From foster care to first-time homeowners

Jul 17, 2016 | Financial Empowerment

Maureen C. Gilmer

As a child, Ronnisha Davis bounced from home to home. She lived with her mom, then in a foster home, then her dad, then another foster home, then an apartment when she was 17.

Today, the 23-year-old is settling into her own house, purchased with “sweat equity” on her part, as well as help from Habitat for Humanity and Indiana Connected By 25.

The latter is a nonprofit that partners with United Way, the Department of Child Services and other organizations to support young adults before and after they age out of foster care (age 20 in Indiana). Among its programs are Opportunity Passport, which offers financial literacy classes, a matching savings plan and micro loans to build credit.

Davis saved money for college classes and for closing costs on her southside house with Opportunity Passport’s incentive program that matches up to $3,500 in personal savings until age 26 for approved expenses such as education, rent deposits, insurance and cars.

She moved into her three-bedroom home June 30, with plenty of volunteers lending a hand.

“It feels wonderful,” she said, standing amid the chaos. “It’s almost overwhelming. I’m anxious and excited and all these different emotions wrapped in one.”

Opportunity Passport was developed by the Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative. It teaches youth in foster care, starting at age 14, about banking, budgeting and credit scores, and helps launch them into the world prepared to make wise financial choices. Financial partners in the program include PNC Bank and The National Bank of Indianapolis.

“Unlike most young adults who rely on their parents’ established credit and financial advice, many foster teens do not have adults to guide or support them,” said Brent Kent, executive director of Indiana Connected By 25.

Each year in Indiana, about 500 youth age out of the foster care system. One in five will experience homelessness, and only 58 percent will graduate high school by age 19 (compared to 87 percent of all 19-year-olds), according to Kent. Less than 3 percent will earn a college degree by age 25.

Statistics on unemployment and incarceration rates are equally troubling, according to a Casey Youth Opportunities study. One in four will be involved with the criminal justice system within two years of aging out, and fewer than half will be employed at age 24.

Davis, who has a 1-year-old daughter, is bucking the trend with the continued support of local organizations. The 23-year-old graduated from Indiana State University last year with a degree in human development and family studies, and works as a life skills specialist for a local child and family services agency.

“I have a nice car, a house and a really good job,” she said. “Opportunity Passport helped ground me. It helped me learn how to become a homeowner. This will be my house forever.”

And she wants to share it. Davis said she is applying to become a foster parent herself.

Indiana Connected By 25 is looking to expand its financial programs to more foster youth. A $237,000 grant from the Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust will support not only more financial literacy classes and counseling, but also a first-of-its-kind micro-loan program to help youth establish a credit history.

These aren’t big loans. They are lines of credit up to $300 per youth to help steer them away from predatory loan services and build a borrowing history, Kent said. Indiana Connected By 25 will collaborate with a bank or credit union to operate the secured lending program. “For a lot of these children with no safety net, they can get a flat tire and it can ruin their life,” Kent said. “It starts a downward spiral.”

Robb Schrimshaw, vice president of operations for Indiana Connected By 25, puts it like this: “A lot of people learn through the bank of Mom and Dad, and when that is not an option, this program helps them learn how not to lead with their chin. We try to minimize the damage that bad decisions can cause.”

Ericka Shears, a longtime participant in Opportunity Passport, wrote down one of her primary goals four years ago: “I want to buy a house.”

Last December, she did it. She bought a three-bedroom ranch in Cumberland for $124,900, contributing $2,000 to the $4,000 down payment. Opportunity Passport matched the rest.

“Sometimes I still can’t believe I actually live here,” she said. “I don’t think I could have done it on my own.”

Shears, 24, graduated from IUPUI with a degree in human resource business management and works for Venture Logistics. She has no children, but she bought her home with its fenced-in backyard and good schools nearby with a future family in mind.

She entered the foster care system at age 12, with her brother and sister, but has since rebuilt a good relationship with her mother. “She’s over here all the time; I have to kick her out. She’s so proud of me.”

Schrimshaw says the importance of the matched savings, financial literacy training and micro loans can’t be overstated.

“If you’re the youth that buys the car that gets you to work, I think it’s incredibly important,” he said. “If you’re the mom that gets the apartment for shelter, it’s incredibly important. There’s no escaping money.”

It’s the difference between being able to get credit and relying on payday loan outlets, he said. Sometimes getting insurance or even a job is hampered by a weak credit history. “Nobody thoughtfully excludes foster children, but nobody thoughtfully includes them as their own unique population with their own set of circumstances,” Schrimshaw said. “The more tools and support that we can build around them, that’s what we exist to try and do. Otherwise, outcomes are poor, and it’s expensive to the community to pass them down the line.”

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