Why it’s so hard for former foster youth to find stable housing

Illustration by Athiyah Azeem.

Makia never thought moving in with her mother was going to work.

Makia, who’s using a pseudonym to protect her safety, entered foster care when she was 2 years old. She lived in at least a dozen places over 20 years, and ran away from many of them, trying to escape physical abuse and avoid institutionalization. But even as she moved from temporary home to temporary home, D.C.’s Child and Family Services Agency (CFSA), which is said to pressure some foster youth to reunite with their families, never pushed her to. 

It was not until she turned 21 and was preparing to leave foster care that CFSA staff recommended she go live with her biological mother. 

“I did not want to live with her, so that was super depressing,” Makia said. A fiercely independent person, she wanted to get a job and move into her own apartment.

For lack of a better option, Makia gave in to CFSA’s recommendation to move in with her mother. The plan lasted for about six months before her mother kicked her out of the house without time to pack, Makia said. Days later, she found out she was pregnant with her son; she went on to spend most of her pregnancy at a transitional housing program. Like Ronnie Harris, featured in the first story in this series, Makia said CFSA staff never told her she was eligible to receive a housing voucher through a program that subsidizes rent for people leaving foster care without a housing plan. 

For years, D.C. has allowed dozens of federally funded housing vouchers intended to help people leaving foster care go unused, including in the year Makia left foster care. At D.C. Council hearings over the last year, CFSA officials have argued that few youth need these vouchers — valid for up to five years — because the other housing options the agency provides are working. 

People formerly in foster care and advocates, however, say the housing options offered by the agency frequently fall short. Reunification with biological family members or stays with foster families can be short-lived and sometimes end in housing instability. The agency’s temporary housing programs that youth can enter at 21, meanwhile, do not necessarily help youth transition into a permanent option. While only a small number of young people anticipate being homeless directly after they age out of foster care, experts believe Makia’s situation is far more common — both locally, where 12% of people experiencing homelessness have been involved with the child welfare system, and nationally, where between a quarter to a half of former foster youth experience homelessness within four years.

“There’s more people who suffer from homelessness or even housing instability than people who I see was able to get an apartment or have some type of stable housing,” Makia said. 

CFSA did not respond to multiple requests for comment about programs for older youth and the success of housing options for young people who age out of foster care. 

Growing up without support 

Makia’s first memory of being in a foster home is from when she was 6. She remembers the mother comparing her to another little girl who had lived there before. She moved.

There were decent homes where Makia would have liked to stay, but the foster parents never wanted to adopt her. At one house, Makia remembers being shut in her room while her foster mother staged a party for her “real” daughter. Then there was an orphanage, and another foster home, where a foster sister jumped her. She moved. 

Makia doesn’t remember a lot about school during this time. Her life was more consumed with finding a safe place to live. After spending time at a residential program for young people with behavioral or mental health issues, she stayed at two more foster homes, where she said her foster parents abused her. She moved again. She was 14 years old. 

When they turn 15, CFSA encourages young people in foster care to start thinking about their future in preparation for aging out of the system. While CFSA generally aims for the youth under its care to be adopted, between 40 and 100 young people in D.C. turn 21 each year without ever having found a permanent home. 

CFSA offers services to help young people prepare for independent living, including career exposure and counseling, help finding internships or vocational programs, and support to apply for and enroll in college. The agency also hosts a weekly LifeSet program and sponsors a match savings account youth can access when they age out. 

For young people who are able to take full advantage of the programs CFSA offers, the results can be stunning, several people who were formerly in foster care testified at a hearing this February. But it can be hard for young people without a stable home life to prioritize these programs, according to advocates who work with foster youth.

“We’re all young, we’re all trying to figure out our lives, and we’re not really thinking about long-term stuff like this,” Harris said. 

Makia said she doesn’t remember the agency helping her prepare to age out. She finally met the foster parents she calls her godparents around 15, and had a decent relationship with them. But she went back into residential care at least one more time, and said she spent most of her energy fighting off subsequent attempts on the part of CFSA to move her once again. 

There are many housing options … 

Foster youth have many reasons to feel the world is against them. There’s the trauma of initially being removed from their family and then, for many, a succession of placements, some more successful than others. Youth often don’t have time to put down roots with teachers or friends, or at home, where they may feel more like a paycheck than part of the household. 

In the best-case scenario, young people may age out of foster care with around $12,000 in savings, potentially enough to rent a studio in D.C. for about eight months. In the worst case, youth may end up owing taxes on income they didn’t know about and never received. A common practice nationwide, CFSA can file for Social Security for young people who are eligible through disability or because their parents died, and use that money to pay for their time in foster care. In other words, CFSA may have claimed Social Security benefits on behalf of the youth without their knowledge. A 2022 law banned that practice but is not funded in the mayor’s proposed budget.  

Makia lined up a job a few months before her 21st birthday that would have provided her with housing. But after a month or so, she was abruptly fired. At “square zero” two months before her 21st birthday, Makia’s depression took hold. 

Chart by Athiyah Azeem.

