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On any given day there are approximately 500,000 children and adolescents in foster care in the United States, and every year, approximately 24,000 youth age out of the system.

Much attention has been focused on the homeless problem, particularly that faced by adults and families. But much less attention has been given to the people who had historically — before the most recent recession — been the fastest-growing homeless population: Youth who have been in foster care, residential, or shelter services during their childhood or adolescence.

Although estimates vary significantly, most agree that approximately 12-36% of the youth who have aged out of foster care will be homeless within 2 years. A recent study done by the Family Youth Service Bureau on runaway and homeless youth indicated that on average, homeless youth spend 2 years on the streets, and approximately half of those who are homeless and on the streets have been in foster care. A youth who has been in foster care will spend approximately 27.5 months on the street versus 19.3 months for other youth.

Discouraging as these statistics might be, it is important to add some additional information about what happens to the youth who are “emancipated” when they age out of the foster care system. Approximately 47% of former foster youth are unemployed, and they are also much less likely to graduate from college. 71% of those who are employed make less than $25,000/year, and less than 10% of former foster youth earn a college degree. That is important because college will double the lifetime income of an individual over one who has no degree, or a high school diploma. In general, people who have achieved college degrees will also experience a much lower unemployment rate.

While this data seems to paint a rather gloomy picture regarding the future of those youth who have, by virtue of fractured families, child abuse and neglect, and other trauma, ended up in the foster care system, there is reason to be hopeful. While many of these youth lack the critical emotional building blocks that are so important to resiliency which are frequently learned when children and adolescents have the benefit of consistency and intact families, there are programs that specifically can address the risk of the ills and travails that frequently happen once one leaves the foster care system. But it is important to remember that the foster care system, for all of the difficulties and challenges it has, is, in its own way, a safety net for young people who have needed it, although it may result in multiple school placements and a variety of living situations, whether with foster parents, in kinship care or extended hanai family members.

There are three things that are fundamental to ensuring that the young people who are aging out of foster care will be successful as young adults. One is that they need a place to stay. Stable housing is an imperative. The second is that they need an adult who cares. And the third is that they need to be able to benefit from job training and education.

Hale Kipa’s Independent Living Program has been in existence since 1983, because as the federal government recognized in 1999 with the Chafee Bill, we need to do a better job of preparing those young people who have been in our foster system for true independent living.

As a result of the Chafee legislation, most states now have in place an independent living program in which youth in the foster care system have access to learning the skills and acquiring the tools they need to be successful when they actually achieve independence, and are emancipated from the foster care system.

The extension of voluntary foster care from age 18 to 21 through Imua Kakou provides an additional, critical resource to these older adolescents and soon to be young adults. Research has recently helped us better understand that the adolescent brain does is not fully mature or develop until the late 20’s, so there is something of a magical quality in thinking that somehow when an adolescent turns 18 or 21 that they suddenly will have all of the capacities to be able to act as a responsible adult.

Add to that the challenge of not having had a stable family situation, where one often learns the most basic skills such as communication, problem solving and decision making as well as the fundamentals in food preparation, health and hygiene and nutrition, personal finance as well as any number of additional skills. One can then see why it is important to provide access to those types of learning experiences to augment and enhance what children and adolescents are getting in school and in their foster care placements.

The Independent Living Program at Hale Kipa has the opportunity to work with youth from age 14 up until their mid-20’s, presuming of course that they elect to voluntarily continue their foster care involvement in Imua Kakou, and even beyond that, if they continue with higher education.

Among the benefits of Imua Kakou are medical and dental coverage, living assistance payments and monthly one-on-one support to connect with resources and to help to plan for and achieve personal goals. Individuals qualify for Imua Kakou by continuing their efforts to achieve a GED or a diploma, enrolling in a college vocational program, participating in an employment program, working at least part-time 80 hours a month, or if they are medically disabled. Imua Kakou provides a critical life-line to individuals in the foster care system because the case worker from Hale Kipa’s Independent Living/Imua Kakou program can literally work with an individual who is in foster care for many years. This puts in place that adult who cares, who provides consistent mentoring, support, coaching and feedback to assist the individual in taking the necessary steps to acquire the skills that will build resiliency and provide them the tools they need when they are challenged by the inevitable bumps in the road that come to all of us as we go out on our own, in pursuit of who we will be as adults.

The opportunity to continue with a GED or diploma, to enroll in a vocational training program or continue in college, is an imperative. It is fundamental to ensuring that these young people are not shackled with the reality of a poverty-level income for the rest of their lives, and to give them the opportunity to have dreams and hopes about being able to support themselves and their families.

Hale Kipa’s Independent Living/Imua Kakou program also benefits from the Family Unification program, which recently has been merged with the Family Self-Sufficiency program. This program provides Section 8 vouchers to youth who have been in foster care, and moves them to “the front of the line” with regard to access to Section 8 vouchers. A stable place to live is key, particularly immediately after a young person is emancipated from their involvement in the foster care system, in part because a stable living environment provides an address for being able to have a job, to receive mail, and to be able to assure that you are not subject to the vagaries of life on the street. Please remember that 50% of the youth that are on the streets have been in foster care, and they are out there from anywhere from 24 to 30 months on average, which is a long time that they are “disconnected” before they are reengaged with the community at large, and with themselves.

Our Independent Living/Imua Kakou program over the years has worked with literally thousands of young people. We have seen the positive impact that a long-term, stable relationship with an adult, with the opportunity to learn skills, acquire education and training, and a stable living environment can offer. It is an important piece of continuing to prevent homelessness among the population that is just beginning to enter the workforce, and ultimately we hope will be able to be contributing members of our community and of our economy.