By Johanna Greeson

Philadelphia is working to end youth homelessness in the next 100 days, as part of its four-pronged approach to the city's Street Homelessness Challenge. In fact, this is the second iteration of the 100-day challenge, the first of which started in the summer. Austin, Cleveland, and Los Angeles are also engaged in 100-day challenges.

Which city will be the first to achieve the goal? The answer depends on who makes the boldest moves to improve services for the youths who are most vulnerable and susceptible to homelessness - those who age out of foster care.

About 22,000 youths age out of foster care in the United States each year when our child-serving systems fail to achieve permanency for them. When youths in foster care reach the age of 18 (or 21 in some cases) or declare themselves "emancipated," they "age out" of foster care and are no longer eligible for services provided by the child welfare system. Only a little more than half of these youths exit with a permanent residence to call "home." The other half have no permanent home because of the system's failure to secure permanency either through adoption or safe reunification with their birth parents.

Unsurprisingly, the youths who age out without a permanent home become part of Philadelphia's invisible population of homeless youths. Youths in foster care who age out have long been identified as having greater risk of homelessness upon discharge. In fact, former foster youths are among the fastest-growing segment of the homeless youth population.

The pipeline from foster care to homelessness is due to the lack of effective services for older youths in the system. Research on youths who age clearly demonstrates that "independent living" services are ineffective in preparing youths for life after foster care. Recent research also shows that independent living programs do not increase or strengthen social supports for youths exiting foster care.

The problem is not entirely the burden of Philadelphia's Department of Human Services. For the past three decades, federal dollars have continued to support independent living programs despite their limited success.

The result? Youths age out of foster care with both underdeveloped independent living skills and a lack of any sort of social safety net that comes in the form of parents/caregivers for the general population of twentysomethings. It's the perfect storm for youth homelessness.

Philadelphia could become a pioneer in providing services for older youths in foster care by doing away with the old independent living model that just does not work.

As Philadelphia grapples with problems at the front end of its child welfare system - receiving and responding to reports of child maltreatment - it must also be concerned with the back end of that system, the youths who age out.

Fortunately, there are steps DHS can take to reduce the foster care-to-homelessness pipeline.

Natural mentoring is a practice approach that not only prepares youths for independence, but also cultivates supportive relationships between youths and a self-nominated, caring adult (or natural mentor) in their lives. An intervention called Caring Adults R Everywhere (CARE), leverages the power of relational connectedness and social support to change the lives of youths in foster care who will age out and likely end up homeless.

Older youths continue to emancipate to the streets. They need more than just skills. Like all of us, they need relationships. They need to know someone cares and will be there for them when the system steps away. CARE is a potential answer to this problem.

Johanna Greeson, an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania School of Social Policy and Practice, is the developer of CARE. jgreeson@sp2.upenn.edu