No Place to Call Home: Moving Toward Homelessness

“A review of the literature available on homelessness reveals surprisingly more than expected on the link between out-of–home placements during childhood and homelessness. …Findings from these studies, conducted throughout the United States, support the premise that out-of-home placements during childhood are a significant contributing factor to homelessness.”[i]

Many foster children enter care with a grocery sack of their few belongings. Even after years in state custody, most of their belongings can still be carried in a bag. By definition, the foster child is a transient, with no permanent home. Better than any other term or condition, “homeless” describes the state of a child in foster care.

On any given day, there are more than a half-million children in foster care in the United States. All of these children need a connection to a safe, nurturing and permanent family. They are moved around, having been in an average of three different placements, creating multiple school changes. Of the 28,000 children who were emancipated in 2010, 22 percent became homeless after aging out, compared to 2.6 percent of the general population of 18-24 year olds in that year.[ii]

Children who are emancipated into legal adulthood without a permanent home have no safety net, and no fallback family of origin. If they have been in foster care for an extended time, temporary living and the lack of a true home is a state they have learned while growing up. Small wonder then that foster care is correlated with homelessness.

Adult homelessness has its roots in childhood impermanence. Extended foster care with its built-in impermanence and multiple moves represents a major risk. Little has changed over the years. In a front page story, the Sunday New York Times (1991) reported that, “A large and disproportionate number of the nation’s homeless are young people who have come out of foster care programs without the money, skills or family support to make it on their own.”[iii]

The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty reported that in July 2013, fewer than 1 percent (0.58%) of Americans were homeless. Out of a total population of 313.9 million, 1.75 million were homeless.

People with a foster care history are over-represented in the homeless population. An overwhelming number of studies all report disproportionately large numbers of homeless adults who have had a history of foster care.[iv]

The following facts from are shocking but should not come as a surprise. By its very nature, foster care is temporary and impermanent.

  • Three in ten of the nation’s homeless adults report a foster care history.
  • Former foster children tend to remain homeless for longer periods.
  • Homeless parents who have a history of foster care are almost twice as likely to have their own children placed in foster care as homeless parents without a background in foster care.
  • Sixty-five percent of emancipated foster youth leave the system with no place to go. Half of this group will become homeless within the first 18 months.
  • Fifty-eight percent of all young adults using federally funded youth shelters in 1997 had previously been in foster care.
  • Of the 1,000 youth emancipated from the foster care system each year in Los Angeles County, 45 percent either go directly to the streets or end up on the streets within six weeks.[v]
  • Young adults emancipated from the foster care system had high rates of homelessness within 18 months. More than half experienced either homelessness or unstable housing. It is estimated that only 1 percent of American adults have a homeless episode annually and the lifetime prevalence is 7 percent.[vi]
  • A two-year follow-up of 265 adolescents in foster care in a large urban setting revealed that 43 percent had problems finding a stable residence and 20 percent were chronically homeless.[vii]

Homelessness is complex

Homelessness involves families and children, as well as single men or women. From the 150 homeless families seeking assistance each year at the Dayspring Center in Indianapolis, 60 percent are single mothers with two children under age 5. These children may enter foster care only to join the homeless ranks again as young adults. Failure to find a permanent home magnifies the likelihood that they will continue to find a marginal place on the fringe of an affluent society.

“Homeless people are the poorest of our nation’s poor, and as such reflect the face of poverty in America. They are families, primarily with one parent, but often with two. They are people who work but do not earn enough to pay for housing. They are unemployed people – those looking for work and those, young and old, who have never worked. And they are women and children escaping from domestic violence.”[viii]

Foster care runaways

Running away from a foster care placement expresses homelessness as a deliberate choice. The foster youth apparently prefers the “freedom” of homelessness to imposed temporary care and systemic transience. According to a nationwide study of runaway youths, more than one-third had been in foster care before they took to the streets.[ix]

The Congressional Research Service in 2007 reported that in 2005, close to 11,000 foster youth had run away from their placement, and that 24,000 youth “age out” of foster care each year “without proper supports to successfully transition to adulthood.”[x]


The relationship between foster care and homelessness is well expressed by Roman and Wolfe: “There is indeed an over-representation of people with a foster care history in the homeless population…Physical and mental health problems also interact in the homelessness-and-foster-care equation…It is clear from this study that what happens to children has a lifelong impact on them. When you see homeless adults, it is quite possible that they are homeless because of people and systems that failed them as children…If it is necessary for children to enter the foster care system, extraordinary measures should be taken to move them as quickly as possible into a permanent living situation (family reunification or adoption), taking all steps necessary to avoid multiple placements.”[xi]

The Adoption and Safe Families Act wisely allots one year as the maximum time in which to find a permanent home for children in out-of-home care. Society’s challenge is to follow that mandate.

