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Panel considers how to help former foster kids get college degrees and stable housing

Kareem Balance, 22, told a Utah legislative panel Wednesday that he has had a difficult time navigating college payments and finding stable housing after leaving Utah's foster care system.
Kareem Balance, 22, told a Utah legislative panel Wednesday that he has had a difficult time navigating college payments and finding stable housing after leaving Utah's foster care system.
Kareem Balance

SALT LAKE CITY — Covering costs of tuition and a place to live can be difficult for college students, but especially so for those just who are just leaving the foster care system.

For Kareem Balance, 22, managing rent and fees has been an uphill battle, he told a legislative committee at the state Capitol on Wednesday. He has bounced from his foster father's home to a friend's couch, to a transitional housing program in Salt Lake County in recent years.

His college career also has ping-ponged. As a computer science major at Salt Lake City's Westminster College, he received a surprise $14,000 bill and dropped out of the program, then began again at Weber State University before scholarships there ran out. He now works at a temp agency and still owes the Westminster payment.

Balance didn't know which employees on campus could help him navigate the hurdles, he told Utah lawmakers on the Child Welfare Legislative Oversight Panel.

"Having that support system on campus would have been a tremendous help," he said.

Balance's experience is not uncommon, said Crystal Vail, adolescent services program administrator for the Utah Division of Child and Family Services. Many colleges have the resources, but students aren't sure where to find them.

No bill has been filed to address the issues raised at the meeting. But one lawmaker on the committee, Rep. Sandra Hollins, D-Salt Lake City, said she is planning to speak more with Balance, Vail and others about how to make sure that those graduating from foster care have the same opportunities as other young adults.

"I want them to have the same access," she said, "and be able to have that same start in life."

Currently, more teens in foster homes are attending college with financial help from federal Pell grants and other funding sources, Vail said.

"Were getting them into higher education," she said, "but we're not seeing as many graduate and complete the programs."

Making sure they have stable housing also remains a challenge. A September survey of 21-year-olds who spent some amount of time in Utah's foster care system revealed more than 20 percent reported they didn't have a permanent place to stay after leaving the state's care, Vail said.

Several coordinators around the state help youths in foster care hash out a job and housing plan, she added, but none is dedicated just to education. And while a housing voucher program in Salt Lake County provides assistance to Balance and other former foster children, no such program exists in more rural parts of the state.

Those in the foster system age out when they turn 21, she told the panel, but some head out on their own at age 18, depending on the circumstances.

Balance said much of his childhood was positive and included several trips to the zoo, but he entered foster care after repeated abuse from his stepfather. School was the one constant while he was growing up, he said. And though he is not taking classes right now, he is committed to eventually finishing the computer science degree.

"Education," he said, "is the gateway to freedom and success."