JBAY Gears Up for Ambitious and Challenging Year of Policy Change

It’s Thanksgiving week, but at John Burton Advocates for Youth (JBAY), we are already busy thinking about the New Year, when the California State Legislature will return and we can get back to the important work of improving policies for youth who have been homeless or in foster care. In 2021, we’ll be focusing on our three main issues: housing, education and health.

In housing, we’ll be fighting to maintain funding for youth who become homeless after exiting foster care by sustaining the Transitional Housing Program. The program is currently scheduled to end in December 2021, despite its effectiveness and the tremendous need for it: a recent study of former foster youth in California found that over a thousand youth are homeless and waiting for housing.

In education, JBAY will be focused on ensuring the most vulnerable young adults succeed in higher education, which is a critical path to long-term economic security. First, we are proposing to expand access to NextUp, a student support program at 45 community colleges. The program is highly effective, but its reach is limited to a narrow subset of foster youth. We’ll work to modify the eligibility to make an estimated 1,000 additional young people able to receive the support they need.

Also in education, JBAY will assist the tens of thousands of college students struggling with homelessness and food insecurity by advocating for the creation of basic needs centers across the state. These “one-stop-shops” offer students food, housing referrals, help with financial aid and more. The data show that helping students with these traditionally non-academic needs is critical if we want them to maintain enrollment and graduate.

Finally, in health, we will work to ensure youth in foster care have access to reproductive and sexual health services.

Pressing for these kinds of changes is never easy and it certainly won’t be in 2021, with the uncertainty of the pandemic and the related economic impact on the state budget. But we know that young people need us more than ever. Unlike most youth and young adults, those who have been homeless or in foster care don’t have the benefit of parents or an extended family to assist them during this challenging time. Thank you to JBAY supporters who make this work possible. Next stop: Sacramento!

Documentary Highlights the Importance of JBAY’s Work to Protect Older Youth in Foster Care

“Why wasn’t I adopted?” That is the question that Noel Anaya explores in his newly released documentary “Unadopted”, which aired on Monday, November 16th followed by a question and answer session with Noel and John Burton Advocates for Youth Executive Director Amy Lemley.

The film follows Noel’s life, starting with his entrance into foster care at age one, through his separation from his siblings, a near-adoption and then back to his long-term foster parents, with whom he lives for most of his 20 years in foster care.

Noel’s experience, together with those of two young people featured in the documentary, highlights the complexity of adoption and the special challenges that “older” youth in foster care face.

JBAY Executive Director Amy Lemley was interviewed in the film and discussed the plight of the over 20,000 youth who “age out” of foster care annually, “While foster care for older youth has improved in the last decade, it is no replacement for a family.”

In the Q&A following the film’s screening, Noel and Amy explored the implications of the pandemic on youth and young adults in foster care. “During the pandemic, most young adults are turning to their families for financial and emotional support. Youth in foster care don’t have that option. California can’t turn its back on these young people when they need us most.”

JBAY has protected foster youth during the pandemic by advocating for a policy to allow them to remain in foster care until June 30, 2021, providing emergency grants for food and housing and providing laptops for distance learning.

While the film doesn’t provide a single, simple answer to why Noel wasn’t adopted, it provides a powerful testament to why organizations like JBAY must keep fighting to support and protect older youth in foster care.

To learn more about Noel’s journey through foster care, watch the full, 30-minute film.

JBAY Tackles Surge in Homeless Students

At the age of 16, Luz Hernandez was living in a park in San Francisco after being abandoned by her father. She was eventually placed into foster care, but after aging out, she became homeless again and lived in a garage with no heat, running water or even a lock. She recalls her periods of homelessness as the darkest times in her young life. “I was moving from place to place every month. Being homeless not only affected my education but also me emotionally. I was alone.”

Hundreds of thousands of California students share Luz’s experience with homelessness, according to a new report released by researchers at UCLA. The report, titled “State of Crisis: Dismantling Student Homelessness in California”, reveals that almost 270,000 students in California’s K-12 schools were homeless in 2019. That’s an increase of 48 percent in a decade.

In addition, the report notes, one in every five students at a California Community College, one in every 10 at a California State University, and one in every 20 at the University of California are experiencing homelessness.

According to Amy Lemley, executive director of John Burton Advocates for Youth (JBAY), figures like these show why the organization is prioritizing homeless students. “JBAY continues to address homelessness among college students with a wide range of new policies and practices. But we are also increasing our focus on homelessness among K-to-12 students. As this report shows, there is a lot of work ahead.”

