Case Study: Building Futures: Housing for Youth Aging Out of Foster Care

Analysis Yields Real Policy Change
In a HUD study of the Family Unification Program, a major barrier to greater youth participation was the time limit on the rental subsidy.
- U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Office of Public and Indian Housing
Project Facts
This study aimed to address the research gap on the availability and effectiveness of housing programs available to youth aging out of the foster care system. Researchers found that: 
  • Stable housing is important yet elusive for these youth. Policies and programs offer few housing opportunities for youth exiting foster care.
  • HUD’s Family Unification Program has promise for supporting youth but is not widely applied to this population.
  • Public housing authorities were not serving more youth with the Family Unification Program largely because public child welfare agencies were more likely to refer families than youth.
  • Eligible families in the child welfare system could receive housing assistance indefinitely, whereas young adults aging out were limited to only 18 months of rental subsidy.
  • Although the Family Unification Program required that supportive services be offered to youth, there has been no research on the quality, intensity, or take-up of these supportive services by youth.

Based on the findings, HUD launched a demonstration extending rental assistance for youth eligible for the Family Unification Program from 18 months to 5 years. Eligible youth must sign an agreement to also participate in HUD's Family Self-Sufficiency Program. HUD is evaluating the demonstration to assess its effectiveness.

The Issue

Each year, about 25,000 young adults “age out” of the foster care system and must immediately find and maintain housing. With little or no family assistance and means of self-sufficiency, the transition is often challenging, putting them at high risk of homelessness. Regional and local homelessness counts abound, but at the time of the Mathematica study, there were no national estimates for youth aging out of foster care, nor was there much information on the breadth or effectiveness of housing programs available to them.

The Approach

Mathematica, assisted by Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago, addressed the research gap on this issue and shed light on public resources and policies that can help prevent or mitigate homelessness for youth aging out of foster homes. We conducted a literature review, a web scan, surveys, and site visits to determine the extent to which—and how—communities are using the Family Unification Program to support youth. The Family Unification Program is provided through HUD’s Housing Choice Voucher (also known as Section 8).

The Impacts

Findings from the analysis yielded real policy action. Barely a year after disseminating our final findings through a research forum, reports, and an issue brief, HUD launched a demonstration to evaluate some of our recommendations. Notably, HUD extended the Family Unification Program—when used for youth—from 18 months to up to 5 years, for public housing administrators who administer both the Family Unification Program and the Family Self-Sufficiency Program. For the demonstration, HUD moved beyond the requirement to offer supportive services for youth, to also require that youth receiving rental assistance sign an agreement to participate in the Family Self-Sufficiency Program. HUD cited the Mathematica study as support for the new demonstration and evaluation.

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This case study is for informational purposes only. Mathematica Policy Research, a nonpartisan research firm, provides a full range of research and data collection services, including program evaluation and policy research, survey design  and data collection, research assessment and interpretation, and program performance/data management, to improve public well-being. Its clients include federal and state governments, foundations, and private-sector and international organizations. The employee-owned company, with offices in Princeton, N.J.; Ann Arbor, Mich.; Cambridge, Mass.; Chicago, Ill.; Oakland, Calif.; and Washington, D.C., has conducted some of the most important studies of education, disability, health care, family support, employment, nutrition, and early childhood policies and programs.

About the Project

Policymakers and program developers need details on the most effective ways to prevent or mitigate homelessness among youth aging out of foster care. To address this gap, we conducted a literature review and environmental scan of programs and policies that provide housing assistance for this vulnerable population. We also surveyed public child welfare agencies and public housing administrators administering the Family Unification Program. To learn more about how communities provide housing assistance to youth through Family Unification Program, we conducted site visits to public housing authorities and public child welfare agencies.

Researchers distilled and disseminated the findings through a research forum, reports, and an issue brief. The forum brought together policymakers, practitioners, and researchers to discuss the study’s findings and related federal initiatives. The issue brief discussed the need for evaluating housing programs for youth aging out of foster care, possible evaluation designs, and steps to prepare for evaluation. HUD took direct action on these recommendations by launching the Family Unification Program and Family Self-Sufficiency Demonstration in January 2016 and proposing a future evaluation of the program.