Over the last eight years, close to 500 people have aged out of foster care in D.C. Most of them either reunited with their biological families, moved into their own homes, or made arrangements with their former foster parents. But at least 50 anticipated having to live in an unstable housing situation such as a shelter. And CFSA does not track where foster youth end up after they leave care, meaning the agency doesn’t know how many of those plans were successful. 

“Almost all foster youth who are aging out have issues with housing,” said Sharra Greer, policy director at the Children’s Law Center. “We have clients who go directly from their last placement in CFSA to Virginia Williams homeless shelter.”

… but they don’t always work

When planning for her housing arrangements after she aged out, Ashley Strange initially expected to stay with her foster mom — until CFSA disrupted that plan.

“I got a call asking if I could go to a shelter because they needed my room,” Strange said. The woman offered to give up fostering entirely so Strange could stay, but she declined, wanting other young people to benefit from her foster mother’s support. Instead, Strange opted to go to Wayne Place, a transitional apartment complex for youth aging out of care and leaving psychiatric residential centers or other D.C. Department of Behavioral Health programs. Strange said she and other youth moving into the apartments were under the impression that once their 18-month stay was over, they would get a housing voucher. 

“That’s the notion — that’s what they tell you in your interview, that’s what they were telling the kids in their interviews,” she said. About a year into living there, Strange and her neighbors learned there were no guaranteed vouchers after all. 

“Most people who left Wayne Place, they did end up homeless,” Strange said. 

Though Strange’s experience was several years ago, young people and advocates said there is still confusion about how CFSA uses transitional housing. Youth are told there might be a voucher for them at the end of the process, only to learn that’s not the case. And, in the eight years it has been open, Wayne Place has acquired a reputation for being unreliable and unsafe, to the point that many youth do not even see it as a real option. Others leave before their time is up, even without finding stable housing. The program is located in Ward 8, far from where some of the residents work. Staff frequently turn over and don’t always help young people make housing plans, said Susan Punnett, executive director of the D.C. Family and Youth Initiative. 

Depending on their circumstances, some young people are eligible for a second form of transitional housing, called Rapid Housing (not to be confused with the citywide beleaguered Rapid Rehousing program operated by the Department of Human Services). This CFSA program lasts for up to two years and provides a rental subsidy for youth who are employed or in school. In fiscal year 2022, 42 young people applied for Rapid Housing, but only 14 received it, according to oversight responses. These numbers include both youth aging out and emancipating. 

Greer says the program may work for some youth who already have an income (Makia recalls not being eligible), but less than half of young people were employed when they aged out in 2022. 

CFSA did not provide data on where youth who used Wayne Place or Rapid Housing lived after the programs ended. 

What happens when everything falls apart

Makia remembers that it started with the cat litter. 

She was just running home to change — she’d been at a job fair, and was getting ready to go out. She’d been living at her biological mother’s house for about six months, paying for cable and Wi-Fi, and trying to stay out of her way. She was looking for a well-paid job so she’d be able to move out soon. Makia could feel the precarious living situation start to come apart. 

When she got home, her cat had kicked its litter out of the box. As Makia started to clean it, she and her mother began arguing. The situation quickly escalated. Makia’s mother demanded she leave and began throwing her belongings outside the apartment. 

In oversight hearings, CFSA officials contend that youth aging out of care choose to reunite with their biological families over any other option. This arrangement is one of the reasons the agency has said there is no need for additional housing vouchers. But Makia and people who have worked with youth aging out say that the placement is frequently not an actual choice: It’s either reunify with your family or face homelessness. 

“I ended up moving in with my biological mom because I had nowhere to go,” Makia said.

CFSA’s tendency to suggest former foster youth move in with their biological families fits with the agency’s overall focus on reunification. But in situations like Makia’s, the youth who are moving in have been in the foster care system for years, with parents who either did not want to reunify with them or who CFSA determined weren’t able to. 

“They’re trying to push this reunification, but they’re trying to push it into families that are not stable,” said Strange, who has worked professionally with former foster youth. In her experience, the youth generally had to leave a placement with their biological family within six months, often going into homeless shelters. 

In some cases, Greer said, biological or foster families and friends may be willing to help someone out for a few months but don’t see themselves as a permanent housing solution. And many people interviewed for this article said the process of determining where young people will live can feel paternalistic, with the agency promising to make a plan and then not taking into account the wishes of the young people. That includes not offering housing vouchers, as was covered in the first part of this series

To help those leaving foster care move into stable housing, young people and their advocates offered a litany of suggestions: Use all the vouchers available, improve transitional programs, work with youth to have more say in their housing plans, start making housing plans earlier, make educational and financial programs mandatory, and create connections youth can count on after aging out. But all of them stressed the need for D.C. to find a way to support former foster youth, particularly given that they generally have access to fewer resources at 21 than their peers.

After shifting between different temporary housing programs, Makia finally moved into her own apartment a month before giving birth to her son. Despite having spent a year searching for a place to live, she considers herself lucky. She knows many other young people who are still homeless. 

This article was co-published with The DC Line. 

Annemarie Cuccia covers D.C. government and public affairs through a partnership between Street Sense Media and The DC Line. This joint position was made possible by The Nash Foundation and individual contributors.

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