Every day on the walk from West Campus to the University, students pass by homeless people, many of which are young adults who, under different circumstances, could pass off as classmates. A single street separates one of the country’s most affluent college campuses from the streets that are the refuge of these unfortunate young adults. Beyond the typical makers of homelessness, such as drug use or alcoholism, many of them instead suffer the collateral damage of the state’s underfunded foster system. Decreasing homelessness in Austin benefits from a better awareness of this system’s harsh financial realities.
In January, the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition conducted their annual count of Austin’s homeless population and found that it has increased 20 percent since last year. Considering that one out of every five “aged-out” foster kids will become homeless after they turn 18, keeping them off the streets should be a priority for anyone looking to decrease Austin’s overall homelessness rates.
“The kids who aren’t able to find family members wind up aging out of the system,” Tammy Linseisen, associate professor in the School of Social Work said. “The state is a terrible parent, that’s not what the state system was built for.”
Many foster kids look forward to the day they turn 18, so that they can leave the foster system. However, these kids don’t have the skills to survive without preparation and support. Child Protective Services works hard to connect older kids with support networks and resources, but often these efforts are not enough to compensate for years of neglect or abuse that leaves kids developmentally behind.
Teenage foster-kids find themselves at a disadvantage due to their age. Legislatures do not provide funding to these kids, choosing instead to invest in the youngest ages. Linseisen explained that, the youngest kids, as the most vulnerable age group, receive inordinate financial and emotional support, with increasing neglect as they get older.
“There was this adage when I was over there [at CPS], ‘They can run away, they can get away, they don’t have to be there [in a bad home],’” Linseisen said. “Well that’s a horrible way to think, because they are just kids.”
In foster care, age is not a good indicator of development. An 18-year-old foster care kid is legally an “adult,” but may have faced abusive circumstances that render his or her development closer to that of a pre-teen. This is not to say that somehow foster youth are irrevocably damaged, but expecting a traumatized teen to successfully transition into adult life is unrealistic.
Understanding the realities that foster kids face as they enter adulthood allows lawmakers to more effectively address the roots of youth homelessness. As the next legislative session approaches, CPS funding cannot be drained from “aging-out” programs. Accepting these small up-front costs will bolster our city’s image and change the lives of those who most depend on it.
Hallas is a Plan II freshmen from Allen. She is a senior columnist. Follow her on Twitter @LauraHallas.