The technology necessary to construct working light bulbs existed for over thirty years before Thomas Edison acquired the patent for the electric light. In fact, the first electric light was invented in 1840, seven years before Thomas Edison was born.
Yet, for decades, families continued to live in the dark, or worse, burn whatever they could get their hands on including toxic materials like pig fat, cow dung, and coal to light their homes. Highly combustible materials such as lime were used in commercial lighting. The benefit of using lime in theaters was spectacular light for thousands of theater productions - hence the term "in the limelight." The consequences, however, were severe. In the decade that this dangerous fad was practiced, over 400 theater fires occurred resulting in thousands of deaths in the U.S.
It wasn't until 1879 that Thomas Edison arrived on the scene, pulled all of the research together into a workable solution, and used his position and popularity to bring the U.S. and Europe, into the light, if you will.
Bringing Youth Housing Options into the Limelight
Programs that adequately prepare youth aging out of foster care for social, economic, and housing success in adulthood have existed for decades, yet they are not widely available. So, despite the existence of this technology, many of the 26,000 youth that exit foster care each year in the U.S. enter the ranks of homelessness. For as many as 25 percent of these young adults, the trip to a homeless shelter happens immediately. Others, perhaps more than 50 percent, can rely on limited income and the generosity of friends and family to piece together a plan to delay homelessness. But, after exhausting these resources, they will become homeless by their mid-twenties.
All of this is going on despite the fact that the components to prevent homelessness among former foster youth have existed for over 30 years. Proven programs exist from San Francisco, to Las Vegas, Cincinnati, to Elizabeth, NJ and many places in between. In fact, in 2009, Roxana Torrico, currently of the NASW compiled these solutions into a book, Financing Housing Supports for Youth.
For their part, young people who have lived in foster care and experience homelessness and victimization have labored to illuminate this sad, common reality. As early as 1984, foster youth submitted to surveys where they exposed homelessness and other unthinkable post-foster care experiences. Foster care alumni have generously shared their stories with policy makers, researchers, and the media in an effort to bring housing resources to the table for youth leaving care.
In 1999, the Child Welfare League of America Foster Youth Advisory Committee convinced Congress to set aside time-limited Section 8 Housing Choice Vouchers for Youth. But, like other housing resources, these vouchers are available to a small fraction of the young people aging out of foster care annually. Despite the obvious need for housing resources, a passionate clarion call from the youth and alumni themselves, committed staff at the local, state, and federal level, and the existence of programs that work, hundreds of youth leave the bounds of foster care unprepared to secure safe, decent housing every month in the U.S.
The Wizard of Millenium Park
If Thomas Edison was considered the "Wizard of Menlo Park" perhaps, Bryan Samuels, the Commissioner of the U.S. Children's Bureau, is the "Wizard of Millenium Park." Arriving in DC after leading the state child welfare agency in Chicago, IL. Commissioner Samuels demanded answers and action on housing programs for youth. Within months of being named Commissioner, Bryan Samuels took the first of two extraordinary steps to end homelessness among youth leaving foster care. First, The Commissioner issued guidance in 2010 on the Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act of 2007 allow states the opportunity provide rental subsidies to youth ages 18-21 and to receive federal reimbursement for doing so.
This action essentially gave states the ability to match developmentally appropriate housing placements to all youth using federal funds. HHS allows states to offer a full range of housing options for youth, from family foster care to scattered site apartments. Not only can the states that take the Commissioner up on this offer provide safe, decent housing to 18-21 year old youth, these states can also use this time to offer youth increasing independence until age 21 and provide the services necessary to create a launching pad for self-sufficiency in adulthood.
The Commissioner took the second giant step this week. On January 7, 2013, HHS published a Federal Opportunity Announcement (FOA) alerting communities that HHS will be inviting applications in March for a pilot program to test various housing interventions for youth leaving foster care. This is truly inter-disciplinary/inter-agency systems approach to meeting the housing needs of youth leaving care.
Spreading the Innovation Throughout the System
It is believed that where Edison really excelled was as an organizer of systems. You can imagine that lighting a bulb paled in comparison to the task of designing the grid and process to bring electricity to hundreds of thousands of homes. In that same way, Commissioner Samuels, will use this pilot program to bring what works, through training and dissemination channels, to communities throughout the U.S.
Commissioner Samuels has indeed "powered up" the movement started by the John Burton Foundation, Lighthouse Youth Services, CWLA, The California Youth Connection, the Mockingbird Society, Foster Care Alumni of America, and so many others, to end homelessness among foster youth. And for that, we consider him a visionary every bit as notable in American History as Thomas Edison himself.