The holiday season is a time when many Americans choose to think about those in need, especially vulnerable youth. It is also a time when we give thanks to the outstanding individuals who go above-and-beyond to assist others. The work of a small group at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in the area of foster youth, along with all foster families in this country, provides us an opportunity to do both.
Recently, a team from HUD’s Office of Public and Indian Housing (PIH) was presented with the “2021 Samuel J. Heyman Award for Management Excellence” in recognition of their innovative approach to housing American youths aging out of foster care.
Known as the “Sammies,” PIH received the prestigious government service award for its remarkable leadership and role in designing and implementing the Foster Youth to Independence Initiative, or “FYI Initiative,” a program that began as a pilot in 2020 and which now provides rental assistance and other supportive services to 18- to 24-year-olds who have aged out of foster care.
The foster care program in the U.S. is one of our society’s unsung heroes, providing hundreds of thousands of vulnerable children each year with a safe, dependable home and family structure at a critical time in their development.
Unfortunately, many children leave the foster care program without the resources to prevent them from becoming homeless soon thereafter. According to the National Center for Housing and Child Welfare, 25% of the 20,000 youths who age out of the foster care system each year will experience homelessness within four years.
The FYI Initiative allows public housing authorities to request housing choice vouchers (HCVs) for young adults who have recently left foster care and have nowhere to live. By attaching other services, the program not only fills a void in the social safety net for these young adults, but provides an opportunity for them to work toward their educational, employment, and other life goals, adding skills that will lend themselves to productive and self-sufficient futures.
In March of 2019, after meeting with former foster youth who experienced the real-life insecurity of exiting foster care, senior HUD staff including then-Secretary Ben Carson and PIH leadership immediately recognized the importance of the crisis and acted on it, drawing upon the knowledge and experience of HUD’s finest career professionals.
A few months later I was confirmed as the assistant secretary for PIH, and tasked with figuring out solutions and working with the dedicated PIH team. Our efforts culminated in the new, innovative FYI Initiative approach just four months later.
Already, the FYI Initiative has allocated over 1,000 housing choice vouchers for former foster youth. For fiscal year 2021, Congress appropriated $20 million toward the program. The stories of young adults avoiding homelessness and furthering their education and job skills is a success that all Americans can be proud.
I left HUD in January 2021, but my former colleagues in the PIH FYI leadership are deserving of all the praise associated with the Sammies, as the FYI Initiative has shown Americans the best in how our nation’s public housing system can serve vulnerable populations.
The FYI team’s diligence in designing and implementing the program is both an inspiration and a reminder that the work has only begun to ensure former foster youth are put on a path to independence and freedom in this country.
With more education and outreach, the FYI Initiative will play a critical role in eliminating homelessness for youth aging out of the foster care program in the coming year, helping them into safe, dependable homes, and putting many thousands of them firmly on a path to success and opportunity in America.
R. Hunter Kurtz is the former Assistant Secretary for Public and Indian Housing at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. He is currently Vice Chairman and Founding Partner of Gate House Strategies, LLC, an affordable housing-related advisory firm.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of HousingWire’s editorial department and its owners.
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R. Hunter Kurtz at Hunter.Kurtz@gatehousedc.com
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