It seems like the cruelest of ironies. At 18, an age when most suburban teenagers are still begging to borrow the car, gnashing their teeth over college applications, and trying to avoid taking out the trash, foster children abruptly find themselves on their own.
"After you turn 18, you're no longer eligible for the foster care system [including housing with your foster family, even if you're still in high school], so these young people will literally be put out on the street," says Barbara Ibarra, executive director of the Independent Living Initiative, an affiliate of South Florida nonprofit Our Kids. (Our Kids handles child welfare case management in Miami-Dade and Monroe counties.) "Some go back to their biological parents. Others stay with friends–they call it 'couch surfing.' Some end up in a homeless shelter. They are very vulnerable."
After all, the housing options for these newly emancipated 18-year-olds are few. Those that remain in school full-time can receive a stipend from the state, but $892 a month doesn't go very far in South Florida when you can't live at home rent-free with Mom and Dad. "Many of our youth are paying $800 a month for an apartment," Ibarra says.
But not all of them. Earlier this year, Carlisle Development Group, an affordable housing developer and manager in Coconut Grove, Fla., partnered with Our Kids on this very problem, opening 20 affordable apartments to a handful of carefully screened former foster youths between 18 and 23 years old.
"These kids are ideal candidates for affordable housing. Society gets more bang for their buck with them than any other tenant," says Carlisle COO Matt Greer, who worked with Our Kids and the Florida Housing Finance Corp. to overcome bureaucratic obstacles and make the program a reality. As a real estate executive, he had no illusions about the hurdles these young adults faced in their search for a decent place to live. "Even if they can find an apartment that will accept them with no references, no big deposit, and no job," Greer says, there's no guarantee that these financially fragile residents will be able to handle the rent and utility payments each month, much less buying furniture for the place.
And these kids know it. "To tell you the truth, without this program, I'd be homeless right now," says Brittney Tinker, 18, who moved into the Santa Clara II Apartments in Miami several months ago. She and the other youths pay $550 a month for their one-bedroom units at the brand-new $30 million property, which is next to a rail station.
For Tinker, her new apartment has been a dream. After three years in the foster care system, she no longer has to live with strangers or worry about having her things stolen. "You pay rent, it's your apartment, and you're independent," says Tinker, who is in her first year of community college and plans to become a nurse. "You're not dependent on anyone–you're dependent on yourself.
Make the Connection
South Florida isn't the only place struggling with the challenge of foster children and housing. Across the country, more than 20,000 teenagers "age out" of child welfare systems each year, according to the Child Welfare League of America, which provides more information on this issue at: http://cwla.org/programs/fostercare/agingoutresources.htm.