By: Jessica Wehrman, Columbus Dispatch
WASHINGTON — Their politics may vary wildly, but Reps. Steve Stivers and Joyce Beatty have become a unified front on teen homelessness, teaming up to successfully fight for money to help keep teenagers aging out of foster care system from becoming homeless.
The two — Beatty is a Jefferson Township Democrat and Stivers an Upper Arlington Republican — have joined forces for the third year to argue for an increase in money for the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Family Unification Program, a federal program that provides housing vouchers to families who risk having a foster child removed because of a lack of housing or can’t regain custody of their children because of a lack of housing. It is also designed for kids between 18 and 21 who lack housing as they age out of the foster care system.
When the two first began working on the issue, funding for the program had been unchanged since Fiscal Year 2011. In Fiscal Year 2018 and 2019, they sought — and got — $20 million for the program. This year, they’re aiming for $25 million.
It started, said Beatty, when she and Stivers visited the Huckleberry House in Columbus, which helps teens and young adults.
Beatty said she was moved by the stories of kids who grew up in foster care and how they fought to thrive, as well as the idea that 1,000 kids were aging out of foster care every year.
“Steve and I looked at each other and said, ‘if we’re going to do bipartisan work, this is the work we’re going to do,’” she said.
The two started writing letters urging the federal government to help. They started talking about it at House Financial Services Committee hearings. They started contacting local shelters to see what they needed. And they discovered the program had been essentially flat-funded for years.
“We decided we were going to go all in,” she said.
Chip Spinning, executive director of Franklin County Children Services, said protecting abused and neglected children is hard enough, but it’s more difficult when there’s a lack of support and resources available to help families struggling to become self-sufficient.
“Efforts to empower our youth and families to work their way out of homelessness and remain stable are greatly needed,” he said.
Stivers said the current foster care system doesn’t do enough to help kids about to age out of the system, and said U.S. Rep. Mike Turner, R–Dayton, introduced a bill in the last Congress that would make it easier for teens to seek housing assistance as they prepared to age out of the foster system.
He said the goal is to help foster kids as they transition to employment or other education.
“The way the foster care system works is when you turn 18, the spigot gets turned off,” he said.
“Right now, getting your first apartment in this community, with the rising cost of housing and all that goes with it, is already a difficult task,” said Becky Westerfelt, executive director of Huckleberry House, a nonprofit in the Weinland Park neighborhood that helps teens and young adults. “Add to that the fact that you don’t have a family to support you and you’re kind of on your own.”
Beatty and Stivers, she said, have “both been in our shelter many times.”
“They have a strong commitment that children shouldn’t be going to high school and living in a car,” she said. “They are not a predictable pair, but they’re a pair when it comes to this issue.”