Searching for Home: Foster Care Graduates Ousted From Washington Heights Apartments

By Elizabeth Stuart on Jan 7th, 2013

Diane Esper dances with residents of the Dorothy McGowan Project. (Photo by Elizabeth Stuart)

For years, Michael kept a small bag packed with his important documents in the back of his closet. Passport, Social Security card, immunization record — it was all there, everything he’d need to strike out on his own. The year he turned 16, after a particularly bad fight with his stepfather, he dug it out and slung it over his shoulder, his heart pounding.

He’d said it more times than he could count: “If he hits me again, I’m gonna leave.”

This time, he would.

In the five years since, Michael, whose middle name is used here to protect his privacy, has lived in five different places as part of New York City’s foster care system. He considered none a home. “I thought of them like hotels,” he said — hotels he’d be expected to check out of as soon as he turned 21 and no longer qualified for assistance from the Administration for Children’s Services.

“I know I have to become an adult,” he said. Jamaican by heritage, with a slight build and board-straight posture, he has just a hint of facial hair and wears wire-rimmed glasses. “But it always kept me on guard.”

He was relieved to be offered a place at the Dorothy McGowan Project, a government-subsidized apartment complex in Washington Heights where a team of social workers act as surrogate parents of a sort to foster care graduates. Unlike other city programs for youth like Michael, who has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, there was no age cap. He could set out on his own when he felt ready.

But just a year after moving in, Michael is getting kicked out.

The McGowan Project, designed to prevent youth homelessness, is largely funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. This year, HUD reworked its official definition of homelessness in an attempt to make services easier to access. For young adults like Michael, however, the shift translated into eviction notices.

HUD delivered the bad news and withdrew federal funding in April, but so far only two of the 16 former foster care wards living at the McGowan Project have found new apartments. In the meantime, Community League of the Heights and Community Access, the two nonprofits sponsoring the apartment complex, have been losing some $30,000 a month because they refuse to put the youths on the street.

Social workers worry that these young adults, all struggling with trauma-related mental health issues, aren’t yet ready to forge their own paths.

On Thanksgiving, Diane Esper, a program director with Community Access, roasted a turkey and mashed up potatoes. She cooked up a small saucepan of homemade cranberry sauce for herself. But her “kids,” as she calls the McGowan residents, “like it out of a can, for some reason,” she said. So, with a good-natured eye roll, she got out the can opener.

Residents of the Dorothy McGowan Project pause to hug while preparing Thanksgiving dinner. (Photo by Elizabeth Stuart)

Several kids hovered around her in the McGowan community room, watching her stir and baste. A tiny, blonde, ball of energy, she hugged them, then put them to work making green bean casserole and mixing apple cider.

At dinner time, Esper gathered everyone around the table. “I know you think it’s silly,” she said, “but it’s Thanksgiving and I want to talk about gratitude.” With a grumble, the residents grabbed for one another’s hands.

“Aw, come on,” Esper said, sweetly. “Humor me.”

There was a laugh, an awkward pause, and then a few tears as people shyly expressed thanks for Esper, the McGowan Project and the sense of family they’d found.

Most advocates for the homeless have heralded HUD’s re-evaluation of what it means to be homeless, calling it progress. Under the new definition — which for the first time includes those “unstably housed” who are doubling up or sofa surfing — more people qualify for assistance programs, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness.

The youth at McGowan, though, came to Esper on the premise that they were “at risk” for homelessness. Growing up in foster care and group homes, most have moved anywhere from 12 to 16 times, Esper said. When they turned 21, McGowan offered them apartments because caseworkers determined they would benefit from continued social services.

Now the program, named for a Washington Heights woman who served as a surrogate mother to more than 20 children, can’t accept anyone directly from the foster care system, Esper said. Youth must come from shelters or the street.

“This was definitely not the intention of the law,” said Amy Dworksy, a senior researcher at the University of Chicago’s Chapin Hall, a research and policy center focused on children, youth and families. “I am trying to wrap my mind around how this happened.”

While Americans become legal adults at 18, studies have found they aren’t financially or socially independent until they are in their mid-20s, Dworksy said. Without parents to guide them as they enter adulthood, former foster kids are vulnerable. They’re less likely to be employed or go to college and more likely to commit crimes or end up on the street.

About 15 percent of the 16,000 children in New York City’s foster care system are homeless within two years of exiting at 18 or 21, according to a report from The New School’s Child Welfare Watch. By 26, Dworsky’s research in the Midwest shows, more than a third of former foster care children have experienced homelessness at least once.

Youth who age out of foster care may become homeless because of unemployment, low wages, poor credit or long waits for public housing, Dworsky said. Many struggle with mental illness. Most have been exposed to trauma.

“They are in foster care for a reason,” Dworsky said. “They were neglected and abused. One of the things we know about trauma is that it affects your ability to form social relationships and regulate your emotions, which are all important skills to have in the workplace.”

The first time Michael tried to strike out on his own, it didn’t go well. He was 18, just starting his second semester at Brooklyn Community College, when he got his first independent apartment. He’d always been a good student, but, without the structure he’d grown accustomed to in group homes, he spiraled into a manic episode that landed him in the hospital for three months.

“It was horrible,” he said.

