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Fostering Change

Securing the future of vulnerable youth

At the same moment that one 19-year-old Vancouverite is being chauffeured to his new university campus residence by his parents, toting school supplies they’ve purchased together, another 19-year-old is being told that he no longer has a home, financial support or relationships with supportive adults, and he has little chance of higher education. This second scenario describes the fate of 700 19-year-olds in foster care in British Columbia each year.

According to provincial law, foster children are cut off from government support and must leave their surrogate parents’ home on their 19th birthday – whether they’re ready or not. And research overwhelmingly reveals that these young people face dire outcomes compared to their peers, as a result of not only difficult past experiences and current circumstances, but of the stigmas that follow them.

Forty to 50 per cent of youth living on the streets are former foster children, so to end youth homelessness, we need to better support this aging-out transition. And Fostering Change is doing this in a number of ways. - Mark Gifford

“It is unreasonable to think that these young people are going to be ready to leave home faster than those raised in a traditional, supportive family. We have higher expectations for those who have faced traumatic disruptions than for those who haven’t,” says Mark Gifford, director of grants and community initiatives at Vancouver Foundation. “A good life takes a good foundation– which doesn’t start at 19, but it doesn’t end at 19 either.”

Vancouver Foundation’s Fostering Change initiative is dedicated to seeing that foster children who “age out” (turn 19) have the support and opportunities they need to thrive as adults. It provides $1.4 million annually to fund grants, research and collaboration with partners working to improve their quality of life.

According to Gifford, Fostering Change evolved from Vancouver Foundation’s Youth Homelessness Initiative launched in 2008, shifting the focus from “reacting to homelessness” (funding shelters, food banks, and mental health and addiction services, for example) to preventing it from happening in the first place. Forty to 50 per cent of youth living on the streets are former foster children, says Gifford, so to end youth homelessness, we need to better support this aging-out transition. And Fostering Change is doing this in a number of ways.

Community grants: One innovative non-profit funded by Fostering Change is Aunt Leah’s Place, where youth are allowed to progress gradually until independent, and are never cut off from services that include housing, education, and life skills and relationship training. Another is Lu’ma Native Housing Society, an intergenerational housing community that mentors young people within a supportive, traditional culture.

Youth engagement: A Youth Advisory Circle is involved in all aspects of Fostering Change. “There is a great need for young people to feel they have influence, and to make a difference. And they have a right to a meaningful voice in decisions made about them,” says Gifford. These young volunteers (who all experienced homelessness in their past) assist in program development, grant-making, communications and community outreach.

Collaborative learning and research: All organizations that receive long-term funding (currently eight) meet to deter- mine priorities, assess gaps and work together toward a unifying vision. “This year’s focus was mental health, so they discussed shared interests in learning and complementary strategies to achieve it,” Gifford explains.

Public engagement: Fostering Change hosts public dialogues that “provide the voice and expertise of young people” to increase awareness of issues, and recently hosted community planning sessions in five cities involving 350 people. It’s also seeking to change provincial legislation to ensure that young people in foster care retain a home, supportive relationships with adults and financial assistance until age 24.

To improve outcomes, we need to not only support their housing, education, employment and well-being, but to be cognizant of the time it takes to grow up, according to Gifford. “They should have just as much of a shot at a good life as you or I.”

Story By: Carol Crenna

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