On Thursday, November 5, 2020, the National Center for Housing & Child Welfare (NCHCW) hosted a webinar titled At Home with FYI: A Conversation with Child Welfare Partners that discussed HUD’s Foster Youth Independence (FYI) Initiative and its implementation. Since FYI was established in July 2019, nearly 1,000 youth have accessed safe, decent, affordable housing in 91 communities in 31 states.

Presenters of this webinar included a team from Jefferson County, Colorado, FYI Ambassador April McMullen, Chafee Coordinator Allison Retker Pearce, and Kristen Gines of the Jefferson County Housing Authority; HHS Assistant Secretary Lynn Johnson; Tracy Wareing Evans from APHSA, Bruce Lesley from First Focus Shaquita Ogletree from CWLA, Tony Parsons from Youth Villages, and moderated by Jamole Callahan and Ruth White from NCHCW and Jennifer Pokempner from the Juvenile Law Center.

The webinar started with remarks from Assistant Secretary Johnson as she discussed how the FYI program fits into HHS’s ALL-IN Foster Adoption Challenge. ALL-IN Foster Adoption Challenge, which “aims to keep children safe and thriving in their own homes, preserve families, and prevent the need for removal in the first place.” The initiative also aims to find homes for every child that is waiting to be adopted from the foster care system. Assistant Secretary Johnson concluded with reminding attendees that it takes all of us working together to ensure children, adolescents, and youth are able to find a stable home, whether that is through adoption or independent living.

Housing stability affects children and families involved with the child welfare system and is one of the most significant barriers to returning children to their homes from foster care. In 1987, then CWLA’s President & CEO David Liederman testified at a Congressional hearing on legislation to amend the Fair Housing Act. He discussed how families were impacted by their inability to find affordable, safe housing due to discrimination and availability. Two years later, before the House Subcommittee on Housing and Community Development, he told Congress that “housing is probably the most critical issue in the country facing children today.” He went on to say that children are unnecessarily removed because of the lack of affordable housing and that we needed to create subsidy programs that allow people to have access to affordable housing like we did in the 1950s, 1960s, and the early part of the 1970s.

In 1990, Congress partially responded to this by creating the Family Unification Program (FUP) as part of the Affordable Housing Act of 1990. A year later, House Subcommittee Appropriations Chair Robert Traxler (D-MI) successfully inserted $35 million to fund the new FUP fully. It was the result of a joint advocacy effort of CWLA and the National Organization of State Associations for Children (NOSAC).

Thirty years later, we are still facing a housing crisis both before and now after the pandemic and recession. While support programs, including FUP, are important tools, the nation needs a much more comprehensive housing strategy as part of a child neglect prevention strategy. The Fostering Stable Housing Opportunities (FSHO) Coalition, led by ACTION Ohio, includes more than 55,000 foster care alumni and allies. FSHO worked with the National Center for Housing & Child Welfare to synchronize HUD’s Family Unification Program with Chafee Independent Living Service to eliminate the gaps through which foster youth fall into homelessness.

A reoccurring topic discussed in this presentation was the importance of partnerships for programs supporting independent living for youth who have aged out of the system. Lesley stated, “Housing is a symptom of a bigger problem.” This is showing just how important those partnerships are and how much of an impact they make. Along with the partnerships for independent living, child welfare agencies can leverage Chafee dollars to support case management, job training, transportation assistance, and emergency cash assistance until a young person reaches the age of majority in that state. For youth transitioning, funding can be used for first months rent, security deposit, and many other things.

In Jefferson County, Colorado, CASA’s serve as mentors for young people in the FYI program and they meet monthly. Gines shared that the program is super easy to manage and run for Public Housing Authorities however the challenge is in getting connected and forming relationships with the Child Welfare Agency. April shared that she experienced disruptions in foster care and she did not know where she was going to before Pierce, the Chafee Independent Living Coordinator, informed her about the FYI program. She stated that the paperwork was hard but one she received her voucher her CASA helped her navigate the process. Jefferson County requires FYI participants to sign a property agreement; allowing landlords and the agency to communicate with one another. April shared that this is a non-issue with young people because of the program’s benefits. Gines emphasized that if PHA’s are already administering vouchers then the FYI program is simple and to message the direct impact the program has on youth to any PHAs or Administrations that are hesitant.