After dinner, Esper turned the lights down. A professional DJ, who’d volunteered his time, blasted some hip-hop and tenants held nothing back, dancing bachata and showing off their break-dance moves.

Amid the fun, though, there were traces of tension. During cigarette breaks, tenants chatted about rejected apartment applications and failed credit checks. Some tried to put a positive spin on the situation.

“I was scared at first,” said one. “I didn’t want to be all out on my own. But I guess it’ll be nice to have my own place.”

After some wrangling, New York City has bumped Esper’s evicted residents to the front of the line for public housing vouchers. Esper is grateful, she said. Many of her tenants live on Social Security payments and would otherwise be unable to afford housing.

But the McGowan Project is more than just an apartment building. Esper and a staff of Community Access social workers are there when tenants need help scheduling doctor’s appointments or run into legal trouble. They provide classes on living skills like hygiene, finances and nutrition. They help kids get their GEDs, secure internships and apply for jobs.

“We’re very much like parents,” said Amelia Ortega, a senior social worker with Community Access. “We’re role models, mentors, providers.”

While “it’s not a bad idea” to give young adults public housing vouchers, Ortega said it’s “irresponsible” to do so without evaluating their individual needs. Many of the youth still struggle with basic tasks like paying bills on time, she said.

“The system has forced them closer to adulthood before they are developmentally ready,” Ortega said of the new HUD policy. “We see it as a violation of their rights.”

Diane Esper jokes with a resident of the Dorothy McGowan Project. (Photo by Elizabeth Stuart)

In helping kids navigate the transition from foster care to adulthood, the McGowan Project’s approach of providing social support along with housing is considered ideal, said Patrick Fowler, a psychologist at DePaul University in Chicago, who has done extensive research on the relationship between foster care and homelessness.

“Connecting early is essential,” he said. “It’s always best if we can prevent kids from falling into homelessness.”

Ortega and Esper helped Michael apply for unemployment and food assistance when he lost his job at a retail chain a few months after moving into the complex.

“Without them, it would have been really hard,” he said. “I got denied three times. But they made everything really seamless, so I didn’t stress.”

So far, the hunt for an apartment has been difficult, said Michael, now back in school studying business management. A lot of apartments don’t take government vouchers and he’s been told more than once, “It’s great that you’re in school, but you still have to make a certain amount of money to qualify.”

Still, he sounds upbeat about his newest challenge. It will be difficult to leave the McGowan Project. But, he said, “By now, I’m pretty used to having to watch out for myself.”

5 Responses for “Searching for Home: Foster Care Graduates Ousted From Washington Heights Apartments”

  1. So sad that this sort of thing is needed for poor Michael. The fact that there are so many homeless who are young teenagers is incredibly sad. So sad.

  2. Matt says:

    This story is completely inaccurate. The HUD definition change did not include a new youth restriction. The restriction was already in place, and the program has been in violation of it’s contract for many years – it is just that the program was either not monitored or was not held accountable. The particular funding stream that this program was using is intended for the hardest to reach homeless only, and is not designed to transition youth from foster-care. This has been the case since it’s inception and is the programs statutory mandate from congress. Please write a retraction and reach out to HUD for comment.

  3. Quickback says:

    the hunt for an apartment has been difficult, said Michael, now back in school studying business management.

  4. Gordon Hough says:

    February 7, 2012

    To the Editor of the Uptowner:

    We are responding to your January 7 article about young people being “ousted” from their supportive housing at the Dorothy McGowan Residence. We want to thank you for drawing the community’s attention so appreciatively to this supportive housing. Community League of the Heights (CLOTH) developed and operates this building, and Community Access provides supportive services.

    CLOTH and Community Access is pleased to report that no tenants in Dorothy McGowan are being evicted because of the Federal government’s decision to change the definition of “homeless housing.” (The new definition excludes youth aging out of foster care as being considered homeless, even though they have no place to live.)

    Far from ignoring the problem, the city has made every effort to repair the damage produced by this newly-mandated regulation. This effort began last spring and is continuing.

    To replace the lost HUD rental subsidies, the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) has made a special allocation of Section 8 vouchers for every CLOTH tenant who lost HUD-funded support. HPD has worked very closely with CLOTH and Community Access to assure that every young person has an opportunity to obtain a voucher, which can be used either for the apartment where the tenant currently resides, or to another apartment in the city if the tenant wishes to move elsewhere. The result is that no one is being evicted because of a lost subsidy.

    As for whether the discontinuation of the subsidy was the intention of the law, the advocates for the change in the HUD definition certainly did not take into account that youth aging out of foster care commonly join the ranks of the homeless.

    Sincerely,

    Gordon Hough
    Director of Housing
    Community Access

  5. In response to Matt’s comment, I contacted officials at the Dorothy
    McGowan Project and the New York City Housing and Preservation
    Department, who both maintained that the program lost its funding
    because of HUD’s changed definition of homelessness.  However,
    Steve Berg, vice president for programs and policy at the National
    Alliance to End Homelessness, said youth graduating from foster
    care have never been eligible for HUD programs designed to serve
    the homeless. Officials at HUD have not responded to numerous calls
    and emails requesting clarification, but I still hope to hear from them.

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