A new federal program targeting young people who age out of the foster care system could provide housing vouchers to as many as 25 youths in Greater Portland.

U.S. Housing and Urban Development regional administrator David Tille will be in Portland on Friday to give more details about the initiative that was announced last week by HUD Secretary Ben Carson. Rhonda Siciliano, a spokeswoman for HUD, said Wednesday that the Foster Youth to Independence Initiative is meant to target a population that has a high risk of homelessness.

“This will allow local housing authorities to work with local child welfare service organizations to identify children who are aging out of the foster care system but might not have an immediate place to go,” she said.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimates that as many as 20,000 young people age out of the foster care system every year. Among that group, 28 percent experience homelessness by age 21, according to the National Youth in Transition Database, and in some states, it’s above 40 percent.

The Portland Housing Authority will administer the vouchers and will work closely with the Preble Street Resource Center to identify young people who might be eligible.

Mark Adelson, executive director of the housing authority, said his staff already administers other housing voucher programs, including Section 8 and a veteran-specific program, many of which involve providing housing for people who are homeless.

“To have an opportunity to prevent homelessness, particularly for youth, we feel like this could be a really effective program,” he said.

Increased awareness about child abuse and neglect – spurred by two high-profile child deaths – has led to an increase both the number of children in state custody and the number in foster care. The prolonged opioid crisis also has contributed to the removal of children from homes because of substance use disorder by one or both parents or because of a fatal overdose.

Maine Department of Health and Human Services spokeswoman Jackie Farwell said there are 2,155 children in foster care in Maine. Of that total, 131 were between the ages of 17 and 20.

A national report from this year by the Annie E. Casey Foundation found that, between 2007 and 2017, 95 percent of children ages 12 and younger in the foster care system are placed with foster families. However, among children 13 and older, the number drops to 58 percent, and 34 percent are housed in group homes or institutional settings.

Children who age out of those environments can have a more difficult time finding stable alternatives.

Leah McDonald, teen services director at Preble Street, said she sees many youths who have aged out of foster care in the shelter.

“We see firsthand that the trauma of homelessness intensifies the challenges of connecting to stable housing,” she said. “For young people experiencing homelessness, there are so many risks. Homeless teens are more likely to attempt suicide; 70 percent of homeless youth report experiencing some kind of violence including sexual assault; and the likelihood of being coerced into sex or labor trafficking increases.”
She said the new HUD initiative is a good step in bridging the gap for this vulnerable population.

Although it is a national program, HUD is working with specific local housing authorities, including Portland. The program is likely to be different from other vouchers in that the housing authority will work with service agencies, including Preble Street, to identify young people, rather than having a more traditional application process.

Siciliano, the HUD spokeswoman, said she could not provide details until Friday about how the new program is paid for and how long recipients might be able to receive the voucher, although the eligible age range is 18-24.

Adelson said he, too, is looking forward to learning more about the program on Friday.

“The important part is providing (recipients) with support services so they can stabilize their lives and look ahead to the future,” he said.

One of the challenges, though, will be finding housing – a problem that continues to plague Greater Portland and has been highlighted recently by the influx of asylum seekers who have come to Maine.

“We have had a lot of success with our other voucher programs and we have amazing landlords who step forward,” Adelson said.


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