Homelessness in the United States stems from complex individual, family, and structural factors. The problem is particularly acute for youth aging out of the foster care system. Retrospective studies indicate that among youth and adults using homeless shelters, 21-53% report foster care placement as children. Prospective studies find that 22%-37% of aged out youth experienced homelessness within three years. Studies in Midwestern or Northwestern states found significant associations between homelessness and being male, adolescent group home residence, more foster care placements, delinquent behaviors, diagnosed mental health conditions, no close relationship with family, and no high school diploma/GED. The current study draws from this literature as well as Cultural and Social Capital Theory to investigate associations between foster care experiences through age 18 and youth homelessness between ages 19-21, controlling for demographic characteristics and placement reasons.
Data are drawn from the National Youth in Transition Database (NYTD) Outcomes and the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System (AFCARS) Foster Care files. The NYTD launched to compile a national dataset to track outcomes of former foster youth. AFCARS national dataset tracks children and families in the United States child welfare system. This study used data from the first cohort of youth to complete all three NYTD survey waves at ages 17, 19, and 21 (FY2011, FY2013, and FY2015). The final sample included 1,233 youth from 43 states with complete data. Data were analyzed using bivariate statistics and logistic regression to generate odds ratios (OR) for foster care experiences through age 18 and homelessness between 19-21, controlling for demographics and placement reasons.
Among the 1,233 youth, 22.3% experienced at least one instance of homelessness between ages 19-21, 20.0% entered care at age 16, and youth experienced an average of seven placements (median=5). The likelihood of youth homelessness increased as age placed in care increased (OR 1.06), as number of placements increased (OR 1.07), as youth had no high school diploma/GED (OR 1.50), no adult connection (OR 2.31), or were incarcerated at any point from age 17 through 18 (OR 2.26). Significantly, youth who identified as Hispanic were less likely to experience homelessness between ages 19-21 compared to youth who identified as non-Hispanic White (OR 0.54). No other comparisons for race/ethnicity were significant, nor was sex or mental health condition diagnosis.
Conclusions and Implications:
Results suggest that youth aging out of care continue to be more likely to experience homelessness, specifically youth who entered care as teens, experienced greater placement insecurity, and youth who, through age 18, did not complete high school/GED, had no adult connection, or were incarcerated. Results align with previous literature and Cultural and Social Capital Theory. Policy and practice must continue to address factors salient to homelessness, including initiatives to strengthen natural mentoring relationships and reduce school transfers. The lower likelihood of homelessness among sampled Hispanic youth needs further exploration. Structural factors contributing to homelessness and associated variables require extended investigation to inform actions essential for achieving housing justice for youth who leave state care.