Hundreds of former Kentucky foster youth face homelessness, barriers to resources
A report from a local child advocacy group shows one out of three kids that leave foster care in Kentucky will experience homelessness or housing insecurity as an adult.
This year in Kentucky, about 500 young people who age out of foster care will be without a stable home.
A new report from the nonprofit Kentucky Youth Advocates found that when a kid ages out of foster care they often lack financial stability and social supports to deal with the many barriers that can prevent them from finding and keeping a reliable home.
The group surveyed more than 100 former foster youth in Louisville. Almost all of them reported they struggled to afford basic needs such as rent, groceries or clothing. They also said they didn’t know about all the resources available to them and didn’t feel like they were supported in their transition.
In fact, nearly half of the respondents never even met with a social worker to develop a plan to transition out of foster care, which is a federal requirement.
On Tuesday, about 50 people gathered at the Mellwood Art Center in Louisville for a housing summit hosted by Kentucky Youth Advocates. There, former foster youth spoke about their experiences with homelessness and the barriers that they faced in finding permanent and stable housing.
One of the biggest issues, they said, was dealing with past trauma and mental health. Tatum Heath, a 22-year-old foster youth alumni, said overcoming their mental health challenges while homeless with their 3-year-old daughter seemed insurmountable.
“We come with a black garbage bag full of trauma and it's hard to keep yourself motivated when thing after thing after thing keeps happening,” Heath said. “It can make you think and do things that you never would have thought of otherwise. But because you’re in that bad situation where you feel hopeless, you give into that horror in your mind.”
While youth often experience trauma before entering state care — like neglect, substance use and domestic violence — the foster care system itself can be traumatic, the report said.
“The things I experienced in foster care, I don’t think I will ever fully be able to heal from,” said one anonymous survey respondent. “It was one of the scariest and most dangerous times of my life.”
Foster care can also be unstable. In Kentucky, 37% of foster youth aged 14 to 21 were moved to four or more different foster homes while in state custody, the report said.
Being moved around from home to home is tied to an increased risk of homelessness for youth, according to the report.
A spokesperson for the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services, the agency that oversees the state’s foster care system, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
When young people get out of foster care, they often leave the system with little to no life skills, Heath said — making it even more difficult to maintain stable housing.
“We’ve been helped, but we haven’t been taught how to help ourselves,” they said. “We’re taught how to survive, but we’re not taught how to thrive.”
Barriers to resources
Nearly 55,000 Kentucky kids cycled through the state’s foster care system between 2019 and 2021, according to data from Annie E. Casey Foundation, a nonprofit in Baltimore that focuses on child welfare.
Social supports and community resources are available for kids that age out of state care, including extended foster care participation, rental assistance and supportive housing projects. But accessing most of these resources is difficult, advocates said.
"The uniqueness of each young person's experience must be considered because, despite the availability of programs specifically designed to support young adults transitioning out of foster care, instability and homelessness persists for this vulnerable population," said Nikki Thornton, senior director of innovation at Kentucky Youth Advocates.
Overall, advocates said there is a lack of appropriate housing options in Louisville that are specifically meant for youth. There are currently three programs available for former foster youth — Project Life, Family Unification Program and Family Scholar House. The problem is that these programs often have long wait times — anywhere from two to six months at minimum, the report said.
These wait times are often exacerbated by issues involving the youth’s criminal record or eviction history and their inability to access vital documents, like their birth certificate or social security card.
More than half of the youth surveyed for the report said they experienced homelessness while waiting for an apartment or stable housing to open up.
“Not allowing people with certain criminal records to obtain public housing assistance is directly affecting the foster care alums,” said Miranda Kallage, housing navigator at YouthBuild Louisville, a nonprofit that helps young people get job and life skills. “Changing that system would definitely benefit not only foster youth, but the houseless population at large.”
Former foster youth and advocates also said the state’s social worker shortage means young people leaving state custody are often without guidance that could help them find resources and navigate complex state bureaucracy.
“I think the biggest thing is that we’re not able to speak with our social workers on a regular basis,” Heath said. “I was in foster care for almost two years and spoke to my social worker maybe five or six times.”
The state has been working on reducing turnover among front line social workers, and they’ve seen some improvement, but employees are still dealing with heavy caseloads.
Experts at Kentucky Youth Advocates said more work is needed to address the barriers that foster youth face and that young people will continue to struggle with homelessness and housing insecurity unless systemic improvements are made.
Here's what they're recommending:
- Ensuring housing options for one year for youth and young adults leaving foster care
- Encouraging community drop-in centers to extend hours of operation to include evenings and weekends
- Permitting foster youth a say in selecting their therapist when receiving mental health services
- Ensuring consistent targeted case management for young adults transitioning out of foster care
- Strengthening oversight of foster care placements
- Continuing Training for adults involved in the foster care system on trauma-informed care, race-based trauma, resilience building, coping skills and healthy relationships.
- Regulating adoptions after age 16 and 17 to ensure foster youth can maximize benefits and support post-exiting care
- Creating a 24-hour crisis hotline for foster care alumni
If you are a former foster youth dealing with homelessness or housing insecurity in Louisville, here are some options.
For support and connection, contact the team at True Up. Cynthia Schepers is the Peer Coach Coordinator and can help connect you to the resources you need.
- Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Phone: 502-536-3734
For emergency/immediate shelter options, walk-in or call YMCA Safe Place.
- Address: 2400 Crittenden Drive, Louisville, KY 40217
- Phone: 502-635-5233
For affordable housing options or rental assistance programs:
- Family Scholar House: For young adults with a high school diploma or GED who were in foster care after their 13th birthday. Call 502-584-8090 or go online to register for an orientation.
- Project Life Housing Program: For former foster youth between the ages of 18 ½ and 23 years old. They can provide 12 months of rental assistance and case management. For more information, or to apply, contact your Regional Independent Living Specialist.
Family Unification Program (FUP): For former foster youth between the ages of 18-24. They can provide up to 36 months of rental assistance. Youth must be at risk of homelessness to qualify. For more information, contact your Regional Independent Living Specialist.
Support for this story was provided in part by the Jewish Heritage Fund.