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Ten Months into the Pandemic, Congress Provides Relief for Older Youth in Foster Care

The new year brought good news for foster youth. On December 27, Congress passed the Consolidated Appropriation Act which included important pandemic relief for older youth in foster care.

John Burton Advocates for Youth (JBAY) advocated for this important funding as part of a large national coalition led by Philadelphia-based Juvenile Law Center.

The appropriations bill included $400 million in one-time funding for older youth in foster care. Of that total, California is expected to receive approximately $44 million.

JBAY is developing recommendations for elected officials about how California can best spend the newly available funding, together with fellow advocates from across the state. JBAY’s top priority is that the funding go directly to youth within 45 days, who we know are struggling with employment and housing during the pandemic.

According to JBAY Executive Director Amy Lemley, many foster youth are hanging on by a thread. “We’re in the tenth month of the pandemic. During this time, youth have done everything in their power stay afloat, going into debt and resorting to increasingly desperate measures,” said Lemley. “The effect of the pandemic is cumulative; we need to get this financial relief to young people as soon as possible.”

JBAY is also recommending that the funding is used to help young people who are on the wait list for the Chafee Education and Training Voucher (ETV), which provides up to $5,000 to current and former foster youth enrolled in post-secondary education, including career and technical education. There are currently over 1,600 foster youth who qualify but do not receive the Chafee ETV due to inadequate funds. The newly available funding would ensure these young people are able to stay enrolled in college.

Finally, JBAY is advocating that the funding helps the approximately 5,000 youth who will exit foster care in January 2021. The California State Legislature authorized youth to remain in foster care after age 21 until June 30, 2021 and Governor Newsom has proposed extending that date to January 2022. With the newly available federal funding, California can ensure these young people make a safe, supported transition during what will likely be a fragile, recovering economy and housing market.

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.”

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 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.” 

Aja Dunlap

JBAY Wins Budget Victory to Prevent Homelessness in High Cost Counties

When Ajanique Dunlap turned 18 she was counting on moving into a foster care placement developed specifically for older youth in foster care. Unfortunately, things did not go as planned. Ajanique found that the transitional housing provider had no apartments open.

“I had to leave my current placement, but I had nowhere to go. I started my first semester at Sacramento State while homeless.”

Thanks to the advocacy of John Burton Advocates for Youth, the 2020-21 state budget includes $4 million to ensure young people like Ajanique don’t face homelessness again. Instead, Ajanique will be eligible for a housing supplement to offset the high cost of housing in California.

The policy change will assist over 1,200 youth annually, ensuring access to housing and supportive services such as case management and counseling, crisis intervention, and assistance with education and employment.

Before this historic investment, waiting lists for transitional housing had reached over 330 youth and, 40% of transitional housing providers reported their waiting lists had grown since the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Housing Supplement was championed by Assembly Member Phil Ting. Thank you to Assembly Member Ting, Governor Newsom and a coalition of over 100 organizations for protecting young people like Ajanique, who can now stop worrying about housing stability and turn their attention to college.

Our Advocacy is Keeping the Class of 2020 On Track to Graduate and Transition to College

When the pandemic struck, over 4,000 foster care youth who were high school seniors in California suddenly left their high schools and started remote learning. Most didn’t have a laptop or internet connectivity and many were at the crucial tail end of the college application and financial aid process.  

These foster youth were on their own, without parents to help them navigate the uncertainty or logistics of remote learning, college deadlines and more. Without an immediate response, the graduation and college dreams of the Class of 2020 would have remained just that: dreams, and not a reality.

John Burton Advocates for Youth stepped in to ensure that COVID-19 didn’t undo the years of hard work that foster youth who are high school seniors have put into reaching college. 

First, we mobilized a network of county educators, to ensure that students complete the all-important Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). If this form isn’t complete, there is no financial aid and for foster youth, that means no college.  As of May7th, 57% of foster youth have completed the FAFSA, the same rate as the general population of students in California. At the same point in 2019, the completion rate for foster youth was just 45%.

Second, John Burton Advocates for Youth stepped in to advocate to the California Department of Education to make foster youth a priority for the distribution of laptops.  We are making progress, working with the California Office of Surplus to direct thousands of laptop computers to foster youth. 

Youth in foster care are fighters. They have fought hard through abuse, trauma and instability and we’re going to keep fighting alongside them until they reach college and beyond.

JBAY Successfully Advocates for No Aging-Out During COVID-19

COVID-19 has challenged us all in many ways. But imagine if you had just turned 21 years old and were told to leave your home and find a new home, all while trying to protect yourself from the virus? Now imagine doing this all without the assistance of a family.  Could you do it safely?

That’s what many foster youth were facing across California when COVID-19 struck. Under existing law, foster youth would be removed from their foster placements to become completely independent as soon as they turn 21.

John Burton Advocates for Youth recognized that it wasn’t right to make young people exit foster care in the midst of the pandemic. That’s why we, together with a coalition of advocates, asked Governor Newsom to allow young people to remain in foster care until June 30th. 

On April 17th Governor Newsom agreed and provided a lifeline to the 1,200 foster youth who would have otherwise “aged out” in April, May and June. Instead of homelessness and instability, these young people are able to remain safely in their homes and on track educationally. 

JBAY will continue to bolster its advocacy efforts to ensure the most vulnerable youth will not fall through the cracks during these uncertain times.