Luz showed what is possible with the right support and lots of determination. She enrolled in the City College of San Francisco and qualified for permanent, affordable housing. “I was receiving a lot of support: money for my books, tutors and priority registration,” recalls Luz. “I went from having a 1.5 GPA to having a 3.5 GPA. Programs such as the Burton Book Fund make a big difference in the performance of students.”

Luz’s progress continued as she transferred to San Francisco State University and, after graduating, worked as an intern for JBAY. She credits JBAY for the important role it played in her journey to stability, both through the reforms it made to the foster care system and youth homelessness programs, as well as the hands-on support it provided. “As a child I dreamed of being a different person than my family members. I wanted to be a person with goals. Through all my struggles and sacrifices, I have taught myself the value of a good education so I can pursue my dreams. Despite all my struggles and challenges, I am an unstoppable person. I hope to transform the foster care system into a better place, for people like myself.”

Foster Care Extension Saves Youth During COVID

“I was in panic mode,” says Mariah about the prospect of aging out of foster care during the COVID-19 pandemic and recession. “I was about to turn 21, with a one-and-a-half-year-old son in a new home, and I was barely getting on my feet and then COVID hit and I was unemployed.”

About 300 foster youth turn 21 every month in California. It can be a hard transition at the best of times, as they stop receiving housing aid and other support services. During COVID, with college dorms closing, unemployment surging, and no family to turn to, it could be overwhelming and even dangerous for many foster youth

By the time Mariah turned 21 on June 18, she had found a new job but it was in a toxic workplace. It also meant she could not continue in college while looking after her son, Dylan. 

“Then two weeks after my birthday, my social worker told me I hadn’t aged out because they had extended care until next year because of COVID,” she recalls. “I was in tears.”

John Burton Advocates for Youth pressed for a suspension of ‘aging out’ of foster care as soon as shelter-in-place orders were issued in California. Governor Newsom quickly responded by suspending aging out through June 30, 2021. But it took more advocacy to get an additional $29 million in the state’s 2020-21 budget agreement to ensure that no foster youth would age out of foster care before July 1, 2021.

“The money that I get for Dylan and me is a huge help,” says Mariah.” But on top of that I also have my social worker, who I have had since turning 18. She has been more than amazing; she’s really like a rock for me. She helped me get into school and get college aid. And she connected me with mental health and other services after I moved from Santa Clara to Modesto.” 

Mariah is putting the extended support to good use. “I’ve started law school so that I can be a paralegal,” she says. “Because the classes are all online, I can stay in school while looking after Dylan. Now I will be in a much better position when I age out next year.”

JBAY Works to Expand Mental Health Services

“When I aged out of the system, I wasn’t able to access services anymore, so I ended up homeless,” says Cody, a former foster youth. “At that time, I wasn’t getting mental health services and was suicidal. I didn’t have help or assistance.”

Cody is not alone. Nine out of ten children in foster care have experienced a traumatic event, with nearly half reporting exposure to four or more types of traumatic event. Many of these youth are able to receive mental health services at their school but then lose this vital support when they go on to college. 

In response, JBAY is developing a new program to help foster youth receive the mental health services they need in community college. In collaboration with the L.A. County Department of Mental Health (DMH), JBAY is working to expand school-based mental health services, currently available only in K-12 settings, to community college students who have been in the foster care system. 

JBAY will start by establishing at least three Memorandums of Understanding (MOUs) between local community colleges and mental health agencies. Through this process, JBAY will collaborate with DMH to help their contracted mental health providers link up with community colleges interested in offering additional campus-based mental health services for foster youth. Then, JBAY will summarize lessons learned and best practices that can be replicated across other community colleges throughout the state. 

“Youth want to go to college, they want to better themselves. It is difficult for us to navigate through trauma and the policymakers are the ones who can give us that extended chance to keep going to college to get the resources that we need to do well,” said Cody,

Cody is now a JBAY Youth Advocate, sharing her experiences of the foster care system with the public, practitioners and policymakers. She is also on the road to becoming a therapist herself.

“I would not be here if it wasn’t for my therapists. Like school, my therapists were the most consistent people I had in my life. I want to be the same for others when they don’t have that consistency,” said Cody. “Even just seeing a therapist once a week, that can be enough consistency. And it makes a difference. I don’t think people realize how much of a difference it really can make. But for me, it is why I’m here.”

Student in library

New Law Extends Aid for Homeless Students

John Burton with foster youthGovernor Gavin Newsom last night signed legislation that will make California a national leader in supporting college students facing homelessness. Assembly Bill (AB) 2416, sponsored by John Burton Advocates for Youth (JBAY), requires colleges to consider homelessness as an extenuating circumstance when evaluating appeals for the loss of financial aid. 

