Alyah Zaragoza waited about six months before she was finally accepted into the new Caraway Apartments, a 116-unit complex where 12 units are set aside for young people like Zaragoza, who are transitioning out of foster care.
“I’m really excited,” Zaragoza said last week, just days before she began moving into her new one-bedroom apartment at the Caraway, located at the old county Child and Family Services building on Broadway, just north of U.S. 36, in unincorporated Adams County.
“I used to be so scared about living on my own, thinking I couldn’t do it, but it’s really happening,” she said. “Just the other day, I was thinking, once I get those keys, I’m going to cry because I’ve come so far from having a trash bag full of clothes to literally having my own couch or my own furniture. That is such a rewarding moment.”
The Caraway complex is part of a growing effort to create more housing for people who are leaving foster care and transitioning into adulthood.
Changes in law and recognition of the lack of affordable housing for these young adults have led to other new housing projects in Arapahoe and Jefferson counties, Denver, Montrose and Delta.
At least three organizations are working to bring almost 200 new housing units to metro Denver by 2024, and a separate housing organization has created a clearinghouse to help match apartments with the young people who need them. But housing advocates and developers say it’s almost impossible to keep up with the demand.
More on Colorado’s housing crisis
“We’re not yet at a place where the inventory for young people coming out of the foster care system, or juvenile justice system for that matter, is even close to matching the need,” said Chris Nelson, CEO of the Boulder-based nonprofit TGTHR, which has worked for 55 years to end youth homelessness in Boulder County and neighboring communities.
“We’re painfully shy of putting a dent in the problem right now,” he said.
Zaragoza, 19, began moving her belongings into the Caraway the same week her lease ended at an independent living house in Commerce City, a placement arranged through the child welfare system.
Until now, Zaragoza’s life had been chaotic, while moving from her mother’s house to her grandmother’s house and then in between different foster care placements. But she said she chooses to remain optimistic.
“I like to think of it as my journey,” she said. “Things happen for a reason. I was put in the foster system to be more successful because I wasn’t going to be as successful as I am now if I lived with my grandma or my mom.”
Moving into the Caraway won’t wipe away all of her problems though, she said.
“Trauma doesn’t go away. I think you just have to learn how to manage to deal with it,” she said. “It might take my whole life to get through my deep trauma.”
Like many other young people leaving foster care, Zaragoza wasn’t sure she’d be able to find an affordable place to live before aging out of the foster care system. Youth age out of foster care in Colorado sometime between the ages of 18 and 21, said Kristin Melton, child welfare youth services manager at the state Department of Human Services.
A similar effort
Five years ago, Nelson’s organization joined up with a Boulder developer to create 40 supportive housing units for young adults at 1440 Pine St., where 20 units house young people who were formerly homeless and the other 20 units house young adults who exited the foster care system, he said.
“As soon as we opened it in November of 2019, we felt great, like here, we’re getting 40 young people off the streets,” Nelson said. “We realized almost immediately that we needed to do more.”
Now his organization is partnering again with Rivet, the Boulder-based developer Nelson teamed up on the Pine Street complex. This time, the organization leaders will create 56 supportive housing units at 2700 Wewatta Way in Denver, for people ages 18-24 who are exiting the foster care system or living on the streets because of family conflict, abuse, neglect, poverty or other hardships. Once built, the complex will be about a five-minute drive away from Curtis Park.
There are 1,361 households in Denver that would qualify to live in those units, which are expected to open in 2024, according to data from the Metro Denver Homelessness Initiative, which manages a database to ensure eligible households can be matched with vacant apartments.
The 56 one-bedroom and two-bedroom apartments will be a part of the larger Denargo Market, a 6,000-unit residential community. Those eligible can earn no more than 30% of the area median income, project leaders said.
The 56 supportive housing units for youth will include onsite supportive services, such as access to employment and education opportunities, counseling and mental health services and support with family reunification. An onsite cafe will provide employment opportunities for residents, the developer said.
“What we’re partnering to do here is really leveraging our strength and trying to do something that’s, frankly, just not really being done at scale,” said Shannon Cox-Baker, founder and managing partner of Rivet, the development company managing the construction and financial aspects of the units at Wewatta Way.
“The number one protective factor for all of us, and especially for young people transitioning into adulthood, is a sense of belonging, community, and purpose,” Nelson said.
Child welfare staff working with youth in the foster care system will refer people to the Wewatta Way building. The Vulnerability Index – Service Prioritization Decision Assistance Tool will help prioritize who is housed there first. Young people with the highest scores on the assessment tool will be prioritized for housing first, Nelson said.
