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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.

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.

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.