Leaving Foster Care Left Me Homeless. I'm Not Alone.

The numbers are damning for foster care leavers.
HuffPost/Getty/Maddie Abuyuan

I have an odd-sounding confession to make: I am terrified of suitcases.

Right now, I’m sitting in a higgeldy-piggeldy pile of cases and clothes at a friend’s home. While finding an apartment in London is stressful for just about everybody, as a care leaver (someone who has left the foster care system), I’m finding it especially trying.

I feel self-important and childish for saying that because clearly, many of us have been affected by the UK and Ireland’s dire rental market.

But care leavers really do have it different: 25% of the UK’s homeless population (and 25% of our incarcerated population) are care-experienced, or used to be in foster care.

33% of care leavers become homeless within the first two years of leaving care.

“Sadly, young people leaving care are disproportionately likely to become homeless,” said CEO of care-experienced children and care leaver charity Become, Katherine Sacks-Jones.

“It is consistently one of the main issues that we get contacted about at Become ― young people having been made to leave care often before they’re ready and then really struggling to find somewhere to live, essentially,” she adds.

She calls the rapid drop-off of services that can happen to those who leave care the “care cliff”, which makes sense ― the average age by which most people in the UK leave their parent’s home is 23, compared to the foster care cut-off age of 18 (and sometimes younger).

So, I thought I’d speak to some other care-experienced people about how this cliff has affected their housing situation.

Existing supports don’t always work

“Entitlements are a bit complicated, but all young people are entitled to some financial support in England, which is called a setting up home grant. The amounts of that vary by local authorities, and then there’s some additional support you can access if you’re going to university. The idea being to kind of help with costs and so on,” Sacks-Jones says.

This is true of England, and I can’t stress enough ― ask about any grants and help you might be entitled to if you’re in care or have just left it. Personally, I was able to access support through an advocacy group in Ireland three years after I left care.

There are different paths every country in the UK and Ireland is supposed to take when they know a child is about to leave foster care. Scotland offers some care-experienced people aftercare until they turn 26; local councils across the UK are meant to have your back until 25.

But these well-intentioned rules are as changeable and unreliable as local councils, different countries’ fine prints, and the resources of individual social workers turn out to be.

“I had been in care for less than a year before I was pushed out of the system,” says Anita*, now 26. “It happened that way because I was a late starter ― I entered the system at 17 and a couple of weeks, and was ‘out’ by 18.”

“In my country (Ireland), that time frame meant, and still means, I couldn’t access aftercare,” she said. Accessing this care could have meant she’d have access to financial support and housing help; “but I just didn’t count,” she said. “And my dole (which was less than usual, because I was under 25) took six weeks to come through after I left school ― so I had nothing.”

She was homeless for four months after that.

Another care-experienced person, Lisa*, returned to her biological family’s home before she was 16. Existing aftercare systems in the UK and Ireland are usually built for people who have been “looked after on or after their 16th birthday”, or those who haven’t been back with their first family for more than six months, so she wasn’t eligible.

She had returned to her first family in order to keep an eye on her brother, she says. “I left care because my parent had custody of my sibling, and I wasn’t comfortable with them living together alone. I saw my relationship with my foster carer going south, so I returned.”

“In retrospect, if I had been my social worker, I wouldn’t have let me go back,” she added. She has since become homeless.

Across the UK, social workers are supposed to help those expected to leave foster care to build a plan for their aftercare. And while some professionals do a brilliant job, others are overwhelmed by the amount and severity of cases they have to deal with.

“They met up with me once since [leaving care] and asked how everything was, and that was it,” Leo*, a 27-year-old care-experienced person, said.

After that, he says, there was “no checkup whatsoever.” He did not have a plan in place when he left foster care.

Even when supports do work, they can still have flaws

Let’s say you do get accommodation through your local council. Though this works successfully for some care leavers, others might be offered it too early ― and end up unable to move, and without much of a say in where the accommodation is.

“It’s absolutely the case that when young people do get helped with accommodation, there won’t be much choice about it. So a young person might end up accepting a house that’s not right for them, might not be in the right area, might not have good transport links, might not be a good quality ― but they end up feeling they have to accept it because they’re given a very short space of time,” Sacks-Jones told HuffPost UK.

“It’s kind of, ‘this or nothing’. And then that can mean that they find themselves in this housing,” she said. In other words, one day, a child still in care might get a call offering them accommodation, knowing that without accepting it, their housing is far from guaranteed.

This sort of pressure can lead to “16, 17-year-olds going into what’s called supported accommodation,” she said. “They might be quite isolated. They might be far away from people they know. It might not work for them getting to their job or a college or whatever.”

“And they might be having to manage rent, which can quickly spiral out of control. Especially when we know young people are on such limited incomes and often don’t have that family support to rely on.”

Perhaps not unrelatedly, care leavers are underrepresented in higher education (13% compared to 43% of our non-care-experienced peers). Although the government does offer grants to some care-experienced students, my experience ― and Sacks-Jones’ ― suggests that this might not be enough to cover those affected by the added costs.

“We work with some brilliant young people who make a success of university, and we support young people to go into university. But there are so many barriers and hurdles for a young person leaving care to get to university. And I think we have to do much better... Everything from, where does a young person stay in the holidays? That can be really difficult,” Sacks-Jones says.

When I arrived at college, I didn’t have a full set of clothes, because I hadn’t had anywhere to store them. I had to pay for my own transport up and down; I didn’t have a signatory for the loans I needed, so I took out high-interest, short-term debt to get started.

I was intermittently homeless throughout my degree; summers were a huge hurdle for me.

None of these are unique problems, of course ― but the combination of them can be particular to those who have experienced foster care.

Bit grim. What should we do?

I feel a bit conflicted writing all this doom and gloom because I don’t want care-experienced people to feel defeated. The care-experienced people I know are resilient, imaginative people who have achieved all different kinds of success.

But, as Sacks-Jones puts it, “When things do go wrong [for care-experienced people], often the consequences can be completely devastating, including homelessness. So there’s a lot that needs to change. A lot that needs to change to kind of make sure that we are supporting young people, including the homelessness legislation.”

“Sadly, it is little a wonder that so many [experienced people]... can’t find housing and find themselves facing homelessness. And I think it’s really a sign of a care system that completely fails to support young people in the way that it needs [to]. We’ve been calling for some time for reform,” the CEO adds.

Even the most impressive among us ― and lots of us are impressive ― face structural challenges that are all too slow to change.

“We think there needs to be an end to that care cliff so that no young person has to leave care before they’re ready, and that there are routes for those young people to stay where they’re living for a little while if they want, and they’re properly supported financially with accessing, housing and so on, to kind of ease that transition into adulthood and kind of get them off on the right footing,” Sacks-Jones told HuffPost UK.

“And we also think there need to be wider changes, for example, to the homelessness legislation to make sure that young people who do need that support when they’re in acute housing, need can get it, which sadly isn’t always the case now,” she adds.

Until changes are made, it seems that the already untenable financial pressures placed on most young people might continue to pile up for those with care experience.