by Donna Butts, executive director of Generations United
“He is the air that I breathe.” -Olivia, raising her 11 year old grandson, Richard
Across the United States, more than 2.65 million children live in grandfamilies — families in which grandparents and other relatives or close friends are raising children without a parent in the home. They come together suddenly, often for tragic reasons. While these may vary from parental substance use, mental health issues, death and more, there’s one common dominator:
How do we all fit under one roof?
Some grandparents may be fortunate to have enough room and resources to adjust to a suddenly expanded family. Most do not.
Caregivers may have downsized to a one-bedroom apartment. Others may live in senior-only housing where children are prohibited. Subsidized housing may not recognize the new grandfamily as a “family” requiring additional space.
Whatever the housing dilemma, the results are the same adding stress to an already taxing and complicated situation.
While affordable housing is a challenging issue for many Americans, grandfamilies are in a unique situation. They have little to no time to plan and no legal relationship to the children.
They don’t know where to turn and what services and supports might be available to them and the children in their care.
A new report by Generations United, A Place to Call Home: Building Affordable Housing for Grandfamilies, found less than one-third of income-eligible grandfamilies receive housing assistance.
The barriers they face to securing safe and affordable housing are many. For JJ’s family, it was state foster care guidelines, designed for people who don’t know each other, that drove his grandparents into bankruptcy. They took in four children, prepared to sacrifice and raise them only to find they didn’t have enough bedrooms to meet state standards and secure financial support for the kids.
A home filled with love, but not enough bedrooms.
Had the National Model Family Foster Home Licensing Standards been available then and the state adopted them, it would have been okay for JJ to share a bedroom with his brothers.
Eventually, after much remodeling, his grandparents qualified and were provided as much money as the state allotted, though still not as much as strangers would have received to care for the children.
Children in the care of relatives do better than children placed with strangers. They are more likely to stay connected to their roots, brothers and sisters, and schools. And most importantly, report they feel loved.
What can be done to help ensure grandfamilies can live safely and affordably under one roof? The new Generations United report includes recommendations like:
o Replicate grandfamilies housing models that exist. There are about 19 around the country most of which provide supportive services for the older caregivers and children on site.
o Urge HUD, Interior and Treasury to provide clear written guidance that their housing programs cannot block assistance from lawfully eligible households that include grandfamily caregivers without legal custody of the children.
o Ensure states align their standards with the National Model Family Foster Home Licensing Standards
o Fund and establish a National Grandfamilies Technical Assistance Center to coordinate expertise around grandfamilies housing issues and developments, among other subjects.
As Olivia said, a one-bedroom apartment was okay when her grandson, Richard, was 3 months old, but now he’s 11 and the apartment has gotten a lot smaller. They now live in Plaza West, the new Grandfamilies Apartments in Washington, DC. She and Richard each have their own room. “Richard is the air I breathe.” She just needed more breathing room. Now she has it.