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Olivia Potter, 19, stands in the hallway of her downtown Montrose apartment. Potter spent her teenage years in the foster care system. (William Woody, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Olivia Potter spent her high school years in foster care, then set off on her own at 18. 

She drifted from a short stint at her dad’s house in Montrose, where his one last chance to show her he was “a good human being” fell short, to a boyfriend’s college dorm room in Grand Junction. When her relationship with that boyfriend blew up, Potter found her way back to Montrose and into a bedroom in the home of a friend’s parents. 

She had no long-term plan, no savings, no parent who offered her gas money or advice on whether to go to college or how to find an apartment.

More than 200 young people each year leave foster care in Colorado without ever getting adopted, returned to their parents or sent to live with relatives. They move directly from a foster home or group home to adulthood. More than a third of them end up homeless, according to a survey that checks in when they turn 19 and again at 21. 

As the statistics remain dire every year, Colorado is responding with new housing voucher programs and new apartments built specifically for youth who have aged out of the foster system. 

The latest efforts to break the cycle of homelessness, public assistance and involvement in the child welfare system are happening in Arapahoe and Jefferson counties, plus Denver, Montrose and Delta. 

For Potter, 19, the call that came a few months ago was like an anchor that kept her from drifting to another friend’s extra bedroom, another couch. 

Olivia Potter, 19, looks out the second-story window of her downtown Montrose apartment. (William Woody, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The local CASA office in Montrose County, where Potter was first assigned a “court appointed special advocate” when she entered foster care at age 13, said there was an apartment available for her. Potter received a housing voucher specifically for young people who had grown up in the foster care system and moved into one of two four-plex housing units owned by the nonprofit. 

“There is tons of space and the kitchen is gorgeous,” Potter said, adding that she could not afford an apartment in Montrose on her own. “There is heating and cooling upstairs and downstairs.” 

Potter cleans homes through a home health agency and is starting classes in January to become a certified nursing assistant. She pays $270 per month in rent, and through a program funded by an anonymous Colorado benefactor, every rent check she pays is matched with a deposit into an investment account in her name. 

In a few years, she hopes to use the money to pay off her student loans or make a down payment on a house. 

“When you’re on your own, it’s really overwhelming,” Potter said. “I have good friends around myself, and their parents. Aside from that, you’re just on your own.”

New program helps foster youth build up savings

The Montrose four-plexes, which opened in February 2018, were the first supportive housing project in Colorado for 18- to 24-year-olds who had been in foster care or were at risk of becoming homeless. They’re appropriately named “1st Place.” The eight units, funded by various state and local foundations, can house up to 12 people. 

The year the duplexes were built, the area had 10 foster teens “emancipate” from the system — six were homeless or couch-surfing, four “we cannot locate,” the CASA office said then. 

Three years later, the county CASA office is spearheading another housing project for former foster youth, this one a $1.2 million project with six units in nearby Delta. Plans are to break ground in February and finish by August, said Carlton Mason, chief executive of CASA of the 7th Judicial District. 

It wasn’t hard to convince folks in the rural county that donating to a second housing unit was a worthy cause — six individual donors gave about $50,000 each. 

“I think all of us understand inherently that an 18-year-old is not ready to live independently without parent support,” Mason said. “It wasn’t a hard sell.” 

Along with the publicly funded housing, Mason wanted to provide hope that former foster youth had a chance to catch up to their peers who are supported financially by their parents well into their 20s. 

“How do we solve the bigger issue of hope, purpose, future?” he asked, saying that he fears that putting a kid in public housing at 18 could lead to them “holding out no hope other than the minimal help that the government can provide.”

That’s where the “FLEX” program originated. Through a grant from a Colorado foundation that wants to remain anonymous, former foster youth who pay at least a portion of their own rent — including Potter in Montrose – get a matching account in an investment account. There are stipulations on spending the money, which must go toward assets, education or entrepreneurship. 

For now, the pilot program is helping about 30 young adults, mainly in Montrose and Jefferson counties. It’s expanding soon to Arapahoe County, and Mason is talking to state lawmakers about turning it into a statewide program. 

We’re recognizing that it’s becoming a crisis with a higher degree of urgency.

Carlton Mason, CASA of the 7th Judicial District

State child welfare officials, meanwhile, are working on legislation that would allow foster youth  who’ve emancipated to return to the system. The proposal aims to let those aged-out youth maintain their autonomy but still access help with housing and other resources. 

And in Broomfield, a nonprofit called Anchor House broke ground in July on an eight-apartment complex for foster teens who’ve emancipated from the system. The housing project, developed by the Lutheran Church of Hope and Lutheran Family Services, is expected to open in May. 

Despite the new initiatives aimed at helping the specific population of former foster youth, Colorado is nowhere near to solving the problem, Mason said. It’s only beginning to recognize it. 

“We’re recognizing that it’s becoming a crisis with a higher degree of urgency,” he said. 

Dozens of Colorado foster teens go missing, become homeless each year

In 2019, 211 foster youth aged out of foster care in Colorado, according to the state Department of Human Services. In addition, 61 left the system because they ran away. Another 70 entered the custody of a jail or youth corrections center. 

The numbers for 2020 aren’t any better. By September of this year, under the latest count available, 133 young people had left the state child welfare system because they aged out. An additional 47 ran away and 53 entered jail. 

