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Should Homeless 19-Year-Olds Be Allowed in Foster Care?

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Last month, state Rep. J. Paul Brown (R-Ignacio) took heat from ColoradoPols for standing alone in a 64-to-1 vote against a bill that would, among other things, allow homeless youth shelters to temporarily house youth ages 11 to 21. Today, only homeless kids ages 15 to 18 are defined as "homeless youth" under state law and can be served by youth shelters.

On Monday, when the bill returned to the state House from the Senate, where it was approved 34-0, Brown wasn't as lonely.

Ten of Brown's colleagues changed their minds and joined him in opposing the "Reduce Homeless Youth" bill, which was essentially unchanged from the version that passed 64 to 1 in February -- except for the addition of reporting requirements which were unanimously adopted.

What happened?

"I struggled with it a little bit the first time because of that extension of age," said Rep. Don Beezley, R-Broomfield, who had originally favored the measure but voted against it Monday. "As we look at the budget and as we look at the situation in the country overall, we have to at some point ask ourselves, when are we going to call ourselves adults and hold people accountable and look at their personal responsibility."

"When are we going to require folks to be adults?" Beezley said. "They vote at 18. They go to war at 18."

I asked Beezley about the part of the bill that expands the definition of "homeless youth" under Colorado law to include kids ages 11 through 14. Would he have favored the bill if the 18-to-21-year-olds were excluded?

"Yes, potentially, but I'd have to look at it again," he answered, adding that he had fiscal concerns about the bill too.

"Extend those definitions and you expend more dollars over time," Beezley said.

That was the primary reason Rep. Brown gave for opposing the bill in his 64-to-1 stand last month -- and the reason for his solo vote was not reported at the time.

"I have a hard time expanding government," Brown said.

For the 11-to-14-year-olds as well?

"I didn't have as much of a hard time going in that direction, but I think there are other programs for those kids," he said, acknowledging that he hadn't researched it and didn't know for sure.

It turns out that Brown's hunch is correct. Social services do, in fact, exist for homeless 11-to-14-year-old kids, even though they can't currently be defined as homeless.

But the system would work more efficiently and effectively, not to mention more humanely, under the Reduce Homeless Youth bill, according to Kippi Clausen, Director of Policy and Population Strategies at Mile High United Way.

The United Way, through its "Bridging the Gap" program, spearheaded efforts to pass the bill, which was actually broadly conceived two years ago by a group of young adults working with the United Way, according to Clausen. The young adults advocated for the bill's passage by organizing support and writing testimony about their own experiences in foster care or as homeless themselves.

To focus the effort, the United Way convened meetings among representatives of state agencies serving homeless youth.

"If you were 11, 12, 13 or 14, and you showed up a homeless shelter, it by law couldn't serve you," Clausen said. "That was a big deal because of how dangerous it is for a child to be on the street."

Shelters could call social services, which could lead to long-term placement in foster care, but experience shows that a temporary solution benefits children who may not ultimately need to be separated from their families, but need help, according to Clausen.

So the bill allows the state to license "host homes," which are houses where trained families 1) provide a room for a homeless youth for 21 days and 2) figure out "what's the best solution for that family and child," according to Clausen. She adds that the host-home option works especially well for small communities that don't have big facilities serving youth.

I asked Clausen about the provision in the bill allowing kids 18-to-21 to be considered "homeless" and remain in foster care after age 18.

Why shouldn't these young people fend for themselves?

She said that, under the bill, to remain in foster care between ages 18 and 21, young adults have to be working or enrolled in an educational program or be "medically fragile."

"Intact families spend an average of $44,500 [on their child] after the age of 18," Clausen told me, citing a Pew Charitable Trust report, "Time for Reform: Aging Out and on Their Own."

"At the age of 18, many young adults find themselves homeless after leaving foster care, because it's very hard for 18-year-olds to support themselves on their own. A kid coming out of foster care has no one to go back to."

I also asked Clausen about the fiscal impact of the bill, which would cost state government nothing, but could possibly cost local governments some money, though such expenditures would be discretionary.

"We do know that some counties were concerned that this would cost a county more money, because if a child shows up at a runaway homeless youth shelter, this would require them to call the department and let them know they have an underage child there -- and this might require them to open more cases," said Clausen.

"I think at the end of the day, if you have a kid out there who needs help, and budget is tight, these are still kids. I can't imagine being a 14- or 15-year-old and not have a home, and not feel like you can go back to your home. There's a lot of misunderstanding about what it means to be a homeless youth in the United States."

The "Reduce Homeless Youth" bill, HB 11-1279, has been sent to the Gov. John Hickenlooper, who will decide.