Foster Youth to Independence Project’s Chelsea Monzel, left, and Meghan Condry help young adults transition from the foster care system. Contributed / Portland Housing Authority

PORTLAND — When Jess Falero aged out of foster care, they transitioned first to a homeless shelter and then to a residence for homeless women in Portland. They are now living in an apartment and starting the next chapter in their life because of a new program of “robust support” from the Portland Housing Authority.

“Being unhoused is a difficult process and one that is tough to navigate,” said Falero, one of 30 young adults in the area who have been helped through the Foster Youth to Independence program.

Launched last June with the John T. Gorman Foundation and other community partners, the program finds housing for former foster children, pays for it for three years and helps with the related costs of setting up a household. It also provides guidance on responsible money management, education and careers.

Portland Housing Authority has been offering federal Housing and Urban Development three-year rent vouchers to the 18- to 24-olds transitioning out of foster care since 2019, but that was found to be lacking, said Portland Housing Authority Director of Vouchers Leah Bruns.

“HUD doesn’t provide social services to help these youth,” Bruns said. “The vouchers are more of a source of income for the tenants to pay rent. There weren’t any robust supports. Especially these youth, but any youth out in the world in their own apartment for the first time needs a little bit of support.”

Young people exiting foster care in Maine face financial burdens that rent vouchers don’t cover, said housing authority Executive Director Cheryl Sessions, such as paying for background checks and security deposits and affording things like furniture and kitchenware once they get a place to live.

Falero, a community organizer with the Maine Peoples Housing Coalition and one of the organizers of last summer’s homeless encampment at City Hall, spent a decade in foster care in Connecticut starting at age 8 before moving to Portland. The Foster Youth to Independence program gave Falero the ability to move out of Florence House and into an apartment on Munjoy Hill in January. It is also providing money management guidance.

“It’s helped with the financial management piece and managing money coming in with my daily needs and the money I have to put away,” Falero said.

The effort is funded through a $390,000 three-year grant from the Gorman Foundation that pays for two dedicated Foster Youth to Independence staff members, Chelsea Monzel and Meghan Condry.

“These kids have no one to turn to,” Bruns said. “There is no support. Things are not being provided for in anyway. I am so grateful Chelsea and Meghan are there to provide for them.”

Alexis Mann, a program associate with the Gorman Foundation, said the grant is an extension of the foundation’s mission of “helping organizations and programs think creatively in addressing some of the most pressing needs of vulnerable Maine families.”

According to Maine Children’s Alliance, there are more than 2,150 children living in foster care in the state as of Dec. 31, 2019, including 246 in Cumberland County. A 2018–2019 survey of youth experiencing homelessness, conducted by MaineHousing and the Maine Continuum of Care, found 35% of respondents had previously been in foster care or a group home.

Bruns said the first step in the program is to help the youth with the paperwork necessary to obtain a voucher. Then the focus turns to finding an apartment close to their work or school, before ultimately shifting to a more long-term focus. Program participants take part in Portland Housing Authority’s Family Self-Sufficiency Program, which helps them meet education, employment and financial goals.

To help secure the housing for 27 of the 30 Foster Youth to Independence participants, Portland Housing Authority has worked with Quality Housing Coalition’s Project HOME, which, according to the organization, brings together landlords, housing readiness programs and housing mentors, to support those “who would otherwise be screened out of the tenant application process due to application fees, credit scores, tenant histories and move-in costs.”

Community Development Block Grant money from the city has been used to provide youth with internet access for online employment, educational and case management services.

Falero said Foster Youth to Independence has also helped three other people involved in last summer’s homeless encampment find housing.

Falero, now with an apartment to call home,  is considering a run later this year for the District 1 seat on the Portland City Council and is working with South Portland City Councilor April Caricchio to examine how to provide free college for youth who have been wards of the state.

For more information about the program, contact FYI Coordinator Monzel at [email protected] or 650-1504.

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