“Having housing and a place to call home gives one hope and stability, which is essential, especially when you grew up in a system that gave you neither.”
It’s midnight, you just turned 18 and the clock starts ticking. You don’t know whether to be excited for another year on this planet or stressed out by a ton of negative emotions, knowing that your lifeline is about to be severed.
For many, turning 18 means being a legal adult, having newfound freedom from the things that parents or guardians controlled and limited, and the average age at which high school students graduate and begin accepting college offers of admission. This month, over 80 percent of high school students in New York City who have been enrolled for four years (grades 9-12) will graduate.
Turning 18 initiates an exciting transition in a teenager’s life into adulthood. However, this transition for youth in foster care is generally not as smooth or exciting.
Every year, over 250,000 children are placed into the foster care system in the United States. And every year, more than 23,000 youth between the ages of 18-21 age out of that system and lose the support that comes with it. In the New York Metropolitan Area alone, thousands of youth age out every year and some are discharged into psychiatric institutions, correctional facilities, and other “unspecified” destinations.
I was one of these young people, and I did not expect to live past 18. I defied the odds, but what’s next? In anticipation of aging out, I remember working with my lawyer around the age of 16 (not my foster care agency), so that a judge could sign off on documents to get me placed on several housing waitlists with a zero priority level and a child exemption. This priority level is the highest level that my demographic can get, and is the same level that domestic violence victims and others in similar situations are eligible for.
What this means is that I am eligible to get bumped up on housing waitlists despite my age, with the hope that I would not have to wait as long for an apartment. By the time I was 18, two years later, I asked my lawyer if she could get an update on my housing waitlist status. But there was no hope in sight for me, a person who defied his odds and had just started community college in New York City.
After hopping around from one place to another and being homeless, I was fortunate enough to get accepted into a four-year college in Buffalo, New York, and live in a dorm, one of the first places of stability I had in a very long time. My own bed, a shared bathroom with my roommates, and the biggest (smallest) closet I ever had in my life. This dorm fulfilled the housing needs I would have never received otherwise.
In the spring of 2017, I was graduating with my bachelor’s degree, approximately six years after I initially got on those housing waitlists. I was surprised to be forwarded some obscure email during that semester from an old social worker at my foster care agency that said my name finally came up, and I might be able to get an apartment (thankfully, I kept my email address active all those years, otherwise this information might never have reached me.)
During my final semester, I was notified of my acceptance into a Ph.D. program. I was blessed and very lucky, had wonderful mentors, and I was working hard to break barriers every day. Despite my success up to this point, I was deeply angry at the fact that I had way too many aged-out foster friends who were incarcerated, killed, living in sustained homelessness, unemployed, and not thriving. Having housing and a place to call home gives one hope and stability which is essential, especially when you grew up in a system that gave you neither. My circumstances are atypical for people like me and it is not a matter of putting in the effort—I know many whom I looked up to, and those who tried harder than me, who didn’t make it.
New York City and state governments need to do more to ensure that youth aging out of care can more easily secure housing, since having a higher priority level does not often work, as my experience shows. This population rarely has familial or external support, and some might argue the system is set up to make them fail. If we want them to have the tools to be self-sufficient, we must do better.
The aging-out population tends to have very poor outcomes such as criminal justice involvement, substance abuse, increased unplanned pregnancy, poor educational/vocational attainment, and high sustained unemployment rates. Of the youth who age out of the system every year in the United States, 20 percent will end up homeless, 25 percent will be involved in the justice system within two years, and 50 percent will lose their own children to foster care, one study found.
When these youth succeed and thrive, it is often the result of them having the resources associated with a stable home and other sources of support. Illustrative of this, one study done with the Parsons Child and Family Center asked youth aging out of care what their top three concerns are, what they feel would prevent them from smoothly transitioning to life out of care. At the top of the list, with the highest level of concern, was housing, with education and money tied for second place. Not surprisingly, based on my lived experience, going to jail was also a concern.
The consensus is that the most pressing issue for this demographic is housing stability, including finding a place to live, being able to afford it, and turning an empty space into a furnished home. Having a place to call home has been significantly related to positive outcomes like the ability to sustain employment, education and an overall healthy lifestyle.
This is where Hearts to Homes comes in. Hearts to Homes (H2H) assists newly independent young adults who have just aged out of foster care in the New York City area. Many of these youth leave care with very few possessions and minimal to no family support. Once they are able to secure a place to live, Hearts to Homes creates a more comfortable living situation by furnishing their entire apartment. H2H partners with 20 foster care agencies to serve this demographic across New York City, Nassau, Suffolk, and Westchester counties. Along with furnishing the apartment, H2H is frequently able to obtain baby essentials for youth who are parenting or expecting.
By doing this, H2H is able to limit the negative outcomes faced by so many including homelessness, incarceration, and the multi-generational foster care cycle. To my knowledge, only one other organization, City Living NY, provides a similar service in this geographic area. Thankfully, I was personally assisted by Hearts to Homes, and I still have all of my furnishings to this day. Their assistance made a world of difference.
Because of my experiences I have always felt an obligation to give back in any capacity that is afforded to me, including my volunteer efforts with Hearts to Homes years after they supported me, where I have been able to engage in program and event development, and provide the perspective of someone who aged out of the system. I use the research skills I accumulated in graduate school to understand what makes H2H such an effective model and how to better serve the youth that come through the program.
Hearts to Homes tracks all of the youth who have been supported with the program and found that 93 percent are still in stable housing and are not homeless or incarcerated, and 92 percent of those parenting still have custody of their children. In the words of two youth who came through the program:
“With your help, I was able to have a big weight lifted off my shoulders. I was very worried about my transition from care to independent living, especially when it came to buying everything I would need. Luckily for me, you were able to help me. I know ‘stuff’ doesn’t make a place a home, but your help makes it much easier to make this place a home. I am grateful.”
“I’d like to say thank you. Hearts to Homes was like my karma coming around – for everything that was taken away from me, we’re going to give you everything right back. It’s a really satisfying feeling. Sometimes I put my baby to bed and I just go sit on the couch, and it is the most peaceful thing ever.”
We identified that over 50 percent of our youth are seeking mentorship on things like being an adult or a good parent, learning how to cook, successfully completing an education and advice on specific career paths. To that end, we have developed a mentorship referral mechanism, in which we partner with and refer our youth to other organizations based on their needs. For the long term, we are evaluating the best options for building a more comprehensive mentorship program that becomes an integral part of H2H.
The ability of Hearts to Homes to support these youth in housing stability is a huge step forward and should be a model of care that all youth aging out should have the ability to get. Compared to the costs of homelessness, incarceration, and multi-generational foster care that are well documented, the average cost for H2H to furnish a home is minimal.
We owe these kids— especially those aging out—the array of services, support, and love I have received over the years. I am better for it and tens of thousands of kids in the future will be happier, safer, and on the path to decent lives if the city and communities across the tri-state area can commit to supporting programs like this.
Jeremiah Perez-Torres is a foster youth advocate, doctoral student, and adjunct professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.