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Resilience: Helping Young People Survive 2020

Resiliency has been the buzz word for 2020. It has been a year of challenges and adversity for everyone. There is confusion. There is fear. Yet, we do our best to overcome the hardships.

As difficult as the pandemic has been for all of us, children and youth who are homeless or in foster care face these same fears, confusion, and more every dayeven before 2020. This year it was even more difficult:

  • Mass layoffsespecially in retail jobs these young people rely onhave left them without any income.
  • College closures left them with nowhere to live. Even after colleges reopened online, campus housing often remained closed.
  • Schools that were also a source of food and support closed. When they opened virtually, most foster and homeless youths had no access to the internet, let alone the technology needed to succeed.

They try to stay resilient in a world that has almost forgotten them. But it’s been so hard.

John Burton Advocates for Youth (JBAY) did not forget them. Instead of slowing down or even closing temporarily, we swiftly pivoted to help at-risk youth face the challenges in these uncertain times. And we continued our usual busy schedule of advocacy, training, and support.

Here are some of the ways we supported homeless and foster youth in 2020:

Emergency Support from JBAY

As soon as the pandemic hit in March, JBAY mobilized to raise more than $400,000 to purchase around 3,000 laptops for foster youth, who would have otherwise dropped out of college when distance learning was the only option. JBAY’s response was praised by Governor Newsom in a press conference about helping foster youth during the pandemic.

Then in May, we established an emergency response fund providing critically needed assistance to more than 500 foster youth attending college to support them with essential housing, food, and transportation needs.

Emergency Action with the Governor

Working with Governor Newsom, we helped foster youth who would age out of foster care at 21 and lose their housing and support during the pandemic. An Emergency Order and $32 million investment protected these youth, allowing them to remain in foster care until June 30, 2021. California was the first state in the nation to take this action and the federal government followed suit shortly after, issuing policy guidance to states.

New Legislation

When the legislature in Sacramento sharply reduced the number of bills it would consider this year, JBAY continued to successfully fight for better laws to protect foster and homeless youth.

In September, Governor Newsom signed two JBAY sponsored bills into law:

  • Senate Bill 860: Improving college access for foster youthincreases participation in college among foster youth by requiring state-funded agencies to assist foster youth in completing their Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). This builds on JBAY’s California FAFSA Campaign, which increased college aid applications by foster youth from 45% in 2017 to 64% in 2020.
  • Assembly Bill 2416: Maintaining financial aid for foster youth and other vulnerable college students who become homelessrequires colleges to consider homelessness as an extenuating circumstance when students appeal the loss of financial aid.

While the California legislature was working to make deep cuts to its 2020-21 budget, we advocated to keep these at-risk youth safe. Not only were there no budget cuts to any essential programs, but we secured an increase in support to foster youth totaling $60 million this year.  

“It’s been a trying year for everyone,” says Amy Lemley, executive director of JBAY. “But it’s so much harder without a family and no resources to draw upon in an emergency. We are proud that JBAY has made such a difference in thousands of lives, despite the hardest year I’ve ever known. With the support of donors, legislators and front-line workers, we will ensure that at-risk youth will not only survive 2020 but thrive in 2021 and beyond. That’s what resilience should mean.”

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.

college graduates throw their hats in the air

JBAY Supports New Bill to Help Homeless Students Stay in College

Nineteen percent of students at California community colleges experience homelessness, as do eleven percent of California State University students. The homeless crisis is even worse for students who are African American, Native American, LGBTQ, or foster youth. Assembly Bill 2416, introduced by Assemblymember Jesse Gabriel, will require colleges to consider homelessness as an extenuating circumstance when evaluating appeals for the loss of financial aid.

On May 13, Tisha Ortiz, a former foster youth speaking on behalf of John Burton Advocates for Youth (JBAY), spoke to the Assembly Committee on Higher Education about her experiences as a student facing homelessness:

Thank you for this opportunity to share my experience with you today. I have direct experience with the toll that being homeless can take on someone’s education. As a child, my family situation was unstable. I entered foster care at 4 years old, reunited with my family at 8 and then reentered foster care at 12, where I remained until I emancipated at 18 and was on my own.

After high school, I enrolled at Cal State East Bay, but without family support I became homeless within a year of attending school. I bounced around to a bunch of different living situations, all the while, attending classes and trying to keep up with schoolwork.

Eventually, I was accepted into a transitional housing program and my grades improved. I transitioned into the dorms and then my own apartment, but my income was not enough to afford the apartment and I again found myself homeless and had to withdraw from classes. I moved around from motel to motel, couch surfed with friends, and even ended up in a shelter for a period of time.

I was eventually able to find stable housing but when I tried to re-enroll at Cal State East Bay, I was told that I couldn’t get financial aid because of satisfactory academic progress requirements. Although my GPA was 2.7, the fact that I had withdrawn from classes when I became homeless disqualified me from financial aid. 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.

AB 2416 will make it easier for students like myself who face homelessness to get back on track and remain enrolled and I strongly urge your support.

For more information on AB 2416 and how to support it, visit: https://www.jbaforyouth.org/ab-2416/