John Burton, former president of the California State Senate and Chair of JBAY, welcomed the passage of AB 2416: “Taking away a person’s financial aid while they are struggling with homelessness is kicking them when they are down. It’s just not right. Thank you to the California State Legislature and Governor Newsom for keeping the door to higher education open for homeless students.”

California has seen a surge in homelessness among college students. A 2019 study found one in five of the state’s 2.1 million community college students experienced an episode of homelessness over the previous 12 months. A similar report on the 480,000 students attending California State University found that their rate of homelessness was one in ten.

Before this new law, students who became homeless often lost access to financial aid because they did not meet Satisfactory Academic Progress (SAP). SAP typically requires students to maintain a 2.0 GPA and complete at least two-thirds of attempted courses.

“As a child, my family situation was unstable,” said Tisha Ortiz, speaking on behalf of JBAY to the Assembly Committee on Higher Education. “I entered foster care at four years old, reunited with my family at eight, and then reentered foster care at 12, where I remained until I emancipated at 18 and was on my own.” 

After high school, Ortiz enrolled at Cal State East Bay but became homeless within a year of attending school due to a lack of family support. 

“Although my GPA was 2.7, the fact that I had withdrawn from classes when I became homeless disqualified me from financial aid,” said Ortiz. “There is no way that I can afford to attend school without financial aid. The appeals process has been very challenging and so I wasn’t able to enroll for this semester. I hope to return next year as I have just 24 units left to complete my bachelor’s degree.”

With AB 2416 taking effect on January 1, 2021, California’s homeless students will be able to count on their colleges providing more aid during the crises we face today and in the future.

Governor Signs Law To Improve Foster Youth Access to College Aid

Emmerald EvansGovernor Gavin Newsom signed new legislation late Monday to increase participation in college by foster youth by requiring state-funded agencies to assist foster youth in completing their Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). A pilot project by John Burton Advocates for Youth (JBAY) showed that this type of assistance raised foster youth FAFSA completion rates from just 45% in 2017 to 64% in 2020.

“For too long, far too many foster youth have been denied their dream of a college education because they were unable to obtain the financial aid available to them,” said Amy Lemley, executive director of JBAY, which sponsored the bill. “By following the model of JBAY’s FAFSA Challenge program, this new law will help foster youth access tens of millions of dollars of additional aid.” 

While 85 percent of foster youth say they aspire to go to college, just eight percent achieve a bachelor’s degree by age 26 compared with 46 percent of the general population. Only 46 percent of foster youth entering community college receive the Pell Grant and just 12 percent receive the CalGrant, despite the vast majority meeting the income eligibility criteria for this financial aid. The primary reason for this gap is that these youth are not successfully completing the complex and often daunting FAFSA process.

Testifying in support of SB860, Emmerald Evans, a Youth Advocate for John Burton Advocates for Youth (JBAY), told the Senate Education Committee that the new law “will allow foster youth to have a reliable support system to help them prepare for college despite the disadvantages that they may face. Having financial aid literacy as well as support to get through all of the necessary steps in the process is vital. As a foster youth, not having the typical family background, I don’t have access to the types of resources that families typically provide like being able to live at home, having access to reliable transportation and of course getting financial support from family for educational costs like books, supplies, a computer and living expenses. This lack becomes even more challenging when a crisis like COVID-19 happens.”

The new law goes into effect on January 1, 2021.

JBAY Helps Youth Get Back on Track with Employment Assistance

Before the pandemic hit, Christina was on-track, attending Bakersfield College and working part-time as an aide to Kern County Supervisor Mick Gleason. While she was busy working and studying during the day, her small children were safely in childcare.

As a former foster youth, her journey to adulthood had been a challenging one. She was placed into foster care as a small child, reunified with her father at age 13 and the placed into foster care yet again after becoming pregnant at age 16.

These moves meant multiple placements and multiple schools, including three different high schools. Despite these challenges, Christina was forging a path forward for herself and her young family.

Today, Christina’s future is much less certain. Following the pandemic, the first thing to go was her job. Kern County made budget cuts, which meant she no longer has a way to earn the money that pays for her rent, her food or the many other necessities required by herself and her children.

Christina is not alone. According to the Pew Research Center, young workers are the demographic of employees most negatively impacted by the pandemic. Nationally, one-quarter of workers under age 24 have lost their job in the COVID-19 economic downturn.

John Burton Advocates for Youth (JBAY) is stepping in to help young people like Christina rejoin the workforce. Together with the California Opportunity Youth Network, JBAY is launching a new project that will increase access to employment services for youth who were formerly in foster care, the juvenile probation system or who have experienced homeless.

