Known locally as the Muncie Smile Man, Ball State freshman social work major Matt Peiffer has dedicated much of his time to making other people happy. When he’s not dressed in costumes on McGalliard Road, he is speaking to national and local leaders to expand awareness of a new federal program.
The Foster Youth to Independence (FYI) initiative, introduced by former Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Ben Carson in July 2019 and signed into federal law in December 2020, partially subsidizes rent costs for foster care graduates in an effort to reduce the likelihood they become homeless. The initiative was introduced in Congress by Michael Turner, the U.S. representative for Ohio's 10th congressional district.
This initiative was proposed and authored by members of Alumni of Care Together Improving Outcomes Now (ACTION) Ohio when they saw a need for housing support in their community. Ruth White, executive director of the National Center for Housing and Child Welfare based in College Park, Maryland, helped foster youth author this proposal.
“When these kids reach the age of majority in foster care, they shouldn’t need to know where a homeless shelter is unless they want to volunteer there,” she said. “The idea that a homeless shelter would be on their menu of options is appalling to me.”
Peiffer began his advocacy work for FYI in August 2019, meeting with the Muncie Housing Authority (MHA) to explain what the program is about and how it works.
How to get an FYI voucher referral
To qualify for a Foster Youth to Independence voucher, eligible youth must be between the ages of 18 and 24 and at risk of becoming homeless. They need to have a history of being in the foster care system after age 16. Being approved for a voucher is a multi-step process.
- To receive a referral, youth should call their local state child welfare agency, which is usually the Department of Child Services (DCS). Delaware County’s DCS branch can be reached at 765-751-9595.
- DCS will review their qualifications and ensure they have no drug- or violence-related charges on their record from the past five years.
- DCS will send a written referral to the local housing authority, which will request funding from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
- HUD will approve the voucher request and allow recipients 60 to 90 days to find housing. Recipients need to ensure the landlords of the properties they are looking at accept housing vouchers.
- The voucher will last three years from the date of the approval, regardless of how old the recipients were when they received it.
- FYI voucher recipients will pay no more than 30 percent of their income or $50 on rent — whichever is more — with HUD subsidizing the rest.
- If voucher recipients move properties during the three-year period, the voucher should be transferable as long as recipients notify the local housing authority and the landlord of their current property.
Source: U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Department of Child Services
“I fought long and hard with lots of phone calls to make sure that we brought Muncie to the table,” he said. “I set up my own meetings with [the MHA] and invited [the Department of Child Services] to those meetings.”
Noelle Russell, deputy director of communications for the Indiana Department of Child Services (DCS), said in an email FYI programs in Indiana have assisted a total of 74 youth as of March 4, 2021.
“Children exiting foster care are at high risk for housing instability,” Russell said. “DCS applauds any program that alleviates concerns for our youth as they transition to adulthood."
Shannel Lampkins, the Housing Choice Voucher Program manager for the MHA, said eligible youth usually apply for vouchers through DCS and are advanced to the MHA for approval.
“Everyone that has come so far has been approved,” she said. “I’m glad that we are able to participate in helping our foster youth to prevent homelessness … I think it’s a good opportunity that we were able to step up and get it done.”
Peiffer said he had to live at the Wheeler Mission Shelter in Indianapolis for about a month in 2015 because he didn’t have anywhere else to live.
“I have been homeless before, and I know how easy it is to become homeless,” he said. “This program is great — and it’s not really about me, it’s about other youth. Having [that kind of support] is helpful, and I’m glad the program is getting started.”
Peiffer said some apartment complexes are accepting the FYI vouchers, but he thinks awareness about the program needs to increase before more people understand how it works.
White said her organization and foster youth advocates are working to build relationships between landlords and FYI voucher recipients and spread awareness about the program to eligible youth and landlords. She said the passion of foster care graduates was what inspired her to propose the voucher program.
“They told me what it’s like to age out of foster care in that you get to this intersection of childhood and adulthood, and there’s no predictability whatsoever of what housing resources are going to be available to you,” White said. “It’s a treasure hunt when you’re aging out of foster care. With no predictability built in, there’s this palpable sense of anxiety that is laid upon these youth.”
After the FYI program started to gain national traction because of foster youth advocacy, White said, she asked alumni of the foster care system to spread the word to their local communities.
“Matt isn’t just an alumni — he’s a nationally renowned advocate for Foster Care Alumni of America, so I met him through his advocacy,” she said. “To get the information spread across the country, we relied heavily on a network of alumni, and Matt was on that core group.”
White said Peiffer was able to expand the FYI voucher program to housing authorities across Indiana.
“Matt read about it and learned that it was an option for young people in Indiana, so he immediately reached out to the Muncie Housing Authority,” White said. “He was instrumental in getting that information in the hands of not just Muncie, but several housing authorities in Indiana within a month of the program being created.”
At the National Center for Housing and Child Welfare, White said, she works to find the best ways to distribute housing resources and talks with foster care alumni to understand their needs.
“They key to raising awareness of FYI are the really passionate foster care alumni like Matt,” White said. “I’m really grateful to Matt and all the other Matts of the world that are out there spreading the word on behalf of their brothers and sisters. It's making a major difference in expanding the program.”
Only seven people, including Peiffer, have been approved for the voucher program in Muncie so far, but Peiffer hopes the number will grow once landlords understand the program.
“I think it’s just about understanding where foster youth come from and sometimes just offering guidance,” he said. “Letting landlords know it’s an opportunity to build relationships with former foster youth, and be a mentor to them and help them succeed and get further in life … It’s a great program to ensure foster youth are being set up for success.”
Contact Grace McCormick with comments at email@example.com or on Twitter @graceMc564.