Shut down DCF’s homeless pipeline
Too many youth age out of system without a place to go
NICOLE, A YOUTH at More Than Words, turned 18 this month and was terrified. The milestone would be dampened for anyone during this pandemic, but Nicole was losing her housing and safety net. She had to leave her foster home and her legal guardian, the Department of Children and Families (DCF), informed her they would be closing her case. Finding another placement for an 18-year-old would be difficult for a child welfare system striving amid a global crisis to ensure the safety of much younger children. But Nicole is also a child.
How many 18-year-olds are able to live independently, especially in a state as expensive as Massachusetts? Even young adults coming from stable homes are not developmentally ready to be self-sufficient and navigate the complexity of life on their own. Why would we expect our most traumatized and least resourced youth to figure this out?
Through careers working with young people as the CEOs of More Than Words and Bridge Over Troubled Waters, we have seen scores of youth made homeless when DCF closes their case without a plan. This has continued in the midst of a global crisis as DCF and other state agencies are turning away older youth who need their help. Now, as our state mandates a moratorium on evictions during this pandemic, we have to ask: where is this same level of concern and commitment to our most vulnerable young people? Something in the moral fabric of our society told us that creating homelessness amidst COVID was unconscionable. What about youth whose guardian, responsible for their care and protection, is the Commonwealth? For them, this is the same as an eviction to homelessness.
Even before COVID, the Commonwealth was embarrassingly complicit in creating young adult homelessness. Half of our homeless youth population is a direct result of the child welfare cliff, as youth age out of the system without support. There is a dearth of placement options for older youth, and young people’s years of trauma or neglect often result in complex behavioral issues that make it hard to succeed in group settings and foster homes. As a result, only about 30 percent of youth turning 18 continue to receive services from DCF and even fewer receive actual support with housing.
The Commonwealth needs to issue a moratorium on case closures for older youth. Massachusetts should join other states like Rhode Island and California who have already made this commitment. We must remain accountable for their care and protection through this crisis and track this with real-time, public data about the number of young people losing placements.
We must create immediate emergency housing options for young adults. Options can be created when partners come together to solve the problem. Bridge Over Troubled Waters is working with the city of Boston to convert an empty dorm into emergency housing for homeless youth, with More Than Words leaning in to provide additional programming. Not only is this the right thing to do, it is also in the interest of public health.
Beyond COVID, we need to ensure there are a greater number and types of housing options for young people aging out of state care. We cannot revert to handing youth lists of shelters. We have achieved initial success with a small pilot between More Than Words and Bridge Over Troubled Waters, housing young people in single-room occupancy units with Caritas Communities. Expanding this kind of next-step housing is a way forward for state agencies to support older youth at a significant discount from the price of group homes, shelters, and prisons.
Our youth deserve and need more from us. In the best of circumstances our most vulnerable youth are often made invisible. In the midst of this crisis we need to shine a light and be accountable. If we can disrupt a broken system and innovate in the midst of a pandemic, what a testament that would be to our ability to get this right for our youth.Jodi Rosenbaum is the CEO of More Than Words (www.mtwyouth.org), a nonprofit social enterprise that empowers system-involved youth to take charge of their lives by taking charge of a business. Elisabeth Jackson is the CEO of Bridge Over Troubled Waters (www.bridgeotw.org), the primary provider of housing and services for homeless youth in Boston.
*The name of the young person has been changed to Nicole out of respect for confidentiality.