ideas to relatively easy policy adjustments that could have a big impact. As professor Jane Spinak, a co-founder of the clinic, says, “These are no-cost or minimal-cost solutions we hope the city will use.”

To read the full report, “Aged Out/Cast Out: Solutions to Housing Instability for Aging Out Foster Youth in New York” go to bit.ly/agedoutcast.

For more information on Columbia Law School’s Adolescent Representation Clinic, go to bit.ly/columbiaclinic.

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