In March, as college campuses nationwide began shutting down to prevent the spread of the deadly coronavirus and students fled home to their childhood bedrooms, foster youth and the homeless had potentially everything to lose if they were forced to turn in their dorm keys.
“Act with a sense of urgency,” U.S. Children’s Bureau Associate Commissioner Jerry Milner implored states in a March 12 letter to child welfare leaders across the country. “For many youth in foster care or formerly in foster care, on-campus housing is their only housing option,” Milner wrote. “There is no place to go once the school has closed their dormitory or on-campus housing, resulting in the real-time potential for homelessness,” he warned.
Despite the pleas, many college campuses in states including Ohio, Michigan, Florida and New York shut down with limited help for students who lacked stable homes, casting them off into even greater uncertainty.
But as college classes resume mostly remotely this month in Washington, the state’s most vulnerable students will begin the fall semester with secure housing in their dorms if they need it, even when their campuses are otherwise eerily vacant, according to the state-funded Passport to College program.
Unlike many other states, Washington has a centralized office to support its hundreds of foster and homeless youth enrolled in higher education. So last spring, when the pandemic hit and campuses closed, students were allowed to shelter in place in their dorm rooms, rather than resorting to crashing with friends, in former foster homes or group facilities. In the hopes that COVID-19 doesn’t derail their fragile futures, 149 students also received help over the summer, including money for off-campus apartments, food, utilities, transportation and other emergency needs.
In late February, Washington state reported what was then one of the earliest known deaths from coronavirus, prompting campus closures within days and alarming students like Madison Anderson at Seattle University. Anderson, a third-year psychology major from Yakima had been in foster care since age 11, knew that her scholarship guaranteed housing. But the 21-year-old still worried that the pandemic might change the rules.
Anderson was quickly reassured by Colleen Montoyo Barbano, director of the Fostering Scholars Program on her campus. She could remain in her dorm through spring semester and summer as well.
With that hurdle met, her worries turned to online learning. “I like to engage with professors and classmates,” she said, and in the shift, “I got discouraged.” With support from Montoyo Barbano and her professors, however, she adjusted and mastered the transition. Staying on campus was critical, she said, because “it allowed me to focus on classes.”
The Passport to College program for students like Anderson was created in 2007 to serve current and former foster youth, and in 2018 was expanded by the Legislature to include unaccompanied homeless youth. Six nonprofits work with students statewide to help prepare them for college, beginning at age 13.
There were 832 Passport to College students in the 2019-20 school year, who received an average scholarship award of $3,522. The program also gives colleges and universities funds to recruit and retain students by providing a designated on-campus support person. Last year, the schools received $966,500.
By mid-April, the program secured assurances from 45 Washington schools that its students could remain on campus, despite the shuttered classrooms and activities and other students being sent home.
“What happened in Washington contrasted sharply with other states,” said Angelique Day, an associate professor of social work at the University of Washington.
Key to the program is its centralized collection of data from colleges where homeless and foster youth are enrolled, with the ability to “see patterns of concern or success,” Day said. Across the country, few states have this ability, and she noted, “most institutions can only tell the story of 11 to 20 students on their campus.”
Students across the country have struggled to maintain their housing since the pandemic unleashed its fury on the globe. In New York City in March, for example, current and former foster youth in one college program were given 48 hours to vacate dorms that had been guaranteed to them year-round, to make way for hospital beds. This semester, only 52 of the 114 youth have been allowed back into their City University of New York dorms.
Day noted that overall, states that have coordinated, collaborative strategies for foster and homeless students “did better than states that don't provide this kind of support.”
In an email to The Imprint, a spokesperson for the U.S. Administration for Children and Families said there are no comprehensive numbers on how many foster students ended up homeless because of campus housing closures. “Most of the responses we heard on this issue were positive, although, unfortunately, we also heard that the needs of some youth were not met when the colleges closed,” the administration’s communications office wrote.
Rene Jones, a coach at the foster youth support agency Treehouse, worked with 35 students last spring in the Passport to College program. She described it as “crucial” to their futures.
But she said while no one ended up homeless, many landed in difficult situations when campuses closed – struggling with online platforms, or living in less-than-ideal housing situations. Still others had to increase their work hours and had difficulty balancing the demands of school. A few left school due to classes moving online or changed schools because of the pandemic and campus closures.
Erika Ramirez, then a Central Washington University sophomore, struggled after spring break when her school closed its Ellensburg campus and she was unable to return from her home on the Muckleshoot Indian Reservation. Ramirez, who was separated from everything in her dorm except the suitcase she’d packed for a week, completed her classes online, though she missed the connections she had on campus and said it was more difficult to keep up with her studies.
“One of the things I struggled with was having a place to study,” she said. “I missed out by not being on campus with different environments. It wasn’t as easy at home.”
Although there is still no end to difficulties caused by the pandemic, Washington students benefited from the state’s experience, observers say.
“We’ve been doing this work for 13 years, so when this pandemic hit, we already had our partnerships in place and we were able to act quickly,” said Dawn Cypriano-McAferty, the assistant director of the Passport to Careers program, which oversees the Washington college students.
Brianna Franco, a communications major at Seattle Pacific University who lives off-campus, said her greatest concern initially was financial stability and what would happen with her schooling. She wondered, “Would I lose my scholarship? Would I lose financial aid? Was I going to be able to keep my job?”
The terms of her housing required that she attend school or work full time, so any change could upend her life. But through the Passport to College program, Franco kept her job, her apartment, and will attend her last year of college this fall. Though she experienced some bumps, "the support was able to get me through college,” she said. “Without that, I can't see that I would have this outcome."
There is no way to track the experience of foster and homeless youth nationwide as campuses closed. The National Center for Housing and Child Welfare estimates there were nearly 10,000 former foster youth living on-campus housing in the spring, a number that doesn’t include other vulnerable students, like homeless or international students. Assessments of how those students fared are mixed and largely based on anecdotes.
The center’s executive director, Ruth White, said from what her group has discerned, “the vast majority” of colleges and universities have offered alternative housing during campus closures, or have provided dorms. She credited this to years of student activism lobbying colleges for more housing stability during the academic year.
However, Barbara Duffield, executive director of SchoolHouse Connection, which works with homeless youth, didn’t think the universities and colleges or many of the state programs stepped up enough. “For many of our young people experiencing homelessness, when the dorms closed, they didn’t have anywhere to go,” she said.
Duffield cautioned that even with success stories like Anderson and Franco, there are emotional challenges ahead that might be less visible for these vulnerable youth nationwide.
“We need to be mindful that everyone is traumatized by COVID,” she said. “But for those who had previous experiences of homeless or foster care, it’s an additional layer of trauma that needs to be attended to if they are going to be successful and stay in school.”