Chapter 9 No Place to Call Home: Moving Toward Homelessness Notes

[i] Nan P. Roman, and Phyllis Wolfe, “Web of failure: The relationship between foster care and homelessness,” Public Welfare, Winter, Vol. 55(1), 1995, 4.

[ii] Red Zone Solutions, “The intersectionality of foster care and youth homelessness,” 2012.

[iii] This finding was preceded and documented by a 1984 report from the Citizens’ Committee for Children of New York and studies by David Shaffer, Runaway and homeless youth in New York City. Study funded by a grant from the Ittleson Foundation and the New York State Office of Mental Health, 1984, 57; Steven J. Mangine, David Royse, Vernon R. Wiehe, and Michael T. Nietzel, “Homelessness among adults raised as foster children: A survey of drop-in center users,” Psychological Reports, Vol. 67, Dec, 1990, 739-45; National Association of Social Workers, “Finding from a national survey of shelters for runaway and homeless youth: executive summary of key NASW survey findings,” Survey supported by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Grant number 90K2124, 1991.

[iv] Among the many research articles devoted to the subject of homelessness see: Ezra Susser, SP Lin, SA Conover, and EL Struening, “Childhood antecedents of homelessness in psychiatric patients,” American Journal of Psychiatry, Vol 148(8), Aug, 1991, 1026-1030; Pat O’Brien, “Youth homelessness and the lack of adoption planning for older children,” Adoptalk, Spring, 1993; L. Blankertz, R. Cnaan, and E. Freedman, “Childhood risk factors in dually diagnosed homeless adults,” Social Work, Vol. 38(5), Sept, 587-596.1993; Irving Piliavin, Michael Sosin, Alex H. Westerfelt, and Ross L. Matsueda, “The duration of homeless careers: an exploratory study,” Social Service Review Vol 6(4), Dec., 1993; Robert J. Calsyn, and Laurie A. Roades, “Predictors of past and current homelessness,” Journal of Community Psychology, Vol. 22(3), Jul,1994, 272-278; Robert Rosenheck, and Alan Fontana, “A model of homelessness among male veterans of the Vietnam war generation,” American Journal of Psychiatry, Vol. 151(3), Mar, 1994, 421-427; Paul Koegel, Elan Melamid, and M. Audrey Burnam, “Childhood risk factors for homelessness among homeless adults,” Am J Public Health, Vol. 85(12), Dec., 1995,1642-1649; Daniel B. Herman, Ezra Sussier, Elmer L. Struening, and Bruce L. Link, “Adverse childhood experiences: Are they risk factors for adult homelessness?” Am J Public Health, 87(2), Feb., 1997, 249-255; Ellen L. Bassuk, John C. Buckner, Linda F Weinreb, Angela Browne, Shari S. Bassuk, Ree Dawson, and Jennifer N. Perloff, “Homelessness in female-headed families: Childhood and adult risk and protective factors,” American Journal of Public Health, Vol. 87(2), Feb, 1997, 241-248; C. Zlotnick, D. Kronstadt, and L. Klee, “Foster care children and family homelessness,” American Journal of Public Health. Vol. 88(9), Sept. 1998, 1368; A. M Cauce, M. Paradise, L. Embry, C. Morgan, Y. Lohr, and J. Theofelis, “Homeless youth in Seattle. Youth characteristics, mental health needs, and intensive case management,” In Epstein, Michael H. Ed, Outcomes for children and youth with emotional and behavioral disorders and their families: Programs and evaluation best practices, (Austin, TX: Pro-Ed, Inc, xviii, 1998)738; John Sumerlin, “Cognitive-affective preparation for homelessness: quantitative and qualitative analysis of childhood out-of-home placement and child abuse in a sample of homeless men,” Psychological Reports, Vol 85(2), Oct, 1999, 553-573.

[v] Children’s Law Center of Los Angeles, Foster Youth and Mental Health Fact Sheet, 2005.

[vi] Margot B. Kushel, Irene H. Yen, Lauren Gee, and Mark E. Courtney, “Homelessness and Health Care Access After Emancipation: Results From the Midwest Evaluation of Adult Functioning of Former Foster Youth,” Archives of Pediatric & Adolescent Medicine, 161(10), 2007.

[vii] Patrick Fowler, Paul Toro and Bart Miles, “Pathways to and from homelessness,” American Journal of Public Health, Vol., 99(8), 2009.

[viii] Roman and Wolfe, op. cit.

[ix] Lifting the Veil: Examining the child welfare, foster care and juvenile justice systems,

[x] National Resource Center for Permanency and Family Connections, “Homeless after foster care,”, Jan. 2007.

[xi] Roman and Wolfe, op.cit.


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