GRASSBORO, N.J. -- Fire trucks have been called to the Life Link Homes here seven times since construction finished last October. No one has been hurt, and the fires caused no damage to Life Link's 30 apartments, which provide permanent housing with services to young people just out of foster care. The tenants are old enough to sign apartment leases, but for the most part, they have little cooking experience. So they regularly set off smoke detectors with minor accidental fires, which automatically summon the firefighters.
“Serving aging-out youth can be challenging,” said Ruth London, chief operating officer of Robins' Nest, Inc., a nonprofit developer and service provider that helps more than 4,500 children and young adults a year in New Jersey's foster care system. “It can also be tremendously rewarding.”
From coast to coast, dozens of new communities like Life Link are being built to provide supportive housing to kids aging out of foster care, usually when they turn 18. A few years ago, these communities were rare, but now several states have put funds behind the developments. At the same time, the oldest projects have been operating long enough to show developers planning new ones how it's done and what to watch out for.
Most of these projects will provide permanent housing along with supportive services. In permanent housing, the tenant signs a lease and has all the rights given to other tenants, including the right to stay in the apartment and renew the lease in most situations, provided he or she can pay the rent. From a renter's perspective, it's a step up from transitional housing, in which residents don't sign a lease and can be thrown out at the landlord's discretion for reasons including refusing to take a drug test or attend group therapy.
New York state plans to finance 400 new units of permanent supportive housing for youths under its New York/New York III agreement. A hundred of those have already started construction. In New Jersey, 160 units are in development, and officials are planning to build at least 40 more each year for eight years. In California, a state mandate has sparked eight projects in Los Angeles County alone. New developments are also under way in Minnesota and Connecticut.
“New ones are popping up all the time,” said Ruth Teague, an associate director at the Corporation for Supportive Housing (CSH).
This March, 28 foster-kid apartments were slated to open at the David and Joyce Dinkins Gardens in New York City. Developer The Jonathan Rose Cos., LLC, built the apartments to be similar to its other New York projects. In fact, at 500 square feet, the studios are actually a little large for New York. They are certainly larger than the dormitory-style apartments with shared kitchens that are common in transitional housing properties.
The only clues that the 85-unit building will soon house a different population than any of Rose's other affordable housing properties are the community spaces, which include 2,500 square feet of classroom space for job training and will be open to all of the building's residents.
The seven-story mid-rise also includes a 300-square-foot office for a case manager hired by Rose's development partner, Harlem Congregations for Community Improvement. The nonprofit has been providing social services to the neighborhood since 1986.
It's easy to underestimate the level of services and support young people need as they leave the foster care system. They can seem relatively healthy, especially to supportive housing developers and caseworkers used to confronting chronically homeless adults damaged by years of addiction or psychosis or both.
However, most children only enter the foster care system after they experience parental neglect, abandonment, or in many cases physical or sexual abuse. Former foster children suffer from posttraumatic stress disorder at nearly double the rate of Iraq war veterans, according to a report by Casey Family Programs, a research foundation. Depression and anxiety can also be debilitating problems, especially to kids starting out on their own.
“They have more mental health issues than we anticipated,” said Diane Louard- Michel, director of CSH's New York program. To help takes a great deal of care and sensitivity. For example, a job counselor advised by Louard-Michel recently set up job interviews for five young residents for well-paying jobs with UPS that included health benefits. Four of the five missed their appointments. So for the next set of five interviews, the counselor went to the building early to help the job applicants prepare. One young man had to be painstakingly coaxed from his room because he didn't want to admit that he didn't know how to tie a tie. Four of the five got the jobs.
But it's not always as easy as tying their ties and shepherding kids to job interviews. Housing former foster kids, in many cases, requires hiring someone who can act as a surrogate parental figure. Another of the properties Louard- Michel advises recently hired a case manager to work at the site full-time, in part to keep the residents from treating the building like a playground. “Kids were running amok,” she said.
Robins' Nest also increased its staff by hiring four retired police officers as night watchmen after young people who didn't live at Life Link began loitering in the property's common areas late at night. “Many of these kids are much, much younger than their actual age in terms of their maturity,” said Louard-Michel.
However, the residents are old enough to make life-changing decisions for themselves. In January, one resident went into labor at the grand opening of Camden DREAMS, a 13-unit youth supportivehousing community in Camden, N.J. Another had already given birth while waiting for the property to open.
To help steer kids toward lives as productive citizens, Life Link has rules that restrict drinking and ban overnight guests. Residents agree to spend at least 35 hours a week either as students or working in jobs. It's also important to have strong, charismatic staff to make kids want to live up to rules that would otherwise be hard to enforce. In states like New Jersey, it is very difficult to evict a tenant who has signed a lease at a permanent housing project for any issue other than non-payment of rent.
However, the work is well worth the challenges, said London. All 30 of her current residents are employed or in school. Since the first apartments opened in the fall of 2006, three residents have already moved out to buy or rent their own housing at market rates.
That's much better than the alternative: Between 25 percent and 40 percent of the young people who leave foster care become homeless within a year, according to the Government Accountability Office.