Amy Lemley is addressing the growing problem of homelessness among teenagers who are too old for foster care but have neither a place to live nor the means to support themselves. Her work is helping former foster youth secure affordable apartments by providing them with microloans for housing start-up costs to get their "first place." Meanwhile, Amy is leading the effort to transform the foster care system at the local and state levels by demonstrating the power of her model through public and private partnerships across northern California.
The New Idea
Amy Lemley launched her organization–First Place–in 1998, in Oakland, California, working closely with the county to identify and serve the former foster youth population. Each year in the United States, more than 25,000 young people are discharged from foster care when they reach legal age. These teenagers "age out" of the foster system only to find themselves with no place to live, no sustainable income, and limited educational prospects. First Place helps former foster youth secure their "first place" by providing microloans. The organization was the first in the nation to provide permanent, affordable housing to this segment of low-income youth. And through its innovative, community-housing programs and alliance-building initiatives, First Place is transforming the foster care system in the United States.
More than half a million children and youth live in foster care in the United States today, with about 100,000 residing in the state of California. According to the Child Welfare Research Center, the number of youth "aging out" of foster care has increased at least 600 percent since 1989. This increase is especially alarming given more serious risk factors these young people face once they leave foster situations–unemployment, low educational achievement, early childbirth and poverty, lack of health and safety, and homelessness. The most serious of these problems is homelessness, because without a stable home a young person faces a higher risk of all of the other factors. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found that more than 30 percent of emancipated foster youth nationwide experience homelessness within 2 years after discharge.
Once a young person "ages out" of a foster home, government services are terminated for all but a small fraction of them. Meanwhile, only limited community-based services are available to these youth. Instead of receiving support and guidance during this critical transition, emancipated foster youth suddenly find themselves with no place to live, usually no income, and no adult encouragement or community support.
Despite their lack of employment, education, and stable housing, these young people–often with children of their own–are required to move out of group homes on their 18th birthday. They often leave with their clothes stuffed in a black garbage bag. These young people are left without a place to live, and they face severely increased risk for an array of other social and economic problems. For example, emancipated foster youth are six times more likely than nonfoster youth to give birth to a child before age 21. According to analysis by the San Francisco Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), this early childbearing leads former foster youth to access public assistance at rates three times higher than nonfoster youth. Also, emancipated foster youth do not fare well in the job market. The same HHS report noted that four years after discharge from foster care, they are 22 percent less likely to be employed than nonfoster youth. And emancipated foster youth also experience poor health and lack of personal safety. Approximately 25 percent of emancipated males and 15 percent of females will be seriously beaten within a year of discharge, according to a recent study from the University of Wisconsin. An additional 10 percent of female foster youth will be victims of rape.
Foster youth often are behind educationally because of multiple transfers within the foster care system. Emancipated foster youth are 44 percent less likely to have graduated from high school than other 18 to 24 years olds. Once discharged, many former foster youth attempt to return to the families from which they were removed–only to find that abuse, overcrowding, poverty, and drug involvement continue. Other youth live temporarily with friends, extended family, in homeless shelters, or move directly to the streets–an estimated 30 percent.
The idea for First Place emerged in the mid-1980s when Amy learned about the Grameen Bank's microlending model for poor women in Bangladesh. Amy was intrigued by the concept of "peer lending" to populations considered "too risky" by mainstream financial institutions. She imagined that the model could serve the population of former foster youth equally well. The program has successfully served more than 200 young people directly in its four years of operation.
First Place issues up to $1,400 per client–covering the first month's rent and the security deposit–paid directly to the landlord. First Place acts as a master tenant, contracting with the landlord and then subleasing to the young people. Ten youth form a "lending circle" and share reciprocal responsibility and mutual support. Each member of the lending circle is required to complete a rigorous economic literacy curriculum before any member receives a housing loan. Once each member has successfully passed the certification process, the lending circle evaluates the youth's loan application, based on the collective evaluation of the youth's resources and circumstances. For two years the lending circle is collectively responsible for the loan repayment of each lending circle member and for preventing loan default. Weekly group meetings inculcate a philosophy of individual and collective responsibility and provide an opportunity to share resources that facilitate loan repayment.
