How Can I Plan My Future When I Don't Know Where I Will Sleep Tonight?

Dominique Mikell, A.M., Stoneleigh Emerging Leader Fellow

Have you ever had to ask yourself: Where will I sleep tonight? For many young people in Philadelphia and across the country, struggling to find and maintain stable housing is an all-too-frequent reality. Earlier this week, the Stoneleigh Foundation, Juvenile Law Center, and Philly Homes 4 Youth co-hosted a screening of The Homestretch, a powerful documentary about three teenagers fighting to stay in school and build a future while also dealing with housing instability. In watching the film, I found myself particularly drawn to Anthony, a young man who experienced homelessness during his adolescent years after a turbulent childhood in foster care and an abusive adoptive home. Unfortunately, Anthony’s story reflects a broader national trend -- an estimated one-third of young people who age out of foster care without a permanent family connection experience homelessness within a year of their exit. 

Today, most young people in the U.S. rely on their families or other supportive adults to maintain stability during early adulthood. In fact, about 80% of parents of 18- to 21-year-olds provide their children with some level of financial support. Young people often stay with family while they finish school or save for their first apartment. This type of support can make the key difference between being stably housed and on track to successful adulthood or being homeless and facing serious challenges to future stability. While young people aging out of the foster care system deserve this support just as much as their peers, they historically have not received it. 
 
Young people need a foster care system that continues to honor its commitment to them into early adulthood, mirroring what parents provide for children outside of the system. One way systems can accomplish this goal is by extending services to young people beyond the age of 18. Unfortunately, fewer than half of states have enacted extended care legislation, despite research showing that its benefits outweigh its costs and that young people with access to extended care are less likely to experience homelessness. As such, we need to continue to advocate for all states to provide concrete supports, such as housing and life skills classes, through an extended care system.  
 
For states that have already extended care, like Pennsylvania via its 2012 Act 91 legislation, sufficient resources must be allocated to support the policy’s implementation. In many places, because extended care is still a relatively new concept, policymakers and practitioners are still grappling with how best to provide these services to young people in the foster care system. Indeed, in Pennsylvania, delayed implementation guidance, minimal training and lack of public awareness of Act 91 have left the promise of the law in jeopardy.
 
To inform these stakeholders, I am conducting research on the extended care practices of counties in Pennsylvania through a Stoneleigh Emerging Leader Fellowship at Juvenile Law Center. My work includes analyzing and identifying trends in foster care data and talking with providers about the implementation of extended care policies. In addition, my research includes an intentional focus on gathering feedback from young people – as incorporating their voices is critically important to holding systems accountable to the individuals they serve. This research will be used by counties to refine their practices as well as by advocates as they continue to push for policy changes that ensure young people receive high-quality services and supports. 
 
Too many young people in our society are forced to wonder where they will sleep at night. For young people with child welfare histories, the state must honor its commitment to them by extending services into early adulthood and ensuring those services can be delivered effectively. These essential actions will allow these young people to turn their attention away from questions like, “Where will I sleep tonight,” and toward questions about their future like, “How am I going to change the world?”