The Oak Park Housing Authority is one of 16 national housing authorities to be awarded vouchers under a Foster Youth to Independence Initiative (FYI) targeted at youth aging out of the foster care system.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) awarded $12.9 million to public housing agencies in nine states to provide housing assistance to young adults who are transitioning out of foster care and are experiencing or at risk of experiencing homelessness.
David Pope, executive director of Oak Park Housing Authority, says HUD posted the notice of the funding opportunity last June because the department realized there was a need for this type of funding for a population “very significantly at risk.”
Pope relied on Ken Southward, vice president for housing programs and LaTaunda Cobb, director of the housing voucher program, to help with the application.
“We put our heads together and said we can do this,” Pope said.
Southward says he believes the key to OPHA’s successful application may have been the agency’s success rate with other voucher programs.
OPHA partners with Housing Forward in utilizing Mainstream vouchers, which are for non-elderly individuals with disabilities who are at risk for experiencing homelessness as they transfer out of nursing homes. Pope says showing how OPHA partners with social service organizations was a valuable part of the application for FYI vouchers.
“We started looking at who we could partner with, and Hephzibah immediately came to mind,” Pope said.
The need for programs like the FYI vouchers is apparent says Hephzibah Executive Director Merry Beth Sheets.
“About 33% of kids who age out of DCSF statewide end up homeless at some point,” Sheets said.
Hephzibah recently doubled the size of its foster care program and now serves 200 young people. For Sheets, it is important to call attention to the barriers that those in the foster system often face.
She points out that only 3% to 4% of youth in foster care go on to higher education and says this figure unconscionable. Regarding Cook County specifically, Sheets said, “Kids languish in the child welfare system here. But, the availability of foster homes is a national crisis. People are not interested in fostering older teens, and even with great foster homes, kids still age out of the system.”
HUD awarded the Oak Park Housing Authority 15 FYI vouchers, which can be used by an individual for three years. Pope says that OPHA has a “strong contingent” of local landlords who are interested in working with them, and he thinks this group will be happy to work with the new voucher holders.
Once a person receives an FYI voucher, Sheets says that the three-year period will provide an opportunity to “work with the young adult to help them to be self-sufficient and ultimately to be able to rent an apartment on their own.”
The vouchers will have more benefits than meet the eye, because they aren’t just about providing housing to those who age out of the DCFS system at age 21. The vouchers will also help provide supportive services to help the them become successful adults.
For Southward, the housing available to voucher holders is just one part of the supportive services that makes Oak Park stand out
“Oak Park has so many services that help our voucher clients succeed,” Southward said.
Pope believes OPHA and Oak Park were awarded vouchers in a field dominated by larger municipalities in part because of the strength of Oak Park as a welcoming community for youth aging out of the foster care system.
“How wonderful that our community is so asset rich,” Pope said. “We have great transportation access, we’re employment rich, there are education opportunities around the region, we have the ability to provide safe housing and there are engagement opportunities in the community. This allows people to establish and set down roots, which is important for people who might have been missing this.”
Sheets says these are important point, noting, “It can be much harder to launch and get where you need to be without these kind of things in place.”