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Understanding Housing Challenges and Supports for Former Foster Youth

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Understanding Housing Challenges and Supports for Former Foster Youth

Front Cover of Housing for Youth Aging Out of Foster Care
The transition to adulthood for youth who age out of foster care is often abrupt and accompanied by few of the financial or emotional supports that other youth enjoy. Each year, over 25,000 youth in foster care who have reached their 18th or 21st birthday need to secure housing and achieve self-sufficiency seemingly overnight — a difficult task that leaves many of these young people precariously housed or homeless. Although research attests to the importance of stable housing, less evidence exists for effective solutions to prevent homelessness and improve outcomes among youth aging out of foster care. HUD recently published the results of a research study, “Housing for Youth Aging Out of Foster Care,” that reviewed the housing challenges and programs available to this population.

As a part of this study, the research team conducted an exhaustive literature review on housing needs and outcomes for youth who have aged out of foster care, including the development of an inventory of housing programs that serve this population; completed an in-depth review of the way communities utilize, or don’t utilize, the Family Unification Program to serve youth aging out of foster care, and developed a research brief on the importance of evaluating housing programs for youth aging out of foster care, the barriers to evaluating them, and how the field can move forward to build the evidence base in this area.

The Elusive Search for Stable Housing

Youth who have aged out of foster care commonly experience housing instability during their transition to adulthood. Although no national data currently exists, local and regional studies estimate that 11 to 37 percent of youth who have aged out of foster care experience homeless and that an additional 25 to 50 percent of these youth are unstably housed — couch surfing, doubling up, or facing eviction. These precarious housing situations can arise from a number of factors. Because former foster care youth graduate from high school and college at lower rates than do members of the general population, they face limited employment opportunities. Former foster care youth may also fail to develop important social networks and may lack the support of adults who could assist them in the job search. Finally, teen pregnancy, which is more prevalent among youth exiting foster care than among other adolescents, creates additional financial burdens for young mothers looking for housing and limits the time available to search for employment or pursue education.

Through a review of program websites, academic papers, and attendance at conferences, researchers documented 58 different state and local housing programs that provide housing assistance to former foster care youth. Most programs serve youth 18 to 21 years old, require participants to be employed or enrolled in school, and include supportive services. From this survey of current programs, the researchers identified three types of housing support programs:

  • Single-site programs with services delivered onsite. These programs offer intensive supervision, with staff located onsite and available 24 hours a day. These programs typically serve youth who have more intensive service needs.
  • Scattered-site programs with less supervision. Participants secure housing in the private market and meet periodically with a case manager from a central agency. Because these programs provide limited supervision, these programs may be appropriate for youth who are ready to live independently.
  • Mixed housing and support levels. Some programs combine single-site and scattered-site housing models, allowing youth to move from one housing type to the other as their needs change.

Family Unification Program

The cornerstone of this research effort was an in-depth review of the ways in which communities utilize the Family Unification Program (FUP) to serve youth aging out of foster care. FUP is a collaboration between a local public housing agency (PHA) which administers the housing choice voucher, and a public child welfare agencies (PCWA), which refers participants and provides an array of services for FUP households. As of 2013, roughly 20,400 FUP vouchers are in circulation across 242 PHAs.

To better understand how communities make decisions regarding whether and how to serve youth or families with their allocation of FUP vouchers, the research team administered a web-based survey to all of the PHAs currently administering FUP, as well as the PCWAs that partner with PHAs who reported serving any youth with FUP vouchers. The survey results, which included 195 PHAs and 70 child welfare agencies, indicate that FUP vouchers are not widely allocated to youth. Less than half of the surveyed PHAs reported administering any FUP vouchers to youth, and overall, only about 14 percent of all FUP vouchers are currently being utilized by youth. The low number of youth referrals may be the result of numerous unintended obstacles and disincentives to serving youth. For example, child welfare agencies are required to provide services for foster care youth but do not receive funding through FUP for those services, creating a possible disincentive to refer youth to PHAs. Child welfare agencies may also prioritize families over youth because a voucher given to a family often provides housing for several children, whereas the youth voucher typically helps only one. Finally, a FUP voucher administered to a youth has an 18-month time limit for housing assistance, whereas a FUP voucher administered to a family is not time-limited. The resulting turnover when a voucher is administered to a youth means that in communities where a set number of vouchers have not been “set-asides” for eligible youth, families and youth compete for vouchers whenever one becomes available, resulting in a shrinking supply for youth over time.

However, the study results indicate that FUP may be a helpful tool for those youth who do get served. Two-thirds of PHAs reported that at least 75 percent of youth are able to secure independent housing. Child welfare agencies report providing a range of supportive services to youth, and 81 percent of the PCWAs report providing monthly contact once the youth has leased housing. Also, some PHAs indicated that the program is a valuable resource for youth because it offers flexibility in housing choice and the ability to gain experience in living independently.

Through site visits, the researchers found that effective implementation of FUP requires trust in both communication and joint decision-making. All of the sites visited channeled communication through a single point of contact, which helped maintain clear and constant communication even in the face of staff turnover. Successful partnerships also encouraged communication between PHA and child welfare agency staff to voice concerns and improve operations. The demand for vouchers typically exceeds supply, requiring agencies to collaborate to determine how to balance the needs of families and youth and how to prioritize which youth receive vouchers. The researchers identified four divergent rationales that communities shared for allocating youth vouchers: to support youth focused on education or employment, to assist pregnant or parenting youth, to help those youth most likely to participate in supportive services, and to provide equal access for all eligible youth.

Recommendations and Future Research

The researchers suggest that set-asides for FUP youth vouchers would be needed to ensure a continuous supply of vouchers for youth, and that the 18-month time limit on FUP vouchers for youth should be extended to better align with standard lease terms, which typically are structured in 12-month increments. To ensure the provision of effective housing and services interventions youth aging out of foster care, further research is needed to evaluate the quality of these services and the outcomes and effectiveness of these programs. None of the state and local programs inventoried had been evaluated using experimental or quasi-experimental design standards; the researchers call for use of these methods as well as for longitudinal studies that measure long-term program effects.


The contents of this article are the views of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development or the U.S. Government.