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Olivia Potter, 19, looks out the second-story window of her downtown Montrose apartment. Potter, who spent time in foster care, got help finding housing through the CASA office in Montrose County. (William Woody, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Colorado lawmakers will consider creating a new housing voucher program specifically for young people who have been in foster care, part of a $5 million proposal to fight youth homelessness. 

The pitch from the Colorado Department of Human Services, presented Thursday to the legislative committee that crafts the state budget, is to fund 100 housing vouchers as well as new homelessness prevention programs. 

Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, an Arvada Democrat and chair of the Joint Budget Committee, previously told The Colorado Sun she was working with the office of Gov. Jared Polis on legislation to create the voucher program, which she intends to introduce after the legislature reconvenes in January. Polis, a Democrat, called for investments in housing vouchers and supportive services for former foster youth and people transitioning out of residential facilities in his budget proposal for the coming year.

About a third of former foster children who emancipate from the system experience homelessess by the time they reach age 26, likely due more to abuse or instability they experienced as a child than contact with the foster system itself, a state budget analyst told lawmakers on the budget committee. An estimated 20% become homeless as soon as they emancipate from the child welfare system at age 18.

Though there are federal and state voucher programs designed to help people find housing, some don’t have enough slots and others are not geared toward former foster children. 

State vouchers, for example, are meant for people leaving mental health facilities. Foster youth would have to say they have a disabling condition to qualify, an admission that could restrict their ability to pursue certain careers, according to a Department of Human Services document. A federal voucher program specifically for foster youth requires that participants were in the system past their 16th birthday. 

“Right now, foster youth are entitled to Section 8 housing vouchers and support to be able to assist them with finding housing,” Zenzinger said in a November interview with The Sun. “But with the affordable housing issues that we have here in Colorado, it just makes it super challenging. The lack of spaces, the waiting lists for those units, the desirability of the location. They’re not currently connected to job placements or easy access to transportation, and it’s just kind of an inferior housing choice right now.”

“They deserve better,” she added. 

The department’s call for 100 vouchers is based on a conservative estimate of the state’s need. 

Mile High United Way, which has a Bridging the Gap program that helps former foster children find housing, said it has about 200 youth in Colorado waiting for housing resources. 

The new vouchers could be tied to various services that would help recipients find treatment, education, jobs and transportation, and would include a “landlord incentive fund” to address landlord concerns including a young person not having a co-signer or rental history. 

Homelessness is a persistent problem among Colorado foster children. 

About 30% of people between the ages of 17 and 21 reported they were homeless to the National Youth in Transition Database, which checks in with former foster kids at various points after they’ve left the system. That would mean about 85 of the 282 Colorado youth who emancipated last year will become homeless within two years, the Department of Human Services document said.

About half of people who are homeless nationwide have spent time in foster care. Among foster youth, those who were placed in group care, showed signs of mental health disorders, or were physically abused before entering state custody are among those more likely to experience homelessness, the Department of Human Services document said.

More than 3,000 Colorado families with children are experiencing homelessness, at times resulting from unmet mental and behavioral health needs, substance use disorders or economic instability, the Department of Human Services document said. 

There are some 600 homeless minors and 262 homeless people ages 18 to 24 in Colorado on a typical day. 

The federal Chafee Program for years has helped teens in the child welfare system prepare to transition to adulthood on their own, and in recent years has supported community efforts to build apartments for young people aging out of the system. But the program’s funding, which is disbursed to states, has dwindled from $2.5 million to $1.5 million over a decade, even as the number of eligible young people has increased. 

Colorado also has changed laws in recent years to allow foster teens to remain in the system until age 21, or to reenter the system if they emancipated at 18 and then changed their mind. Last year, lawmakers created a “foster youth in transition program” to boost support for young people leaving the system without a family. 

Anchor House has eight studio apartments in Broomfield. The house is for former foster youth who aged out of the system without getting adopted or returning to their families. (Jennifer Brown, The Colorado Sun)

The program has helped 246 youth since it began at the end of June 2021. Nearly 150 of those young adults are in supervised independent living arrangements — setups that essentially allow them to practice living in an apartment. 

The latest voucher proposal would give out 100 new vouchers at a cost of nearly $1.1 million.  The estimated cost per voucher per year is $10,668.

The $5.1 million budget request includes funding for at least seven new employees, including housing assistance workers and liaisons to work with local services organizations. It calls for $1.3 million so service organizations can address risk factors that lead to youth homelessness and $3.1 million for “dedicated housing assistance” for young people emancipating from the child welfare system, $1.1 million of which would pay for the 100 vouchers. 

Sen. Barbara Kirkmeyer, a Brighton Republican, questioned why the state human services department was proposing a new voucher program instead of adding money to the Chafee Program, which has a strong track record of working with foster teenagers across the state. 

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“I just don’t understand why we’re trying to create a whole ’nother new program,” Kirkmeyer said at the budget hearing. “They know where the kids are. They know which kids, quite frankly, they know at 13 or 14, which kids are gonna have some difficulties that they need to start working with if they’re working on emancipation.”

“This is really happening at the local level. They have a good handle on it. It’s just a lack of funding.”

Zenzinger, however, said just increasing funding to the Chafee Program isn’t enough. She has based her efforts to help foster youth — including the 2021 “youth in transition” bill and another to provide help paying for higher education — on recommendations from a foster youth in transition steering committee, which also advocated for a strong network of housing support. 

“The Chafee Program is for many more things other than just housing. It’s also for education. It’s also workforce transition. And so we are relying on the Chafee Program to be all things, when this housing component is just different,” she said Thursday. “We are trying to do things such as incentivize landlords to take these vouchers — because even if they have the Chafee Program and they have a housing voucher, we’re still not finding places who will take them.

“There are more issues that we think need to be addressed around the housing component.”

Shannon Najmabadi

Shannon Najmabadi has covered rural affairs and the rural economy for The Colorado Sun since 2021. She was previously a reporter at The Texas Tribune. Email: shannon@coloradosun.com Twitter:

Jennifer Brown

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...