Former Foster Youth Takes Leading Role in Ending California’s Youth Homelessness Crisis

After experiencing homelessness as a teen, Alexis Barries will provide a voice for current and former homeless youth on California’s Homeless Coordinating and Financing Council, which oversees a budget of $500 million.

Alexis Barries’ story is a sadly familiar one to youth who have experienced foster care in California. At age 2, she entered the foster care system; at 8, she was told by her guardians that she’d end up in prison like her parents. At 17, she became homeless. At 18, she entered into extended foster care.

But there’s more to Barries’ story. She ping-ponged around the state’s child welfare system and, at a time when California should have been there to catch her, she fell through its porous safety net. But Barries managed to land on her feet. She overcame, and by doing so, she proved the you’re-not-gonna-be-anything naysayers from her youth wrong. Because Barries is doing something big.

In September, for the first time in the state’s history, a bill requiring California to address youth homelessness was signed into law: Senate Bill 918. As such, Governor Jerry Brown (D) appointed Barries, now 25, to California’s Homeless Coordinating and Financing Council (HCFC), where, for the first time, she’ll represent current and former homeless youth on the governing body that oversees the implementation of the state’s $500 million Homeless Emergency Aid Program, five percent of which will be targeted at the state’s homeless youth.

Lived Experience

When asked to elaborate on her time in foster care, Barries doesn’t dwell on the negative. She had nine placements, went through six schools, and was separated from her sibling when her 14-year-old half-sister got pregnant, but Barries claims she wouldn’t change anything about her time in the system.

“Everything I went through in foster care has been an experience that has helped shape me to the person that I am,” Barries said. “I’ve been exposed to many different homes with different rules and values, and I made the most out of it.”

Her glass-half-full disposition, however, wasn’t enough to keep her housed.

At 16, Barries moved into Transitional Housing Pre-Placement (THPP) through Sonoma County’s TLC Child and Family Services Program. As part of the program, youth are given an apartment and a stipend, and they learn to live on their own, pay bills, go to school, get to and from work, shop for groceries and be independent. Each youth receives their individual THPP funding from the county in which they entered the system — in Barries case, San Mateo County — and can remain in the program either until she or he graduates high school or turns 18.

Alexis Barries had nine placements and attended six schools during her time in foster care, but she says she wouldn’t change a thing about her time in the system.

Barries, however, graduated when she was 17, and there wasn’t enough funding or THPP slots to keep her housed in Sonoma. “It took San Mateo four months to get my THPP payments going through to Sonoma,” she said. “My county was a difficult one to begin with, and I didn’t want to think about going through that all again. But there weren’t any slots open anyways, so that was that. Their hands were tied.”

Barries had to figure something else out. She was among the first foster youth in California to qualify for extended foster care under Assembly Bill 12, a law that permits youth to remain in care up to age 21. But being a part of the state’s first cohort came with its challenges. According to Barries, there was a lot of county-level confusion in regards to how to execute the new legislation. That’s how Barries became homeless. “Because I opted into extended foster care, no one knew what to do with me,” she said.

Fortunately, Barries was approved for what is known as a Supervised Independent Living Placement (SILP), the most independent housing option available under AB 12. But first, before she could receive rent support and monthly check-ins from caseworkers, she had to find an apartment that met state standards.

It took Barries three months to find a place and to come up with a deposit, which included first and last month’s rent. During that time, she had a full-time job and slept in her 1989 Honda Accord. She’d go into work early to wash up in the bathrooms, and when she could afford it, she’d order off of McDonald’s dollar menu. She was scared: of being reported to the police, of people noticing her and of having her employer find out she was homeless.

She felt like she was on her own. She wasn’t given a cell phone and said no one checked to make sure that she had a place to stay. The only thing county workers told her was once she found an adequate apartment, they’d come to approve it and then her funding would start.

“During that transition, I realized that it’s really hard to find a place when you’re a kid,” Barries said. “Not a lot of people want to rent to kids: you don’t have a lot of income to show forth and you don’t have a lot of credit.”

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More so, because she was an out-of-county single youth with a full-time job, Barries was barred from accessing most housing services, including homeless shelters, which often have a first-come, first-serve policy and fill up by mid-afternoon, when Barries was still at work. “When I tried to get help, I was told that my situation was not bad enough to be a priority for housing,” Barries wrote in a San Francisco Chronicle op-ed. “Those limited resources were reserved for the chronically homeless and families with children.”

Eventually, Barries was able to save enough money to land a rental. Soon after turning 18, she moved out of her car. She’s been housed ever since. “It’s kind of weird when you think of being homeless but also you are a ward of the court,” Barries said. “You would think that those who are in foster care wouldn’t experience homelessness because the government is responsible for them.”

Barries is working to address youth homelessness in California, where the number of homeless youth has increased by 32 percent since 2015.

