After entering the foster care system in Arizona at 2 years old, Anthony Harper bounced from house to house until age 18, when he landed on his own without a home. Harper lived on the streets or moved between friends’ houses for several months, struggling with health problems and mental issues. In September 2019, he called Steve and Teri Vogel at Thrive.
The Christian ministry in Phoenix is jumping on a growing housing bandwagon to support former foster children: tiny houses. Thrive is developing four lots into communities of three tiny houses each to provide supportive living situations for youth aging out of state custody. The Vogels hope the homes can be part of a solution to a growing problem: what happens to foster children who never land somewhere permanently?
If foster youth haven’t already found a permanent placement either with their family of origin or an adoptive family, state government officials automatically release, or emancipate, them from custody when they hit a certain age, usually between 17 and 19, depending on the state. Across the country, statistics on the outcomes for those emancipated from state custody are dismal. Because many spent so little time with a single set of caretakers, those who age out are often not prepared for adulthood. They may never have learned to pay bills, file taxes, or get a driver’s license.
In 2017, 8 percent of foster youth nationally—more than 19,000—aged out of the system, according to a 2019 fact sheet from the U.S. Children’s Bureau. In 2014, 20 percent of foster kids who aged out at age 19 experienced homelessness right away, according to research compiled by Child Trends. That number went up to 27 percent by age 21. Also by age 21, 22 percent of emancipated foster youth had spent time in prison, and 32 percent had received some form of public assistance. Less than half were employed, and nearly a quarter hadn’t finished high school or gotten a GED diploma. A 2017 study of youth who aged out of foster care in three Midwestern states found 30 percent were living on the streets by age 26.
And poverty isn’t the only risk—foster children are also more vulnerable to trafficking. In 2017, 88 percent of children listed as missing and likely victims of sex trafficking were in the care of the child welfare system when they disappeared, according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. That’s especially true for those who age out, according to Andrea Powell, who works for an anti-trafficking group called FAIR Girls in Washington, D.C.
“We have cases of clients who literally were trafficked the day they were kicked out of foster care,” she told Reuters.
The Vogels were involved in the case of a girl who entered the Arizona foster care system at age 17 when her mother died, then aged out the following year. When there were no housing options available for her, an organization put her up in a hotel. The girl met a pimp and was prostituted within 24 hours.
“We don’t want to see that happen,” Teri Vogel said. “We’re in prevention.”
The Vogels didn’t initially start out to build transitional homes for aging-out foster children. They provided housing and other support for families either involved with Child Protective Services or at-risk youth in some way. Thrive reports it has a 90 percent success rate with its transitional program, which means that one year after leaving the program, the youth it helped were still self-sufficient. But the Vogels kept getting calls about youth like Harper who left the foster care system with no home or support.
“It was like every day we would get a call for another aged-out,” Teri Vogel said. “We had some transitional homes we were using for our families, and it ended up that our aged-out started taking over those homes.”
In response, the Vogels came up with the idea to build the tiny-house communities where they could implement the yearlong transition program they had developed over time. The mini neighborhoods can function as halfway houses between the intensely communal settings many foster kids came from into independent living. The young adults will pay $300 a month to cover housing, utilities, internet, and to “have some skin in the game,” Teri Vogel said. The goal is bigger than just keeping them off the streets in the short-term—it’s to help them avoid getting an eviction on their record while they learn life skills and recover from the emotional trauma many endured while in foster care.
The challenge of how to support young adults with traumatic backgrounds and no reliable family is ongoing with no simple solutions. But transitional homes across the country hope to prevent children from leaving state custody and immediately becoming entangled in downstream problems like homelessness and sex trafficking.
It gives young adults like Harper the space to adjust to adulthood—he is now studying to be an emergency medical technician and learning how to cook for himself. He has also begun attending church and was baptized since entering Thrive’s program.
“It’s given me a foot forward and the ability to keep moving on in my life in a positive way,” Harper said.