July 24 marked the beginning of the National Housing Week of Action. In recognition, Michigan’s Children is launching Safe and Stable, a guest blog series to shine a light on the systems and policies that keep foster-affiliated young adults from achieving safe and stable shelter. We will hear from fellow practitioners and from youth themselves to highlight how national, state, and local leaders can close the gap in housing need.
Our first guest blogger is J. Thomas Munley, who has worked as a Court Appointed Special Advocate for foster youth and is the Coordinator and Life Skills Coach for Fostering STARS at Lansing Community College. Munley has worked with many students in Fostering STARS with unstable living situations.
***Our blog has been featured on the Voices for Human Needs blog of the Coalition on Human Needs!***
Safe and Stable: Two words that guide how we find housing for youth leaving foster care, two words that can mean the difference between an unsettled life and one that may produce a happy, fulfilling and productive life.
When I was 16 years old, my family lost our house in the recession, and with it our pride and feeling of security. I remember driving around with my mom looking for homes to rent for a family with five kids and feeling petrified that we would never find anything that was livable for that many kids. We actually found a large old house that had just been renovated and we felt so blessed to be able to rent it. My parents would later buy the house and it would be the last home my parents created before they passed away. That experience has always made me sensitive to young people who find themselves facing one of the most basic life questions and yet one of the most important; will I always have a safe and stable home to live in?
After working in various capacities with youth who have experienced foster care over the years, I am acutely aware of the elusive nature of “safe and stable” housing. Many of our youth from care often find themselves in situations beyond their control: how long will I be in placement? Will I get along with the foster family? Will I have to move again soon? Can I stay in the same school? Will I lose my friends? The very thing that our foster care system says is most important for our youth, “safe and stable” housing, can often be one of the most difficult things to come by.
The barriers to safe and stable housing faced by youth who leave care are far and wide. Housing rules change from community to community, and well-intentioned federal housing eligibility preferences can mean the end of the road for a young person who has experienced care. Strings attached to different funding sources can provide no leeway to youth who have experienced foster care. In less dense areas, youth who have experienced care are unable to get a driver’s license and, by extension, any reliable transportation. These obstacles have disastrous results – nearly 40% of youth experience homelessness within a few years of leaving foster care. All this coming at a time when student homelessness more broadly has risen 100% since 2007, reaching at least 40,861 Michigan youth who were identified by their public schools.
Homelessness is not an issue for one family, one city, or one state but for all of us. The untold cost of this epidemic on lives lost, potential squandered, education delayed, and physical and mental health tolls makes this an issue we should all care about. These are our children and youth, whom we said we would take care of when we took them from their families and placed them with strangers at no fault of the child. These are children who deserve every chance and opportunity to succeed to the best of their ability and who deserve the privilege of a stable home.
It was once said that the measuring stick of our society is how well we care for the most vulnerable among us. How are we doing?
J. Thomas Munley is a Licensed Professional Counselor (L.P.C.) working on his certification in Childhood Trauma. Fostering STARS is a program that works with youth who have experienced foster care to navigate and succeed in their Higher Education pursuits.