Ash Barcus cried when her financial aid disbursement came through last week. She knew it meant that she’d be able to afford at least her rent and utilities this month — but just barely. And the coronavirus pandemic has only just landed.
“That’s pretty much what’s keeping me alive right now, school money,” the 24-year-old Los Angeles resident said, tallying her looming bills and explaining her plan for which she can pay and which she hopes to defer.
As a former foster youth, Barcus is facing the same health and economic threats tearing through communities across the globe. Yet she’s confronting the terror daily life has become without the support of family or a financial safety net – essentials of ever-increasing importance in this time of isolation and lost work.
Barcus, a full-time student at College of the Canyons, usually makes her living in the entertainment and gig economies, two sectors that have come to a screeching halt amid social distancing measures put into place in every California county to stem the spread of the highly contagious virus.
Her primary job at the Six Flags theme park near her home in a far-flung exurb northwest of Los Angeles, ended when the park shut down on March 13. She has also been a driver with the ride-hailing company Lyft. But because she has pre-existing health conditions that make her particularly vulnerable to infection, she had to stop that work, too, to prevent being exposed to the illness by a passenger.
Through sniffles and sneezes, Barcus explains that she has asthma, severe allergies and a heart condition, all of which make catching coronavirus a much more serious risk for her.
“I’ve been struggling to breathe for months already, so if I get corona I’m not going to be doing so well,” she said. “I cannot get this thing.”
And though Barcus is self-isolating at home, focusing on her studies as a double-major in political science and paralegal, she is still at risk of exposure. She rents a room in a house shared with police officers who remain in the field and could well come into contact with infected people.
Her medical issues pose an additional hurdle in the age of coronavirus. She’s running out of an expensive allergy medication that’s not covered by her Medi-Cal insurance. She counts her pills: She’s got 11 left, less than a two-week supply, but at around $50 a box she can’t afford to restock while she’s out of work. She also gets infusions of magnesium to stave off thrice weekly migraines so debilitating they sometimes land her in the emergency room. Now, she’s not sure if she’ll be able to go into the clinic for her next medical appointment.
“I’m just trying not to panic,” she said.
The pandemic has created so many layers of difficulty for former foster youth, advocates say, it is difficult for those with families and stable incomes to comprehend how fearful their lives have become.
“It’s a damn nightmare,” said Franco Vega, executive director of The RightWay Foundation, a nonprofit that provides mental health and employment services to Los Angeles foster youth. “The whole world wasn’t ready for this epidemic, but foster youth really weren’t ready.”
Barcus counts herself among the lucky few former foster youth who have the support of school-based financial aid to help during a time like this — research shows that just 13 percent of her foster peers are enrolled in college by age 24, and far too many struggle with unemployment and underemployment.
But she has also relied on aid that is now unavailable: additional support from the Resources for Individual Success in Education program at her college. The program provides students who are homeless or who have been in foster care with necessities like gas cards and food vouchers. But those items must be picked up in person, and with the campus closed, students aren’t able to access the assistance at a time when it’s needed more than ever.
As challenged, and also as resilient and resourceful, as her peers raised by the foster care system, Barcus is already developing some new game plans. She’s launching an online craft selling business to generate a bit of income. She’s going to try and get groceries from the local food bank, although she’s already heard — like most grocery stores — they are out of a lot of staples. She’s reached out to the nonprofit organization One Simple Wish to see if they can help her with her car payments and insurance so she can continue to use it to earn a living when it’s safe for her to drive for Lyft again.
Her burden these days is heavy, and Barcus is shouldering it without the support of family. She was adopted at birth, drug-exposed and premature. She entered the foster care system at age 13 after suffering years of emotional and mental abuse from her adoptive parents, she said.
Despite the challenges she’s facing, Barcus is staying positive – a remarkable feat echoed by research on former foster youth in California that finds them to be exceptionally forward-thinking. According to surveys by the University of Chicago’s Chapin Hall conducted well before the coronavirus pandemic but indicative of larger trends, 92 percent of 21-year-olds reported feeling optimistic about their “hopes and goals.” The most positive responses involved questions about their good qualities – being able to achieve anything they set their mind to, and feeling they could exert control over their futures.
For her part, Barcus points to her current safe living situation, the most stable place she’s lived since she left foster care at age 18. She has a small cushion of savings from her last job as a peer advocate with the Children’s Law Center of California.
“At least now I’m on my feet, and this hit when everything’s OK,” she said. “I’m in a better situation than most people that I’ve talked to.”
She’s expecting to hear back soon about a scholarship she’s applied for and hoping there will be no delay.
“If I get a scholarship,” she said, “I should be able to hold out for a few months.”
Sara Tiano can be reached at [email protected].
If you are a current or former foster youth who is being affected by coronavirus, we want to hear from you! How do you feel about the crisis and how it has impacted your personal life, education or your job? Contact Raquel Wilson at [email protected].