But that’s not the case. According to the National Foster Youth Institute, 20 percent of foster youth instantly become homeless after reaching the age of 18, highlighting a gap in services that puts youth like Barries at risk.

Youth Representation

Today, Barries is employed by John Burton Advocates for Youth (JBAY), a nonprofit that works with and advocates for California foster youth. As a youth advocate, Barries contributes to the nonprofit’s policy agenda, makes legislative visits, testifies at hearings, helps with communications and assists with social media. For her, it’s more of a passion than a job.

Typically, John Burton’s youth advocates get involved with different policies based on their interest and experience. “For Alexis,” said Amy Lemley, the nonprofit’s executive director, “SB 918 deeply resonated with her, and she really wanted to be our lead person on this.”

SB 918 was a long time coming, partially because there wasn’t a definitive count on the number of homeless youth living in California. “If you’re going to responsibly steward resources, you can’t say it’s 14,000 or 200,000 youth,” Lemley said. “The numbers varied wildly, and in a public policy conversation, that’s not good enough.”

According to a 2017 study released by the University of Chicago’s Chapin Hall, across the United States, one in 10 youth between the ages of 18 and 25 and one in 30 adolescents between the age of 13 and 17 experience varying forms of homelessness at some point. In California, preliminary data from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development showed that in that same year, the number of homeless youth in the state had increased to more than 15,000 — a 32 percent jump from 2015.

As daunting as those numbers are, without a piece of policy like SB 918, there’d be no set mandate requiring California to create and allocate resources to reduce homelessness among youth.

SB 918, which was authored by State Senator Scott Wiener (D) and Assemblywoman Blanca E. Rubio (D), directs the HCFC “to set specific measurable goals and map progress toward ending youth homelessness.” Additionally, the HCFC is tasked with working with stakeholders, including youth, to decrease the duration and frequency of youth who experience homelessness, collect data on county-level and statewide youth homelessness, and coordinate efforts to prevent homelessness among system-involved youth.

There’s still a lot of work to be done.

“In the immediate future, we need to make sure the council is being held accountable to what it is they’re supposed to be doing for youth homelessness according to this bill,” said Chris Martin, a legislative advocate at Housing California. “We need to keep up the momentum and make sure we keep bringing youth to the forefront whenever we talk about our response to homelessness statewide.”

The HCFC was created in 2017 to develop policies, identify services and oversee the statewide implementation of housing first legislation, guidelines and regulations to reduce the prevalence and duration of homelessness. At its disposal is a $500 million pool of money, at least 5 percent of which must be used to establish or expand programs for homeless youth.

That minimum of $25 million is a huge triumph for youth advocacy and homelessness nonprofits, but it’s not the only win: when the most recent state budget was signed, a dedicated seat for a youth representative on the HCFC was created. A seat now filled by Alexis Barries.

“If you’re gonna build policy solutions that are going to work, they have to be genuinely informed by people who have that lived experience,” said Brian Blalock, the law and policy director at Tipping Point Community. “Having a youth like that who can sit on a state level and build these strategies is really the only way that we’re going to get to a solution that works for youth.”

Barries is more than ready for the HCFC’s next meeting on January 17, especially since she couldn’t make her first meeting. That meeting was October 9, and she had just gotten married two days before and was already on her honeymoon. In the weeks leading up to the meeting, Barries fully intended to pause her honeymoon for a day and do a quick in-and-out flight to Sacramento so she wouldn’t miss it. “[The council] insisted that I not do that,” she laughed.

Absences aside, Barries is the right person for the job, at least according to her current boss at John Burton. “She’s skilled to be in a room with a lot of different professional adults,” Lemley said. “She has the confidence, thoughtfulness and composure to make her points. She knows why she’s there, and that’s extremely important when working with young people.”

In addition to her involvement with the HCFC and her full-time job, Barries is enrolled in San Joaquin Delta College’s Pathway to Law Program. She hopes to earn an undergraduate degree, go to law school, and, one day, be a lawyer. She plans to be an advocate every step of the way.

“I’m hoping to make an impact,” Barries said, “I don’t think that we’ll make anything happen overnight, but I think as far as the process goes, it’s definitely the right step forward to include the formerly homeless youth voice, and I really wanted to be the voice at this level.”

SB 918 was sponsored by the California Coalition for Youth, the Corporation for Supportive Housing, Equality California, Housing California, John Burton Advocates for Youth, and Tipping Point Community.

Shane Downing 
is a San Francisco-based writer and a neighborhood editor for Hoodline. View Shane’s portfolio and follow him on Twitter @SCdowning.

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New York wants to use a fund for #FamilyFirst Act prep to prevent youth from aging out of #fostercare, but some counties say the money is already spent or earmarked #childwelfare