For more than 100 years, UCC-related Elon Homes in Charlotte, N.C., has been a safe haven for children and youth, providing education and employment opportunities to guide low income or otherwise disadvantaged children and youth toward fulfilling, independent adulthood. Now, a grant from the Cannon Foundation in Concord, N.C., is helping Elon Homes extend those services even further.
The recent $50,000 grant is helping Elon Homes offset the costs of the continuing development of its Foster Care Village. Located on the campus of Johnson C. Smith University, the village houses youth and young adults, ages 17-21, who have aged out or are aging out of traditional foster care. The 30-bed men’s dormitory opened in 2017 and earlier this year, the 14-bed women’s dormitory was completed. It opened in March.
“We started first with young men because the outcomes for males in this age bracket are appreciably more negative than for females, and we wanted to help change this problem,” says the Rev. Frederick G. Grosse, president and CEO of Elon Homes. “The young men in our program did so well that we decided to bring online the young women’s program a full year earlier than planned. So instead of starting in 2020, we started the program this year.”
Grosse says he expects both dormitories to be fully occupied by the end of 2019. The two buildings are laid out much like many regular college dormitories: a main hallway with bedrooms, and central bathroom, laundry room, and computer lab facilities along with a living room and staff offices.
Although youth traditionally leave foster care at 18, the village is one of only a handful of programs that help young adults under age 21 find success. “The federal program allows for foster youth who age out at 18 years of age to sign a ‘Voluntary Placement Agreement’ to remain in care,” Grosse says. “To qualify for a VPA, a youth must be in foster care on his or her actual 18th birthday, and within 90 days … he or she must have acquired employment, be in an employment training program, or be in school.”
But after Elon Homes was inundated with requests from youth and county social workers for placements at or during the youths’ 17th year, North Carolina’s Department of Health and Human Services granted Elon Homes an age waiver to make the Village available to 17 year olds.
Because of a unique partnership between Elon Homes and Johnson C. Smith University, young adults living in Foster Care Village are able to take advantage of all university programs, and eat their meals in the university dining hall. To maintain placement, the young adults must remain employed, in employment training, or in school. In exchange, on-site staff help guide them, but also allow the young adults to make their own decisions with consultation, Grosse adds.
Data from the Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative of the Annie E. Casey Foundation have shown that youth leaving foster care at 18 are more likely to become homeless by age 21. By remaining in care until age 21 via programs like Foster Care Village, the young adults are more likely to be working, to have completed at least one year of college by age 21, and are more likely to access independent living services. Additionally, the data involving young women remaining in care until age 21 shows a 38 percent reduction in the incidence of pregnancy before age 20.
Grosse says the program often can be a matter of life and death for these youth and young adults.
“Quite literally, a number of youth apply for admission to our program because they are homeless or are about to go homeless. And a number of these applicants are in high school,” Grosse says. “Others have been out on their own past age 18 and are finding it hard to cope with work and a place to live without some adult guidance. The youth that we accept are very determined to succeed and know that it takes a lot of work on their part.”
Elon Homes accepts roughly 50 percent of applicants. Despite the federal regulations, only 27 states have put extended foster care services in place, Grosse says, “which is a serious and unfortunate gap of service in our nation.”
“Youth this age are in a very precarious state,” he adds. “Too many are incarcerated, homeless or underemployed. Elon Homes has for decades wanted to extend services to age 21, and now finds that this program provides a significant amount of help to these youth.”
The young adults at Foster Care Village “have good days and bad days, make good decisions and not-so-good decisions,” says Grosse, “but they are held within the program rules and have these few years to learn and grow so they are better equipped to meet independence at age 21.”