Extended Foster Care Delays but Does Not Prevent Homelessness

One of the challenges faced by young people aging out of foster care is finding a safe and affordable place to live. Before the Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act of 2008 became law, Illinois was one of only a few states in which young people could, and routinely did, remain in foster care until age 21. Results from our analysis of data from the Midwest Evaluation of the Adult Functioning of Former Foster Youth (Midwest Study) suggests that allowing young people to remain in foster care until age 21 delays the onset of homelessness but does not prevent it.

What we did

The Midwest Study followed more than 700 young people from Iowa, Wisconsin, and Illinois as they aged out of foster care and transitioned to adulthood. Participants were surveyed at ages 17 or 18, 19, 21, 23 or 24, and 26 about a range of experiences including education, employment, housing, justice system involvement and physical and mental health.

Because Illinois was the only Midwest Study state in which young people could remain in foster care until their 21st birthday, we compared the outcomes of the study participants from Illinois to the outcomes of their peers from Iowa and Wisconsin, where few young people were still in foster care beyond age 18.

What we found

Homelessness and couch surfing were common experiences among the Midwest Study participants.

  • By age 23 or 24, 29% of the study participants had been homeless, 28% had slept on someone’s couch, and 39% had been homeless and/or couch surfed since exiting foster care.
  • Almost two-thirds of the young people who had experienced homelessness within the first 30 months after leaving foster care did so within the first 12 months.

Young people who experienced homelessness typically did so relatively soon after exiting foster care.

Allowing young people to remain in foster care until age 21 does not reduce their likelihood of becoming homeless once they exit.

  • At age 19, Midwest Study participants from Iowa and Wisconsin were 2.7 times more likely to have been homeless than their peers from Illinois (12.2% vs 4.5%).
  • At age 21, young people from Iowa and Wisconsin were still more likely to have been homeless than their Illinois counterparts, but the difference was no longer statistically significant (20.8% vs 16.2%).
  • By 23 or 24, young people from Iowa and Wisconsin were no more likely to have experienced homelessness than their counterparts from Illinois (29.9% vs 28.9%)

What it means

Homelessness among young people aging out of foster care is a problem worthy of attention. However, our data suggest that extending foster care to age 21 is not a panacea. Providing housing assistance and other supports to young people after they leave foster care is critical if our goal is to prevent and not just delay homelessness. Although this option could be costly, it is worth considering if for no other reason than it is something that parents regularly do for their own young adult children. We should do no less for young people who are making the transition out of foster care.

Recommended Citation
Dworsky, A. & Courtney, M. E. (2010). Assessing the Impact of Extending Care beyond Age 18 on Homelessness: Emerging Findings from the Midwest Study. Chicago: Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago.
Download Brief