Thousands of young adults in the California foster care system will receive additional financial support and housing help as they struggle to survive the recession and the coronavirus pandemic, under a budget deal this week between lawmakers and Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom.
“I’m crying for joy,” an emotional state Sen. Jim Beall (D) wrote in an email to The Imprint on Tuesday. “This milestone is monumental and directly impacts the day-to-day lives of thousands of transition-age foster youth.”
Beall had first proposed extending the benefits offered to young adults raised in the foster care system as a legislative proposal in January – well before COVID-19 fully struck the United States. His Senate Bill 912 would have been unprecedented, addressing dire challenges among many of the roughly 200 California foster youth who age out of the system each month into long-term struggles with homelessness, incarceration and unemployment.
Beall’s original legislation would have extended foster care supports from the current cutoff at age 21, through age 25. But when the pandemic hit, unemployment soared, and California found itself hobbled by a $54 billion budget shortfall, the San Jose lawmaker narrowed his goal. He has since focused on just one year of additional support instead of four, a short-term support plan triggered by a state of emergency such as the current coronavirus pandemic.
Reacting to the budget plan, a young Silicon Valley former foster youth who turned 21 on Monday called the incremental move a significant victory. Peter, who The Imprint is identifying by first name only because he has reported being a victim of childhood sexual abuse by his former pediatrician, is alone and homeless. He has a modest goal of one day buying an RV to live in.
Peter said young people like himself could really use the extra help – at least some – as anything would be better than being all alone without family. “The kids should be supported as much as they need, but not like holding their hand necessarily,” he said. “But basically, accommodating for their needs – the necessities and some tools to make it past whatever that person is struggling through.”
The state budget deal reached Monday includes $32 million for foster youth who turn 21 between April 17 – when the governor issued an executive order temporarily suspending the age limit on foster care benefits – through June 30, 2021. During that time, young people in extended foster care from ages 18 through 21 also have temporary relief from work and study requirements.
Beall’s staff said the lawmaker will continue to push SB 912 through the Legislature to provide for similar benefits during future states of emergency, as well as the current one — an aspect of Beall’s plan that was not included in the recent budget deal.
Some young people who have relied on extended foster care, however – by virtue of their birthdates – will lose out on the support approved this week. Former foster youth who turned 21 between the declaration of the state of emergency – on March 4 – and the governor’s April 17 executive order not receive benefits after this month, when the governor’s executive order expires.
Advocates are calling on counties to use local funds to maintain benefits to the approximately 200 21-year-olds affected by this gap in funding.
“It’s small in numbers and it’s small in calendar days,” said Leslie Heimov, executive director of the Children’s Law Center of California, which represents 33,000 children and young adults in foster care in Los Angeles, Sacramento and Placer counties. “But it’s not small to that young person or new parent who’s looking at becoming homeless in less than a week.”
Still, for the most part, child welfare advocates are celebrating the budget deal, which rolls back much of the $90.5 million in cuts to child welfare programs that had been proposed in Newsom’s spending plan announced in May.
Housing programs are also getting a boost as the budget process moves forward. Counties now have the option to allow former foster youth to remain in transitional housing programs for longer periods and beyond current age limits. What’s more, housing providers in high-cost counties will receive additional funds to ensure that the steep cost of rent doesn’t eat into funds needed for supportive services.
This week’s agreement was hard-won, following weeks of negotiations between legislators and the governor, who are grappling with “unprecedented” economic and health challenges.
The state will need more help, they said. In a joint statement released Monday evening, Newsom and the legislative leadership called on Congress to approve federal funding to prevent California from having to make additional funding cuts.
“Californians are doing their part,” they wrote. “Now it’s imperative for our federal partners to pass a responsible and comprehensive relief plan.”
The governor’s budget plan, known as the May Revise, had proposed deep cuts to social programs, as the state stared down revenue losses and unexpected expenditures related to the coronavirus crisis. The Legislature preferred to address the deficit by pulling more from reserves rather than cutting safety net services at a time when many vulnerable populations need more support than ever.
Some of the cuts Newsom had proposed were contingent upon federal relief funds coming in before the July 1 deadline to sign the budget, but legislators pushed back in favor of waiting until October to find additional savings.
As a result, some programs that had been proposed for elimination in the May Revise have been revived, including the Family Urgent Response System, a hotline for youth and caregivers in crisis designed to stabilize foster care placements. The potential loss of the program was particularly vexing to advocates who said in these high-anxiety times, youth with trauma histories need more, not less, mental health support.
Attorney Susan Abrams, policy director at the Children’s Law Center, said the 24/7 access to mental health care the hotline provides can prevent “far-reaching consequences” for vulnerable foster youth, including involvement with police and incarceration.
The budget deal also restores funding that Newsom had proposed scaling back. Several agencies up and down the state learned last week that they were losing $6.67 million in state grants they had been awarded in April – but that spending cut was avoided in yesterday’s budget compromise.
The budget plan also includes $300 million in new state funding to address homelessness among people of all ages, 8% of which must be used to address the needs of young people.
Larkin Street Youth Services in San Francisco was one of the providers who stood to lose grant money that has now been restored. Preserving this funding is crucial, said Executive Director Sherilyn Adams, because the drivers of homelessness “are likely to increase during a pandemic, a pandemic of racism, and a recession.”
Peter, the former foster youth, was pleased to hear the state Legislature was chipping in a bit more for young people in circumstances like his during the pandemic, even though the state support has been greatly scaled back from more optimistic earlier plans. Peter was kicked out of extended foster care because he couldn’t meet the work and study requirements, so he would not be eligible. But he said he felt for others who would receive additional assistance.
“Thousands of kids could receive any help you guys are offering,” he said, “because it’s difficult being in this situation on your own.”
Peter has received some support from former foster parents and their families, and some strangers, since his story was published by The Imprint on June 15. Allison Davis Maxon, the executive director of the National Center on Adoption and Permanency, created a GoFundMe account Tuesday afternoon that raised hundreds of dollars for Peter within hours. The surprise move left Peter stunned and grateful.
For the past few nights, Peter has stayed in a hotel with help from friends.
But, he said “tomorrow night, I will be outside pushing a shopping cart around.”
Sara Tiano can be reached at [email protected].
Karen de Sá is the Safety Net Reporting Fellow for The Imprint, and a former investigative reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle and The Mercury News. She can be reached at [email protected]