Pablo Bleacher, 24, who spent time in the foster care system, shoots pool at Sox Place in downtown Denver on Jan. 24, 2018. Sox Place is a daytime drop-in center for youths who are homeless, including many who have left the foster care system.
The light-filled lobby at Mile High United Way, a few blocks north of downtown Denver, is packed with teenagers lugging backpacks and plastic garbage sacks. One girl is pushing her baby in a stroller.
In Colorado, kids in foster care can “age out” of the system beginning when they’re 17. They often have no family and nowhere to go. Reporter Jennifer Brown and photographer Joe Amon spent a year documenting the plight of youths who leave the foster care system. Their stories and photos are presented in this four-part series.
Also: “This is youth homelessness.” 105 sit on waiting list for foster youth housing vouchers
Part II: The chances of being adopted decrease dramatically with age
Part III: Foster kids move from school to school, and performance falters
Part IV: A group of former foster youths joins together to try to change law
It’s the one day of the month that young people in Colorado who spent time in the foster system after they were 16 can apply for housing vouchers. Thirty-six people are here to add their names to the wait list.
“This is youth homelessness. This is a snapshot,” says Erin Medina, the manager of United Way’s Bridging the Gap program, which helps foster youths transition to life on their own. “People don’t like to think about it or talk about it.”
More than 80 former foster youths, ages 18-24, are using the federal vouchers to pay for apartments throughout the metro area. An additional 14 have received the voucher and are searching for an apartment that will accept it.
The current wait list is 105 names long, and it takes about a year to reach the top.
Bridging the Gap began in 2005 as a program to help current and former foster youths ages 14 and older create savings accounts so they wouldn’t walk out of the system with no money. By 2010, Denver’s nonprofit community realized savings accounts weren’t enough and asked the federal government to dedicate housing vouchers for former foster youths.
Mile High United Way, which manages the voucher program, also hired four independent living coaches to counsel aged-out youths about education, transportation, child care and other issues kids normally would learn about from their parents.
“A typical young adult is often very reliant on parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles for life questions. How do I apply for college? How do I make a résumé? How do I tie a tie?” Medina said.
Many who exit foster care have fewer life skills than they would otherwise because the main goal at group homes and residential centers is safety, achieved through rules about everything from curfew to cooking. “If you have had your whole life planned out, you might not be very good at planning,” Medina said.
Child welfare caseworkers are required to create an “independent living plan” for foster kids 14 and older. If a youth hasn’t found a permanent home, the last “Hail Mary” is a legally required “emancipation transition plan” at least 90 days ahead of a youth’s emancipation date, said Derek Blake, who is with the state division of child welfare. It’s a last-ditch effort to connect the youth with nonprofits and other agencies that can assist with housing.
“It depends drastically not only on the county but also on the caseworker,” Blake said. “I’ve seen some amazing transition plans and ones that need some work.”
The federal government in recent years has pushed states to reduce the number of children emancipating from foster care, and Colorado has improved. In 2013, for example, 329 youths emancipated, compared with 246 last year.
Once kids have aged out, the child welfare system doesn’t keep track of them.
Data showing how many foster youths age 17 or 18 are reunified with their parents or relatives but end up homeless within weeks is unavailable, for example. Yet, workers at Urban Peak and United Way say it happens regularly.
Pablo Bleacher, right, 24, who spent time in the foster care system, shows off available clothing for visitors to Sox Place downtown Denver on Jan. 24, 2018. Sox Place is a daytime drop-in center for youths who are homeless, including many who have left the foster care system.
“(Some) get out on their own and they discover that they are not as ready as they thought they were,” said Kristin Melton, the youth services manager for the Colorado Department of Human Services.
While other states are considering allowing youths to re-enter foster care after they’ve emancipated, Colorado hasn’t gone that far. Instead, legislation passed this year would let county human services departments offer extra help to young people who recently aged out.
“Our counties and our county staff are working really hard; they have invested their lives and their careers in serving these young people,” Melton said. Yet, she added, too many kids are slipping through.
“I don’t think it’s enough,” she said, “because our outcomes are not good.”
Aged Out: A note about this series from reporter Jennifer Brown
This project began years ago with a phone call from a reader who knew an 18-year-old I had written about, a young man who had grown up in foster care.
The reader wondered whether I could help him find a bed, or even just a mattress, to save him from sleeping on the hard floor of his rented bedroom every night after work and school.
I had interviewed the young man for a Denver Post series about the overmedication of foster kids, describing how teenagers lined up in group homes and treatment centers for their daily doses of psychotropic drugs. Several of the young adults I talked to had recently left the foster care system after turning 18, no longer wards of the state and free to talk to a newspaper reporter.
What has stuck with me for years was how alone in the world they were.