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.”

JBAY is Building More Onramps to Higher Education

When you are in high school struggling just to get by, it’s hard to see opportunities that can help break through the barriers to become a thriving adult. It’s even more difficult when those who are there to support you, including high school counselors and administrators, don’t know of programs to help you succeed.

One such opportunity is dual-enrollment. It gives high schoolers a taste of college, allowing them to take college courses for credit in high school. It also saves lots of money in tuition, since the college credits are free or low cost. Most importantly, students who participate in high-quality dual enrollment programs are more likely to graduate high school, enter college, and graduate with a degree.

“Earning college credits while still in high school shows kids that they have what it takes to succeed,” says Amy Lemley, executive director of John Burton Advocates for Youth (JBAY).  “It can be a wonderful program, but it’s so frustrating that the youth who need that boost the most are those least likely to know about this option.”

Studies have shown that students who are most underrepresented in college—young men of color,  students from low-income families, and first generation college students—often benefit the most from dual enrollment. Yet it’s a program that’s mostly been used by families who already have experience with higher education. 

Despite the clear benefits, California has not officially implemented dual enrollment as a strategy to improve access to higher education for foster youth. As a result, high schools and community colleges across the state have faced significant barriers in advancing dual enrollment programs, including lacking the clear guidelines and protocols to establish the programs.

To remedy this, JBAY is partnering with the Career Ladders Project to help three college campuses offer dual enrollment to  youth with experience of  foster care, homelessness or juvenile justice. Through this collaboration, JBAY will develop a learning agenda, offer technical assistance to the campuses, and document challenges and successes. The lessons learned from these pilot programs will be used to create guidelines for other campuses to create their own programs.

“Ensuring that students from disadvantaged backgrounds have access to this program will not only give them more opportunities to succeed, but allow them to see their potential,” says Lemley. “We’re excited to be building more onramps to higher education. It’s one of the best routes out of generational poverty .”

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!”

JBAY Advances College Success One Book at a Time

“This past year, I not only passed my classes but was able to significantly improve my grades thanks to the Burton Book Fund,” said Aja Dunlap, a former foster youth and junior at Sacramento State University. 

Aja is one of the 1,000 current and former foster youth served by the Burton Book Fund in the 2019-20 academic year. Since its launch in 2013, the Burton Book Fund has provided over $1.9 million to cover textbooks and critical needs costs to more than 7,700 current and former foster youth attending colleges in California. This academic year, over 1,000 youth attending 90 colleges will participate in the program.

From a lack of critical campus support resources to gaps in financial aid, foster youth continue to face significant barriers in accessing and succeeding in higher education. In order to address these barriers, the Burton Book Fund was established to ensure that students have sufficient support systems to pursue higher education. 

Over the past seven years, the Burton Book Fund has improved retention and degree completion rates by increasing student contact with campus support professionals throughout California. Through this process, students like Aja have partnered with their campuses in mobilizing to better serve foster and homeless youth.

This upcoming Fall, Aja will be entering her third year at Sacramento State and joining the Criminal Justice Fellowship to advance racial and economic justice. “I am so excited about this upcoming semester and opportunity to start taking upper division classes!” said Aja.

Aja was able to apply through the Burton Book Fund for the Guardian Scholars Program at Sacramento State. “The application process was pretty simple, straightforward, and I felt supported throughout it.” 

There are multiple ways you can support the Burton Book Fund, from spreading the word to donating books and resources. To donate to the fund, please visit the link here. To learn more about participation eligibility requirements, please visit the flyer for the 2020-21 program here

JBAY Receives ‘One in a Million Award’ for Moving Youth Out of Poverty

John Burton Advocates for Youth (JBAY) has been recognized with a ‘One in A Million Award’ from Multiplying Good. The award was for JBAY’s work helping foster youth maximize their tax refunds this year, which resulted in more than two thousand foster youth receiving a combined four million dollars in refunds.

“Filing for taxes is always a confusing thing for me when the time comes around,” said Emmerald Evans, a foster youth studying at Sacramento State. “It’s important for me to have help filing taxes to make sure I’m receiving the most suitable refund based on my circumstances and to be sure that I am reporting everything that is needed to be reported.”

If it wasn’t for John Burton Advocates for Youth (JBAY), Emmerald and thousands of other foster youth may have missed out on their refund this year. JBAY provided support and materials to help foster youth like Emmerald complete their tax returns and claim the California Earned Income Tax Credit (CalEITC) for the first time.

(CalEITC) is the state’s largest anti-poverty program, directing $1 billion to low-income Californians in 2019. Unfortunately, until now, young adults, aged 18 to 24, weren’t eligible, unless they were custodial parents. This exclusion was particularly hard for foster and homeless youth, who don’t have the financial support provided by most families to their young adult children.

That all changed last year, when Governor Newsom made 18- to 24-year-olds fully eligible for CalEITC for the 2020 tax year.

JBAY responded to this opportunity by launching the Cash Back for Transition-Age Youth Pledge to help foster and homeless youth take full advantage of this new tax credit. The program educates youth about the availability of the CalEITC. It also encourages youth service providers to conduct activities to increase rates of tax filing, including watching a training conducted by JBAY, distributing social media materials developed by JBAY, planning a tax-filing event, and several more.

JBAY worked with 30 organizations, reaching 2,326 homeless and foster youth by the tax deadline of July 15. This will result in an estimated $4 million in the pockets of transition-age youth in California.

“It’s been an extremely challenging year, especially with so many student jobs disappearing,” said Emmerald. “The tax credit couldn’t have come at a better time. I was able to use my refund to pay off some debts, which has been a huge relief for me.”

JBAY Helps Secure Housing for Homeless Youth on 30 Campuses

Students across California are preparing for the start of college, largely from the comfort of their parents’ home, due to the pandemic. Statewide, an estimated 2.4 million college students will receive their education remotely for the fall semester.

But what about students who have no home? They also have no family to offer free rent, free wifi and most importantly, emotional support and encouragement.

That was the case for Cody, a youth advocate at John Burton Advocates for Youth. After overcoming abuse and neglect as a small child, she entered foster care, was adopted then re-entered foster care at age 16 after her adoptive parents abandoned her.

Cody soldiered on, enrolling in Cosumnes River College and determined to make a life for herself.

Unfortunately, landlords aren’t paid in grit and determination, qualities Cody possesses in abundance. Instead, they require cash and after the loss of a job, Cody was homeless.

Last summer, John Burton Advocates for Youth (JBAY) advocated for the passage Assembly Bill 74, which included a $19 million annual state investment to reduce homelessness among college students.

Since then, we’ve stuck with the issue and are proud to report that the funding has been distributed to 30 campuses, including 14 community colleges, seven campuses of the California State University system, and all nine University of California campuses. Young people like Cody no longer have to struggle alone.

JBAY has been involved in each step of the implementation process of AB 74 and will remain involved by providing technical assistance to selected campuses. We don’t consider the job done until it makes a direct, meaningful, and measurable impact on the lives of youth.

The good news is that the AB 74 investment is doing just that.

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: