By JESSICA GROOVER
ANNAPOLIS (Dec. 13, 2008)—When Temple Hills resident Crystal Skinner turned 21 in 2006 and was too old to stay in foster care, she was not sure where she would live.
After switching between living with her biological mother and her aunt, Skinner received a voucher from the Prince George's County Housing Authority that paid rent and allowed her to find a job nearby.
"When I got the voucher, it gave me (a) foundation to build upon because I knew where I could work," Skinner said.
Last month, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development announced that it was allocating $20 million for vouchers to help people aging out of foster care and to reunite foster care children with parents who could not otherwise afford housing.
The money for the vouchers is being allocated thanks to the lobbying efforts of the University Park-based group, the National Center for Housing and Child Welfare, and its executive director, Ruth White.
"Our goal is to make sure HUD spends money," Ruth White said. "The next step is to make sure housing authorities are aware."
The vouchers, being issued as part of HUD's Family Unification Program, would not only help youth getting ready to leave foster care, they would also allow more than 9,000 children in foster care throughout the United States to reunite with their parents who otherwise cannot afford housing.
"The department will be committed to the mission of the Family Unification Program, which is to provide vouchers to reunite families," said Donna White, a spokeswoman for HUD.
By reuniting the 30 percent of children who are in foster care because of parents who cannot afford housing, Maryland would save an estimated $24 million annually. All together, the country would save an estimated $1.94 billion annually.
To apply for the housing vouchers and make the reunions possible, public housing authorities must form a partnership with local child welfare organizations.
The Maryland Department of Human Resources, which oversees the social service departments, is primarily focusing on using the funds for those who age out of foster care.
"We know that one of the issues we have with children who are moving out of foster care is that often times there are not supports for them, and they may end up homeless," said Elyn Jones, a spokeswoman for the Department of Human Resources. "By concentrating on them, it will help us to hold back the issues that they too often experience."
While the Department has not yet applied for the vouchers or come up with a specific plan, Jones estimates that it will work with its sister agency, the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development, to obtain the vouchers.
The National Center for Housing and Child Welfare, which lobbied to get the HUD money allocated, was created in May to make sure that housing authorities are aware of the vouchers and to cultivate relationships between housing and child welfare groups.
The Family Unification Program had been inactive the last few years. It was established in 1990, but in 2002, HUD stopped issuing money for the program and put it toward other expenses.
While working for the Child Welfare League of America, a child advocacy group, Ruth White discovered that the Family Unification Program was not being funded, and decided to take action. She lobbied members of Congress until HUD allocated money specifically for the program.
The process took four years. In 2007, HUD allocated $10 million for the Family Unification Program, but when Congress decided to use a continuing resolution and keep the department's 2006 budget, the money was never used.
The vouchers from the 2008 budget will not be distributed until the summer of 2009. The deadline to apply for them is January 28.
The National Center for Housing and Child Welfare will continue working to make sure that public housing authorities apply for the vouchers and cultivate relationships with child welfare organizations so that current and past foster children can receive them.
"The story isn't HUD," Ruth White said. "It's that the kids aren't with their parents."
Capital News Service contributed to this report.