On June 8, Fordham’s Children and Family Institute for Research, Support and Training (Children FIRST) received the 2015 American Public Human Services Association’s (APHSA) Academic Excellence Award for their work with the Westchester Building Futures project.
When one thinks of Westchester County, leafy suburbs and grand homes often come to mind. In fact, the high cost of living has increased the risk of homelessness for young people in foster care, said Janna Heyman, PhD, associate dean of the Graduate School of Social Service and director of Children FIRST.
“Everybody thinks of Westchester and they think its privileged, but because the rents are so high it makes it harder for people to find homes,” said Heyman.
Two years ago the federal government funded 18 projects across the country to identify the risk factors and reduce homelessness among youth. Westchester Building Futures was one of the projects funded. The Westchester County Department of Social Services invited Children FIRST to take the lead in examining the problem and identifying factors that could help.
“All of this work was done with the involvement of foster care youth, whose voices helped shape the direction of the entire initiative,” said Heyman. “They were our partners and we relied on their input.”
The county and Fordham received the grant 18 months ago, with Children FIRST receiving $250,000 to evaluate and assess the program. The group will finish the second year of the program in October and has already applied for an extension to continue.
At the beginning of the program four young people who were once homeless were engaged in the project, and they took on the name “Bravehearts.” They now have more than 100 participating peer counselors. Youth who were once homeless, help homeless youth to successfully navigate the complex bureaucracy surrounding services.
“Homeless youth usually don’t have anyone they feel comfortable talking to about their situation,” said Heyman. “So having someone who has been through this previously is a very good person to help.”