SAN ANTONIO – Children in foster care face many challenges, and if they're not reunited with their families or adopted by the time they turn 18, the road ahead doesn't get any easier. One major challenge many young adults face when they age out of foster care is finding stable housing.
A new pilot program started by a San Antonio nonprofit hopes to change that with a grant from the Nancy Smith Hurd Foundation, which will allow a handful of young adults to live in an apartment rent-free for a year while learning valuable life skills.
Elaine Andries Hartle is the co-founder of the THRU Project, a local nonprofit that matches mentors with young adults who are aging out of foster care. It's a sort of safety net that provides care after foster care.
"The youth in our program have significantly higher rates of getting their high school diploma, going on to higher education, of having employment and even delaying parenthood," Hartle said. "The one area we just can't seem to move the needle on is housing, stable housing. These kids come out of foster care with no permanent housing and there's very, very few programs in the city or the county that serve this demographic."
While teens who age out of foster care do get some financial benefits from the state to help cover living expenses, it's often not enough. If they can even afford an apartment, many former foster youths have trouble holding onto their housing. Many simply aren't prepared to deal with all the issues that surround transitioning from state care to independent living.
"No one taught them about the additional responsibilities and expense that comes along with that," Hartle said. "So the same mistakes you and I made with our first apartment, they're making the same mistakes, but there's no safety net for them. They can't call home for more money, and if they lose their apartment, there's no home to go to and they're literally on the streets."
A recent study on youth homelessness in Texas conducted by Texas Appleseed found 136 youths aged out of foster care in Bexar County last year, the second highest number in the state.
The new grant awarded to the THRU Project will allow at least 10 youths in the program to live in an apartment rent-free for a year when they age out of care. In exchange, they must attend classes to learn how to budget their money and hold down a job, so they can put money into a savings account.
"They will continue to work with their mentors and continue to work with our staff, but they're also going to be depositing a set amount of money into a savings account, which will be in their name but monitored by THRU Project, and they're going to be required to take life skills classes. This will be anything from how to budget and read your credit report to how to prepare a simple, inexpensive, healthy meal by yourself," Hartle said. "By the end of the year, they're going to have the savings, they're going to have life skills and they're going to have the support that we all need to live successfully on our own."
Hartle has partnered with Highland Commercial Properties, a low-income housing provider in Bexar County, to provide apartments for the program participants to live in.
"The best way to stop homelessness is to stop it from starting. This is a great way to get to someone before they're in crisis," said Mike Rust, general operations manager for Highland Commercial Properties. "It just seemed like such a good program to help these kids that had the deck stacked against them from day one, and if we could be part of the solution to that, we wanted to be."
Rust said those in the program will be able to choose any of the company's 12 properties to live in, and they will also have an opportunity to work on the property to earn money. He hopes other local housing providers will see how the pilot program works and decide to join in to provide even more housing in the future.
"What we see our role as is showing that it can work. Showing that you may see the risk of taking on somebody from a program like this, but it's helping them and it's helping us," Rust said. "This is something that you can do to help the community, and there's no risk to it."
The program will initially be open to 10 youths who are actively participating in the THRU Project. They must complete an application and agree to follow the rules of the program, which include taking the life skills classes and keeping a job, as well as not having any overnight guests in their apartments and not allowing drugs, alcohol or guns on the property.
Harlte hopes to expand the housing program to more youths in future years with the help of the state and city housing authorities. For her, it's a chance to give kids in need a leg up that could help break the cycle of homelessness.
"We want to provide that for them now because they deserve that and we want to prevent them from being that next generation of homeless," Harlte said. "Our goal is to keep them from experiencing homelessness at all. We want to catch them before that happens because that's a very deep hole to be able to dig out of."