Several other initiatives to house the most vulnerable youth are occurring around the state, in Grand Junction, Arvada, Colorado Springs and Broomfield.
Last week, two organizations created a statewide database to connect foster families and kids formerly in foster care with resources, including help finding mental and physical health care. The database also provides information to help kids find jobs and housing as they transition into adulthood.
Leaders at Cobbled Streets and Just as Special said 10 children and young people enter foster care each day and they will need resources to thrive in the system, and once they emancipate, they will need the types of connections the database can help them to make.
“The foster care crisis is often invisible and overlooked by the general public, despite the fact that many youth who spent time in foster care end up homeless, in jail or even dead within a few years of aging out,” said Natasha Pepperl, founder of Just As Special.
Family separation can cause acute and long-term harm to children. Being separated from parents and guardians can lead to developmental regression, difficulty sleeping, depression and acute stress, according to the American Bar Association. The younger the child is, the more likely they are to develop negative health outcomes caused by stress from being removed from their home.
Zaragoza was removed from her home at age 7, after social workers learned her mother had become abusive while struggling with addiction. Around the same time, Zaragoza’s father was deported to Mexico.
Zaragoza and her three siblings moved in with their grandmother for a few years. But one day “things went wrong,” she said, when her grandmother also became abusive.
The four children were again removed from the home — and split up — before Zaragoza moved into Shiloh House in Littleton, which offers support to youth overcoming challenges in their community.
But after two years at Shiloh House, Zaragoza said she became rebellious and her foster mom asked her to leave. She moved in with a friend from middle school for two years and moved out to her last foster care placement just last year. Last week she emancipated from her final foster care placement in Commerce City.
Housing advocates and child welfare staff have for years advocated for more resources for youth transitioning out of foster care, but new funding streams have recently helped move those efforts along.
In 2008, additional funding streams began opening up, and awareness campaigns about the need to house these youth became more prevalent. In the years following, many child welfare and housing advocates continued raising awareness about the need to stably house young people leaving foster care.
In 2019, the Foster Youth Independence Program was born through the Housing and Urban Development Department. Organizations could compete for additional vouchers that, if granted, would allow them to serve youth aging out of foster care. Soon after, during the pandemic, the chief of staff for former First Lady Melania Trump visited Foothills Regional Housing, formerly called the Jefferson County Housing Authority, to promote that HUD program, said Peter LiFari, executive director of Maiker Housing Partners, the housing authority for Adams County, which is serving people at the new Caraway Apartments.
In 2021, Colorado lawmakers passed House Bill 1094, The Foster Youth In Transition Act, which allowed young people in foster care to leave the system at 18 and reenter up until they turned 21.
“I think of that as so closely linked to housing, because the primary need for young people is housing, and the primary worry is that they’ll be homeless,” Melton, the state child welfare youth services manager, said.
Young people engaged with the extended foster care option through House Bill 1094 receive a stipend to help them find housing, in a college dorm or an apartment with roommates, whichever their choice. On a given day in Colorado, 63 young people receive services through the program, Melton said.
The Colorado Department of Human Services is also partnering with the Colorado Division of Housing through a federal grant program to support young people who were formerly homeless or are now at risk for homelessness, she said. About 20 of the young people are enrolled in the program in Colorado and receive supportive case management services through a voucher.
“They’re more likely to be successful in these kinds of partnerships where we’re really blending concrete financial supports with relational, developmentally appropriate case management,” Melton said.
“We’re seeing more and more appreciation of the need for both of those things. You don’t just need a case manager. You don’t just need a housing voucher. You need both. And you also need to have flexible funding for emergencies,” she said.
Meeting the need
The process of developing affordable housing is long and expensive, and includes creating and managing a budget, securing hard-to-get funding, acquiring land use and planning permits, which takes months, and finally, waiting for the construction process to start and end.
“It is generally about a three-year process in a best-case scenario,” LiFari said. It took three years to build the nearly $42 million Caraway Apartments, he said.
Young people who move into the 56 units at Wewatta Way in 2024 and those transitioning into the Caraway complex are allowed to stay in their units for as long as they need.
“What I want to see is folks feeling like it really is their home,” LiFari said last week.
“I want to see patios with plants. I want to see decorations for holidays. I want to hear dance parties,” he said. “If that’s happening, I have no doubt that many of the individuals who call Caraway home will go on to do tremendous things in their community, and we’ll all benefit.”