A state bill aims to extend foster care housing support for those who need it most.
By Ethan Ward
This story is produced by the award-winning journalism nonprofit Capital & Main and co-published here with permission.
California is the de facto guardian to over 53,000 foster youth. But some advocates and foster youth say the state is not doing enough to take care of its children. They say the Legislature must pass a bill to increase the monthly amount paid to youth in extended foster care, which could reduce homelessness and housing instability.
Foster youth in California currently receive $1,129 monthly, an amount many say is not enough to get by in high cost cities throughout the state. AB 525 would establish a housing supplement based on the fair market rent of the youth’s county of residence.
Anna Johnson, associate director of housing and health for John Burton Advocates for Youth (JBAY), the nonprofit that supports AB 525, said the legislation was inspired by the number of phone calls the organization receives from unhoused young people looking for help.
“It’s the state’s responsibility,” Johnson said. “We are their parents in action, and we can’t have another year where we’re saying, ‘You’re homeless.’ That’s not OK.”
“[Foster youth] are there because the system didn’t do their part. These are young people who have gone through the system, and the system did not connect them back to their family or to guardianship.”
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Foster youth experience rates of homelessness between 11% and 38% — higher than the general population of young people.
Children may enter foster care for reasons that include experiencing abuse, neglect or abandonment. If foster youth are not reunited with their families, placed with new permanent families or placed in extended foster care by age 18 — California’s benchmark for the legal age of adulthood — they are on their own. Without proper financial support of foster youth, the state is undercutting their opportunities for school or employment, and more importantly, their potential.
In 2010, California’s Extended Foster Care Program increased the age through which foster youth may remain in the child welfare and probation systems from 18 to 21 through the Supervised Independent Living Placement (SILP) program. A SILP is an independent living setting approved by a social worker or probation officer, who provides case management and supervision. Housing can include apartments, college dorms, rented rooms or shared living arrangements with anyone other than a parent or other relative.
To qualify for the SILP payment, foster youth must be approved by their social worker as ready to take on the responsibility of living in SILP-approved housing. They are responsible for finding a place to live. Those who get SILP do not join a family household as a dependent with an existing housing, food and utility budget. Instead, they are considered the head of household and have to cover those costs on their own.
Federal law requires states to set care rates that cover the “care and supervision” of children and youth in the foster system. That sum is meant to include the cost of food, clothing and shelter; daily supervision; school supplies; personal incidentals; and reasonable travel to connections, school and employment. AB 525 would raise the amount of money California pays each month based on the cost of housing in a foster youth’s county of residence, at an estimated annual additional cost to the state of $27 million. Of that total, an estimated $16.5 million would be paid through California’s State General Fund and nearly $11 million would be paid with federal matching funds.
“Either the state will choose to make this investment for our children or they’ll say it’s too expensive and they’re not doing this,” said Johnson.
During times of economic turmoil, many youth not in the foster care system have parents or stable households to fall back on, noted Johnson. But that’s not the reality for youth like 19-year-old Oyuki Zuniga, who entered the foster care system at age 15. Zuniga said the woman her father married gave him an ultimatum: Choose between his new wife or his daughter.
“Well, he obviously picked her,” recalled an emotional Zuniga. She was then forced to live with friends, or sometimes in parks, and group homes until she was able to secure a room to rent, and later, her first apartment. She worries about falling back into homelessness as she balances multiple jobs in order to afford rent and other living expenses along with business administration classes at Los Angeles Southwest College. She was interviewed for this story via Zoom because her cellphone was disconnected.
“I had to pick between paying a phone bill and paying my electricity at the house,” Zuniga said. “I need the electricity more than my phone on.”
She currently receives $1,129 monthly through SILP. But her rent in Hawthorne, a city in Los Angeles County, is $1,875. She tried having a roommate once, but that acquaintance didn’t pay rent and stole some of her clothes and shoes. “I will never do that again,” she said.
Instead, Zuniga said she works three security jobs with unreliable hours and other gig work such as packing and shipping at warehouses or dishwashing.
“Everything’s so expensive here,” Zuniga said. “You definitely have to work a couple of jobs.” Despite the challenges, she said she prioritizes paying her rent and utilities and tries eating food provided by employers for lunch. Her social worker signs her up for food drives and drops off items from time to time.
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Zuniga is one of the nearly 4,600 foster youth in California who face extreme housing precarity this year despite efforts to ensure youth exit the state’s child welfare system to family or other permanent connections, according to the University of California, Berkeley’s California Child Welfare Indicators Project. A 2021 national survey found that 62% of young people in extended foster care need some form of housing-related assistance and 51% requested assistance paying for rent, utilities or household items. L.A. County, where Zuniga lives, has over 33,000 foster youth in care, according to the Children’s Law Center of California.
Research from JBAY found that although growth of the SILP basic rate has been steady (going from $799 in 2012 to $1,129 in 2022), housing costs are outpacing the rate increase, especially in high cost counties like Los Angeles where 60% of youth placed in SILP live. According to the U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development, between 2012 and 2022, the fair market rent cost of a two-bedroom apartment in L.A. County, where Zuniga lives, increased from $1,447 to $2,044.
California State Assemblymember Phil Ting (D-San Francisco), the author of the AB 525 bill, said he is passionate about this issue because foster youth have some of the toughest lives.
“Whatever we can do to create more stability in their lives is up to the state to do,” Ting said. “It’s a constituency that has so much potential. Adults in their lives have not done right by them. We at the state can take a huge role in providing stability and opportunity for better lives. When you see that happen with foster youth who are provided that, they take those opportunities just like any young person would.”
A projected $24 billion shortfall in California could complicate passage. Ting, who chairs the Assembly Budget Committee, said despite current budget circumstances, foster youth need support and the time is right to push the bill forward.
“We have a housing shortage for everyone in California, but in particular, adults who are making 30% of area median income are the biggest challenge,” Ting said. “When you look at foster youth who have become adults they are right in that category.”
Zuniga says she is counting on the bill to pass. “For California, you’ll never find an apartment that’s $500 for you to have enough for your food, your rent or transportation, your bills or anything,” Zuniga said. “That [SILP] check should cover everything. And right now, that’s impossible.”
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