SAN ANTONIO – Bridging the gap between foster care and a life of independence is one of the big goals for local nonprofit the THRU Project.
Originally established to provide mentors for youth who age out of state care, the group recently expanded its mission to provide housing for a vulnerable young population.
We first told you about the Next Step housing program last year. Now it's expanding, thanks to a new partnership with the San Antonio Housing Authority.
One of the recent graduates of that program is 23-year-old Jacob Macfoy. He was removed from his parents' custody at age 12. He spent the rest his childhood bouncing from one foster home to another, eventually aging out of care at 18. He was soon homeless, living out of his car.
"When I was living in my car, I would just pretty much park in front of Walmart and would go donate plasma so I could eat that day, and that's about all I would do," Macfoy said. "Before the program, I was struggling to make ends meet. I was unable to pay my bills on time and wasn't able to hold down a job really. Pretty much struggling with everything, even school."
Last year Macfoy was the first participant in a pilot housing program created by the THRU Project. They got him a rent-free apartment for a full year complete with minimal furnishings. In exchange, he agreed to hold a job, attend life skills classes and set money aside in a savings account.
After 12 months Macfoy was the first to graduate the Next Step housing program, and it changed his life for the better.
"It's made me more aware and pretty much has made it easier for me to manage my money, get bills paid and not end up homeless," Macfoy said.
He credits the knowledge he learned in the program for helping him keep his footing when he unexpectedly found himself between jobs earlier this year.
"When I lost my job, they saved me from being evicted from here. That was really scary, but at least I had something to fall back on," Macfoy said. "They taught us financial literacy, and it helped us be able to set money aside to pay our bills and not spend money on stuff we don't need."
THRU Project co-founder Elaine Hartle said Macfoy's success in the program reminds her every day what these kids can do when given the opportunity to be successful.
Hartle started the transitional housing program last year,l hoping to remove a barrier former foster youth frequently struggle to overcome.
"We could never move the needle on housing," Hartle said. "Even though our youth might not technically be homeless at the time, there's housing insecurity. They're probably couch surfing or they're living with their boyfriend, so they're literally, like, one argument away with whoever is on that lease to being homeless. You can have a mentor, you can have all the support in the world but if you don't have a safe place to lay your head, you're not really given a good chance to be successful."
According to state statistics, last year, 220 youth aged out of foster care in the San Antonio region. Many of them quickly learned the odds are stacked against them.
Nationwide, 40% of former foster youth will be homeless by the age of 19, while 30% of young men formerly in care will be in jail by the same age.
"What we wanted to do is provide a path for them to not just have free rent for a year but to be invested in it and to be prepared to live on their own after that year's finished," Hartle said.
During the pilot program, 10 youth were picked to participate. In the first year, four graduated to independent living, with another four expected to graduate this year.
Brandee Perez, San Antonio Housing Authority's director of Federal Housing Programs, said that pilot program's success was key in getting SAHA to sign an agreement to expand the program over the next five years. That agreement was just approved by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development last week.
"I had the opportunity to meet with Elaine and look at their program and saw that what they had in place really was something solid," Perez said. "I think as we continue to see this success, and obviously there's still going to be the need in our community, that we will evaluate the pilot program and look to expand it."
Under the agreement, SAHA will provide 10 project-based vouchers for the THRU Project's Next Step housing program, which will provide a rent-free apartment to former foster youth who are accepted into the housing program.
To be accepted, Hartle said former foster youth must work full-time, attend all life skills classes required by the THRU Project, maintain contact with their THRU Project mentor and staff and make a deposit into their savings account each month. This deposit will increase every quarter, and in the last quarter, the youth will be depositing $700 per month, which is about the amount they'll pay in rent after they leave the program.
At the end of the year, youth will have the support, the life skills and the savings to live successfully on their own.
Macfoy is hopeful his fellow former foster youth will take advantage of the opportunity to turn their lives around.
"(Former) foster care youth have no experience whatsoever paying bills, managing a bank account or even having to pay rent on time," Macfoy said. "They wouldn't be able to do that without the THRU Project. There is no other agency I'm aware of that is out there for us. I mean, they kind of fill in the gaps that exist."