Trickle-down Sequester

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July 8, 2013

How Housing Cuts Create New Pathways to Poverty for Foster Kids

In March 2013, the Budget Control Act — the sequester — triggered a 5.1% cut to the federal budget. While that may sound like a small percentage in the grand scheme of things, domestic social support programs suffer disproportionately as cities and states make heartbreaking choices, slashing local services and programs to implement Congress’s cuts of $26.1 billion.

These cuts are a slippery slope toward homelessness for many. In New York City alone, a shortfall of $42 million for Section 8 vouchers is putting 3,400 households at risk, according to the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development.

Among the thousands who may lose their housing are vulnerable youth who have aged out of foster care. Attempting to navigate the transition from wards of the state into independent adulthood, many don’t have a family or social support network, don’t have high school diplomas or GEDs, and are coping with mental health conditions — depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder — and chronic health conditions such as asthma, diabetes, and sexually transmitted infections. By the time they age out of foster care, far too many don’t have basic living skills: cooking, cleaning, or budgeting.

In a sense, youth aging out of foster care embody the concept of tikkun olam. They are the points of light trapped within broken shards. It is our responsibility as a society to repair these harmed young people to help them recapture their potential and succeed in the world.

That’s why, back in November 2005, New York City and New York State agreed to create 200 units of supportive housing for young adults aging out of foster care as part of a larger commitment to developing supportive housing for a variety of disabled homeless people, where individuals can take advantage of case management, employment support, and educational opportunities to ready themselves to live as independent, productive adults. These housing programs have successfully kept young people off the streets and out of homeless shelters, and increased the likelihood that they attain additional education and employment. Still, the road to independence is a long one for youth aging out of foster care.

Young adults fortunate enough to live in supportive housing after aging out of foster care must move on to independent living once they turn 26. Despite the progress they achieve while in supportive housing, many who leave the programs often don’t earn enough to pay for basic needs, including rent. In many cases, the only thing that prevents them from becoming homeless is a Section 8 voucher, which enables them to secure a new safe place to live once they age out of supportive housing.

Thanks to the federal sequestration, those vouchers are gone. That means that even more young adults will be forced into unstable housing situations at a crucial turning point in their lives. They are 50% less likely than their peers to be employed within four years. Unable to cope with demands of finding housing and employment, and struggling with a variety of health and mental health needs stemming from their traumatic pasts, these vulnerable young people are likely to become homeless without Section 8 support.

If a young adult is lucky, their supportive housing organizations can find ways to help them stay. Even before sequestration cuts take effect, however, there’s already a severe shortage of units for youth leaving the foster care system every year. The system needs to find spaces for older youth to move on to so that new foster care graduates can have their chance to benefit from supportive housing programs.

National Alliance to End Homelessness

Yet because other housing programs funded through the Department of Housing and Urban Development require potential tenants to be homeless, they will have to either live on the streets or in shelters for a year in order to become eligible for housing. The effects of homelessness on young adults is devastating, affecting mental health, sexual practices, substance abuse, and involvement with the criminal justice system (as both perpetrators and victims of serious crimes), as well as employment and education.

Unfortunately, once a person enters the shelter system, the likelihood that he or she will use it again dramatically increases. In addition to creating negative personal outcomes, housing people in shelters costs three times as much per year than it does to house them in a supportive housing unit.

The 2013 New York City Youth Count of homeless people found that more than 700 residents of the New York City shelter system were 18 to 24. In the next two years, that figure will likely increase as young adults find fewer and fewer avenues to obtain affordable housing. As sequestration continues, even the units reserved for people coming from the shelter system could be cut, forcing youth to continue a cycle of homelessness that will harm their chances of entering stable adulthood.

The supposed reasoning behind sequestration is that this very wealthy nation cannot afford to support social services and other “wasteful” programs; that our profligate spending today is going to bury our grandchildren in some sort of debt of our sins. However, sequestration creates that very burden that it supposedly alleviates. Last week, Jared Bernstein of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities – former economic adviser to Vice President Joe Biden – critiqued a Washington Post article that concluded that the sequester hasn’t been as dire as all the predictions, saying that although some predictions haven’t materialized, other negative impacts have certainly surfaced. Rick Cohen responded last week in the Nonprofit Quarterly with “Why Aren’t Most People Complaining About the Sequester?”, noting that:

The sequester’s ill effects still show up in “…micro-impacts on the families that lose a Head Start slot or a meal for a shut-in elderly person.” National leadership organizations should be calculating the running cumulative totals of these micro-impacts so that voters, the press, and nonprofits themselves can see how much the sequester has deprived nonprofits of vital resources.

In addition, like a municipality cutting a budget deal to pay for unfunded pension liabilities, many agencies figured out how to jimmy funding allocations during the first year of sequestration, taking unused resources and applying them to soften sequestration’s body blows. Now, with year II of the sequester getting ready to start, those first-year gimmicks won’t be available in years II, III, and IV of the sequester. Expect more reports from Nonprofit Quarterly next week on the impacts of the first year of sequestration on nonprofits and predictions for what year II will bring.

Already, the human fallout from sequestration is real and varied. The tragedy of its impact on youth aging out of foster care is that it takes a particularly vulnerable, small group of people who have already faced enormous challenges, and adds unnecessary barriers to their chances of success in life. Whether or not society owes all youth the chance to develop into successful adulthood, we pay for it dearly when that chance is lost.

There is a long tradition in Judaism, dating back to Abraham, to open doors and provide shelter for the poor who have nowhere else to go. As Jews, we cannot turn our backs on youth aging out of foster care.

Suzanne Reisman has worked in community development in New York City for 15 years. Her writing has appeared in New York Nonprofit Press, Metro New York, City Limits Magazine, Young Children, Just Cause, and New York Family. Her first book, “Off the (Beaten) Subway Track”, is a travelogue about/guide to unusual places and things to do in NYC.

Three things you can do right now.

  1. Nationally: Take a moment to join the National Alliance to End Homelessness letter campaign around McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Grants.

  2. Find out how you can help New York youth via the Jewish Board of Family & Children’s Services, which operates supportive housing units for youth aging out of foster care.

  3. Check out the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty’s housing programs.

Editor’s Note: Readers, advocates, social workers, activists – this isn’t meant to be an exhaustive list! We’d love your suggestions for how readers can help. Write ‘em in, in the comments section.

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