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!

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.”

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!”