As long as he was employed, Jonathan DeJesus always felt secure that he was on track to support himself when he aged out of foster care. But just months before his 21st birthday, he lost his restaurant job when the raging coronavirus pandemic shuttered New York City’s service industry.
He was approved for an apartment in public housing, with rent adjusted based on income, but months went by before he began receiving public assistance to cover food and other necessities. In the meantime, he found part-time work advocating for other foster youth. Still, he worried about falling behind on his essential bills and losing his home, without being able to fall back on the foster care system or a family.
This month, DeJesus finally breathed a sigh of relief when the state funded his application for a one-time pandemic cash assistance grant for former foster youth. He used the money to pay his rent and phone bill ahead of time, and set aside part of it for a down payment on the braces he’s long wanted to straighten his smile.
But at week’s end, thousands of former New York foster youth will lose eligibility for direct financial assistance. Since the program began in July, it has been open to ages 18 to 26, but on Friday the application will no longer be available to those 23 and older.
Meanwhile, a federal moratorium on aging out of foster care expires the same day, potentially forcing dozens of young adults still in New York foster care to find a place to live on their own as the coronavirus pandemic continues.
About 23,000 New Yorkers ages 21 to 26 qualify for the one-time pandemic relief grants, the state’s Office of Children and Family Services said, but so far only about 2,300 awards have been granted. The agency said it has received about 3,800 applications in all, and another 750 are still in process. Most of those approved received the maximum award, which last month was increased retroactively from $750 to $1,750 per person.
DeJesus worries that there are still thousands of former foster youth in their 20s in desperate need of financial help.
“I personally know older youth who still have that struggle, and really do need that support to be successful,” DeJesus said. “In a lot of cases, the system has failed youth, it didn’t give them the resources they needed, and that’s why they end up the way they do.”
Several counties across upstate New York reported that they each had two to three 21-year-olds in foster care who will age out at the end of the week, and that they are helping them make housing plans to ensure their stability. In Rockland County, the department of social services said it is also providing furniture, storage, auto insurance and ongoing coaching to the two youth who will age out of care when the federal moratorium ends.
Legal advocates for former foster youth say efforts to reach those whose eligibility for cash assistance expires this week have been insufficient, given that their phone numbers and addresses may have changed several times since exiting the system.
Foster care alumni can also be reluctant to get back in touch with the system, DeJesus said, meaning they may take multiple contacts to reach.
“A lot of people want to leave the life they had in foster care behind, and just not look back,” DeJesus said. “Youth who have had bad experiences with foster care for years often don’t reach out for help.”
A spokesperson for the Office of Children and Family Services said the agency has “utilized all available relevant data to identify potentially eligible young adults,” including those eligible for Education and Training Vouchers and those in the Foster Youth College Success Initiative. The department has also partnered with the national organization Think of Us on a social media campaign, and called eligible youth when a phone number was available.
Still, state and national advocates want Congress to allow more time for young people to seek help. The push has support from Congressman Jim Langevin (D-R.I.), who introduced a bill that would allow former foster youth up to age 27 to receive cash assistance for another year.
So far, New York has disbursed just under a third of its total funds; to spend down the remainder, it would need to grant full awards to another 5,000 young people. A spokesperson for the state child welfare agency said it expects to disburse all of the funds within the given timeline.
The money comes from a $400 million addition last December to the federal John H. Chafee Foster Care Independence Program, which funds housing, education, technology, transportation and job training expenses. Officials at the Children’s Bureau urged states to distribute the funds, of which New York received $13 million, as direct cash assistance for current and former foster youth ages 18 to 26. The legislation also suspended age limits for receiving housing and financial benefits from extended foster care programs, which was previously 21 across most of the country.
Advocates hailed the pandemic relief for foster youth, though delayed, as essential for young people hit hard by the closure of college campuses and job losses in the service sector. But that support is ending too soon, according to a letter to Congress signed by dozens of organizations representing foster youth.
“This relief has been a lifesaver for many current and former foster youth across the country,” said the letter, signed by FosterClub, the National Foster Youth Institute, and the Children’s Defense Fund, among others. “Unfortunately, many more eligible youth have not yet been able to access the aid due to administrative delays and confusion.”
The delay started with the federal government: the money was not released to states until the end of February, and the Children’s Bureau did not release detailed instructions on how the additional funds could be spent until March 10. New York, like many other states, said it could not begin planning for how to distribute the money until receiving further guidance, and launched its program in early July, giving young people 21 and older just three months to find out about the program and apply.