Another dismal statistic that isn’t improving: More than a third of foster youth who emancipate from the system in Colorado are homeless at age 21, according to the National Youth in Transition survey. 

A new federal housing voucher program specifically targets this group of young people. It’s called the Foster Youth to Independence program, or an “FYI” voucher for short, and it’s beginning to take off in multiple Colorado communities. 

Jefferson County’s housing authority, Foothills Regional Housing, placed its first former foster youth with the voucher in November 2019, and beginning in February, the Littleton authority will begin using the vouchers for teens and young adults aging out of foster care in Arapahoe County. 

Meanwhile, Mile High United Way is working to set up a similar partnership to use the voucher through the Denver Housing Authority. 

The new program is unique because it’s localized — it’s meant to work best as a streamlined partnership between a local housing authority, child welfare officials and nonprofits that aim to help foster youths transition to adulthood without the financial or emotional support of a family. Colorado for years has used a statewide voucher program, administered through Mile High United Way, that is for young people who spent at least one day in foster care at age 16 or older.

Under the localized voucher program, child welfare workers and volunteers identify young people who are at risk of becoming homeless when they leave their final foster placement. They contact the local housing authority to secure a voucher, as well as help the youth find an apartment that accepts the voucher. 

Adults who work with foster teens, mainly through local Chafee Foster Care Independent Living programs, will help young people find everything from beds to pots and pans for their new apartment. 

Powers Circle Apartments in Littleton is owned by South Metro Housing Options, the housing authority for Littleton. Former foster youth will soon get vouchers to live in the building or other Littleton apartments that accept the voucher. (Provided by South Metro Housing Options)

Jefferson County has housed 27 young people through the program in the last year and has nine more whose applications are in process. A new development near the Arvada Gold Line light rail station will house 30 additional young people, said Kristen Gines, chief people officer for Foothills Regional Housing. 

The Littleton program, through South Metro Housing Options, plans to provide 24 vouchers — and expects to fill them quickly. Young people must have left foster care within 90 days and must be between the ages of 18 and 24. A voucher lasts for up to three years. 

Corey Reitz, executive director of South Metro Housing Options, recalled reading a July 2019 notice from the federal HUD administration announcing the program. The Littleton housing authority works with families, seniors and people with disabilities, but had never helped young people exiting foster care.

Reitz also recalled looking up statistics about the grim outcomes for young people leaving the system without family support and knew immediately that he wanted to help. “After a very short amount of research, I found out how many potentially negative outcomes are for these folks.” 

Shiloh House, which has seven residential treatment centers for foster youth across the state, will help find young people to use the Littleton vouchers. The nonprofit also runs various programs that provide parenting skills to families who’ve been reported to child welfare officials and that help young people learn self-sufficiency skills before aging out of the system. 

The agency also plans to work with landlords in Arapahoe County to persuade them to accept the foster youth vouchers, “helping them understand, yes, there is a risk, but we are not just throwing these kids in there and saying, ‘Good luck,’” said Molly Ramirez, Shiloh’s deputy chief executive officer. 

Ramirez said she has noticed in the last few years that Colorado officials and nonprofits are putting more emphasis on helping young people who age out. 

“These kids have nowhere to go and no support,” she said. “A lot of people have a heart for these kids. They just need someone to walk alongside them and teach them the things that, unfortunately, their parents weren’t able to.” 

1st Place in Montrose houses former foster youth who have aged out of the system. In Colorado last year, 211 young adults aged out of foster placements to live on their own. (Provided by CASA of the 7th Judicial District)

If Colorado fails to help aged-out youth transition to adulthood, Ramirez said, “we are going to unfortunately see them back in the system, but as the parent and not as the kid.” 

Besides the new “Foster Youth to Independence” vouchers, Colorado also has about 135 young people across the state using another federal housing program, called the “Family Unification Program.” 

A housing authority that administers the family unification voucher cannot also use HUD’s newer “Foster Youth to Independence” voucher, said Brittany Wade, program manager for the “Bridging the Gap” foster youth program at Mile High United Way. That’s why the agency is hoping the Denver Housing Authority will start distributing the new voucher program for Denver foster teens who age out of the system. 

Until we can start ensuring that young people aren’t going to spend any time homeless, with a solid ‘this-is-where-I’m-going-from-foster-care-plan,’ it’s still going to be a pervasive problem of young people falling through the cracks.

Brittany Wade, Mile High United Way

Since the coronavirus pandemic began, the older voucher program has been frozen. Colorado hasn’t added any more young people to the program in months, despite a steady flow of requests from youth who are homeless and reach out to Mile High United Way for help. 

The new localized voucher programs and housing projects specifically for foster youth are an encouraging sign, but not nearly enough to break the cycle, Wade said. 

“Until we can start ensuring that young people aren’t going to spend any time homeless, with a solid ‘this-is-where-I’m-going-from-foster-care-plan,’” Wade said, “it’s still going to be a pervasive problem of young people falling through the cracks.” 

Jen is a co-founder and reporter at The Sun, where she writes about mental health, child welfare and social justice issues.

Her first journalism job was at The Hungry Horse News in her home state of Montana, before moving on to reporting jobs in Texas and Oklahoma. She worked for 13 years at The Denver Post, including several years on the investigative projects team, before helping create The Sun in 2018.

Jen is a graduate of the University of Montana and loves hiking, skiing and watching her kids' sports.

Email: Twitter: @jenbrowncolo