This peer-to-peer reinforcement model works well: First Place youth are motivated to complete their educations, obtain and keep good jobs, and advance professionally. This type of loan assistance is critical because most "underresourced" youth do not have savings, access to credit, or even a credit history. First Place participants repay their loans at rates comparable to middle-income homeowners and at rates higher than educational loans. "These figures demonstrate that youth are not powerless victims destined to fail, but rather economically powerful contributors to the foster care community," says Amy.
Meanwhile, to support young people in their efforts to pay the rent and retain their housing, First Place sponsors an Emancipation Training Center that provides services like educational and vocational counseling, life skills instruction, transportation and grocery vouchers, advocacy support, and community-building events.
Comparing First Place youth with the general population of former foster youth over a 12-to-18-month period after their discharge demonstrates the program's early successes. First Place youth are six times less likely to be arrested, incarcerated, or homeless. They are three times less likely to give birth within 18 months of discharge and they are 50 percent more likely to be employed.
Beyond directly affecting the lives of young adults leaving foster care, Amy is pursuing a larger vision: she is dedicated to transforming the government-run foster care system, "which currently neglects its responsibility to foster youth and fails to provide for the older youth's transition to independent living." Toward this end, First Place acts as a catalyst for foster care reform through the development of public and private partnerships in the Bay Area.
First Place is currently transforming itself from a local grassroots pilot project into a sustainable nonprofit organization with state, regional, and national influence. The program has grown from a staff of two serving 10 youth to a 13-member full-time staff providing housing for 35 youth and comprehensive support to an additional 200 youth annually. To ensure its long-term sustainability, First Place is developing a diverse funding base comprising government, foundations, individual donors, and program-based revenue.
In the future, First Place will continue to provide leadership in the foster care community both within California and nationwide. First Place is currently working with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to address the fair housing issues related to emancipated foster youth. They have succeeded in identifying former foster youth as a protected class. In January 2001, First Place was nominated by HUD to receive its National Best Practices Award, in recognition of First Place's innovative approach.
Amy says that her commitment to social change derives in large part from her upbringing in rural Iowa on a 130-year-old family farm. Her mother was a hospice nurse and her father was the town vet. The community in which she was raised was integrated and supportive–but also could be stifling in its conservatism. Amy drew strength from this supportive past but also found herself chafing against traditional boundaries. For instance, she rebelled against deeply entrenched gender stereotypes and learned how to play the drums. When she joined the school band, she became known across town as "that girl drummer." She also led a community-wide campaign to save the sparrows.
During her senior year in high school, in a town where only 30 percent of the students apply for college, she was the only one in her high school class to take the SAT exam. When she decided to apply for college her parents insisted that she attend University of Iowa, saying: "It was good enough for us and it will be good enough for you." Amy pressed to attend the University of Chicago, which she found exciting, diverse, and intellectually stimulating. Her parents ultimately agreed to support her decision.
Amy says attending a private liberal arts university in the city changed her life. "It was the best decision I ever made," Amy explains. The experience awakened her racial and social consciousness. Living in Chicago exposed her to urban poverty–and ultimately inspired her to enter the world of social service and public policy.
After graduation, Amy moved to Boston to work as a case manager with Crittenton Hastings House where she had the opportunity to work with 13 young, formerly homeless women and their children. The experience exposed the deep injustice of the foster care system and led her to understand the importance of supporting youth making the transition.
Seeking to increase her understanding of the underlying systemic, social, and political problems that cause problems of homelessness and poverty, Amy applied to graduate programs in public policy. While at UC Berkeley, interning with local social service agencies, Amy developed her plan for First Place Fund for Youth.