Not all superheros wear capes. The proof? Since last November, Idaho social workers have housed over a hundred displaced foster teenagers in Airbnbs, and some have even worked overnight shifts to keep a guardian nearby.
We wanted to find out more about why teenagers are being placed in these temporary housing arrangements — Mike Dixon, program manager in the Division of Family and Community Services, and Judy Reeves, overseer of the department’s temporary housing for foster teens, were kind enough to offer a few minutes to share what these foster kids are going through.
How Airbnb (Then, Renting) Became The Only Option
Dixon has worked in social services for over 15 years, starting as a case worker and working his way up to case management. He has nearly two decades of expertise in overseeing cases and helping kids reunite with their families — or helping with adoption or guardianship if another long-term solution is needed.
One of the most significant changes he’s noticed in his career are the families. They’re more complex than ever before. “The dynamics, safety issues, trauma, and mental health concerns have really progressed,” Dixon said. “The issues we’re dealing with are more complicated overall.”
COVID-19 didn’t simplify things for foster children. While the pandemic has had an impact on everyone, it “really hit our most vulnerable populations when it comes to mental health.” For older foster teens with higher levels of needs, it was especially challenging.
For most of the department’s history, foster children needing an overnight stay with nowhere to go was rare. It would happen only once every several months. At the time, the best solution was to keep the children at the office, and have a social worker pull an overnight shift. This is because most housing was able to be arranged by the next day — until COVID-19. “We saw some changes in foster parent availability,” Dixon said since less families were available to take kids in.
Then, during the pandemic, one of their group homes shut down. “That was a big placement option for us,” Dixon explained. “We had a group home for girls shut down last fall. Another one in Boise shut down for several weeks. We already had the need for kids to stay in these homes.”
According to Dixon, the need quickly “compounded” — upward of 10–15 kids at any given time, with nowhere else to go. The team needed a better place for the kids to stay.
The “Temporary” Fix
When you need a place to stay, you might look into Airbnb first. So did Dixon and his team. Last November, they were desperate for a solution. Hotels were simply too expensive and unfeasible for the number of teenagers who needed a place to go.
The Airbnb stays were originally intended to be a temporary fix for the foster displacement. However, due to unrelenting demand, the temporary shelter has now turned into a full-time operation working out of two homes in Coeur d’Alene. In fact, they have entered a rental agreement with the owners of the stay and no longer rent out the space through the hospitality platform.
They also hired Judy Reeves, now the manager for the short-term shelter for foster kids. She was originally brought on to do shifts at the Airbnb, but, after the third week, she was hired to bring more structure into the operation since it wasn’t going away. “We needed to figure out a different plan,” Judy recalled.
Let’s face it: Juggling torches would probably be easier than running two homes that can house anywhere between 10–15 foster kids at a time. In these homes, a crisis is always unfolding. Most of the kids that they serve have been released from foster home, a facility, or have “just gotten declared,” but may still require an overnight stay, depending on the time of day.
In this new role, Judy manages the shelter’s staff and scheduling, and fills in the gaps for many of the shelter’s needs. It keeps her exceptionally busy. While describing her role, Judy said cheerfully, “What’s predictable is that it’s unpredictable.”
Yet, the job is a lot of fun, especially when big victories happen! “We just got into a rental. It was a really exciting, big, beautiful home.” The moment gave Judy, the kids, and the department lots of “good energy.”
Although the problem of foster children displacement isn’t going away, it’s comforting to know that Idaho’s social workers have never left them without a place to stay.
Help Foster Teens Directly, Today
Judy says without the support of volunteers, the short-term shelter “wouldn’t have happened” at all. However, they still need help – and, luckily, there’s many ways to offer your own helping hand!
The shelter always needs volunteers, especially for overnight shifts. All volunteers are thoroughly vetted, this includes undergoing a background check and having fingerprint records taken.
If you’re a foster parent, however, you may be one of the best people to help. “We encourage foster parents to volunteer. It’s a great opportunity to get to know these kids, to understand their fear, and what it’s like to have a teenager in their home,” Dixon said. “They’re not as scary as they might sound on paper.”
If you’re a member of the community or part of a community group, you can also consider donating time to prepare meals, go shopping, share your artistic craft, or do activities with the kids. These activities can be seasonal — during the holiday season, people built gingerbread houses with the kids. And, recently, a barber even donated a haircut.
Providing an activity, especially when there’s lots of downtime, can make a huge impact during this vulnerable moment in their lives. Plus — from eating inside a restaurant to visiting a zoo — what’s a standard experience for many families is often a first-time experience for many of these kids, even as teenagers.
One of Judy’s best memories while managing the shelter took place during Christmas time. “We had a really wonderful couple take one of the teen kiddos for the Christmas holiday for four days.” During that time, she received photos of the teenager doing “everything you can imagine: decorating the tree, hanging stockings, even doing some jiujitsu!”
You can also donate items. Unfortunately, the kids’ greatest needs can be as basic as toothpaste, underwear, socks, or pajamas. “Kids might have a bunch of their belongings spread out across homes or even in different states,” Judy explained. Every time a foster child is moved, “bits and pieces” get lost along the way. “When we’re able to build that up with donations, it’s a small comfort. Whether it’s a pair of pajamas or underwear, we can give it to them.”
Over a hundred kids have come in and out of the shelter since November. That makes donations go fast — so don’t hesitate to reach out if you’re able to help!
To Get Started, Contact Judy
Contact Judy Reeves via email, Judy.Reeves@dhw.idaho.gov and she can help coordinate with you on the best way to get involved! Whether you contribute time or money, your help can make a direct impact on serving these kids’ needs, when they need your help most.