Historically, these categories of young people have been underserved by the federal workforce training system. In 2018, just 4 percent of the 161,288 youth served by the federal workforce training system were current and former foster youth.

The low level of assistance provided to foster youth is due to policies that exclude them. Specifically, the federal workforce training system requires 75 percent of youth funding to be directed to “out-of-school youth” who have experienced education system disconnection. While well intended, this policy excludes young people like Christina, who face tremendous challenges as former foster youth, but are attending school part-time.

JBAY is advocating to change this policy by seeking a state waiver that will allow local workforce development boards in California to serve youth who were formerly in foster care, the juvenile probation system or who have experienced homeless. As part of the implementation of the federal waiver, JBAY will work with local workforce development boards to implement evidence-based youth employment practices.

These are the kinds of services that will help Christina return to work and restart the progress she has fought so hard to achieve.

JBAY Transforms Helplessness into Hope

“Because of you, I had the opportunity to make a positive difference in my students’ lives. Because of you, many are safe with a roof over their heads.”

This is what we heard recently from Rosemary Touyanou at Santiago Canyon College in Orange, California. Rosemary contacted John Burton Advocates for Youth to express her thanks for creating the California College Pathways Rapid Response Program. 

The California College Pathways Rapid Response Program was established in May to address the growing needs of college foster youth impacted by COVID-19 by providing access to flexible resources for housing, food, technology access, transportation, health care, and other emergency needs. It is a partnership between John Burton Advocates for Youth and Together We Rise, funded by a consortium of foundations and individual contributors. Since May, 445 youth have been assisted. 

According to Rosemary, the help has been a lifeline for the foster youth who are facing the pandemic without the support of an extended family. 

“One of my students was living in an extremely dangerous environment – in a barn, surrounded by drug dealers and drug users. Another student was about to be evicted with her children. Thanks to the California College Pathways Rapid Response Program, these young people are now safe. The young man living in the barn was removed from that environment and is now attending Cal State University Fullerton.

Rosemary explained that COVID has hit home for her students, “One of my students was infected with COVID. She had just started her new job so she had no vacation and no sick time to use during the time she was fighting to stay alive. Then two days after she returned to work, she received the news that her four year old now had COVID. She had to take another 15 days off work. Rent was due, no food, and it seemed that things were getting worse and worse.”

This student received assistance from the California College Pathways Rapid Response Program. According to Rosemary, “I’m happy to report that both she and her daughter are doing well.” 

Before the California College Pathways Rapid Response Program, Rosemary often felt helpless and ended the day with worries and stress. “I felt helpless when one of the students I serve, called and told me what they were facing.” However, this was changed around once the program was developed. “Words cannot express my gratitude at all the assistance my students have received.” 

JBAY Housing Complex: A Shelter in the Storm During COVID-19

‘Aging out’ of foster care is a challenge under the best of circumstances. Now add in the impacts of a global pandemic and devastated economy. It would be hard to imagine a more difficult time to be young—and without the support of an extended family.

Fortunately, 24 former foster youth in San Francisco have a shelter in the storm. They live in the John Burton Advocates for Youth Housing Complex.

Completed in 2018, the John Burton Advocates for Youth Housing Complex has 50 units of service-enriched affordable housing, including 24 homes for TAY—youth between the ages of 16 to 24 who are transitioning out of foster care. It is located in the Fillmore District of San Francisco and is part of the Booker T. Washington Community Service Center’s 70,000 square foot mixed-use facility, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year.

John Burton Advocates for Youth provided the development with critically needed financial support to help complete construction. The complex also includes a childcare facility, youth programming space, recording studios, a gym, and community space. It supports its tenants and neighbors with recreation activities, educational support and vocational training, and senior clubs, as well as focusing on the guidance and development of its youth and young adults.

Marquis Engle is the Director of Programming for Teens and Transition Age Youth and has seen first-hand how youth in the housing program have been negatively impacted by the pandemic.

“COVID-19 and the recession caused a lot of challenges for all of us, but especially for former foster youth,” said Marquis. “Many have lost their jobs.”

To ensure young people stay on track, youth who live in the John Burton Advocates for Youth Housing Complex have access to a range of supports. This includes community-building events, such as vegan cooking and martial arts, as well as employment programs, such as an eight-week employment training program, where youth are paired with a technology company. Youth also receive one-on-one case management provided by First Place for Youth.

But the programs aren’t all work. Despite the unprecedented challenges of 2020, the Center is still drawing on the principles that have animated it since 1920. “A big goal of our programs is to deepen the relationships with the young people,” said Marquis. “We talk. We sing. We enjoy ourselves!”