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Young adult life is well understood: Roommates bicker, rents go up, a job change requires a move. Youth with families have somewhere to turn during these common upsets. They can crash with parents while lining up a new place, or get a quick infusion of cash to cover a new security deposit and moving costs.

These otherwise ordinary rites of passage often leave foster youth homeless.

In 2020, California state legislators passed a law aimed at easing some of this housing instability by giving counties the flexibility to pay for emergency, ad hoc housing solutions like hotel rooms or Airbnbs when young adults in foster care find themselves between homes. And after nearly two years and dogged pressure from advocates, the new measure is finally being put into place in Los Angeles County. In the state’s largest county, more than 2,600 young people will be eligible for the emergency housing relief.

Attorney Lindsay Verity, who represents foster youth in Los Angeles County, described just how desperately the help is needed. Of her 167 clients that aged out of extended foster care last year, 17% had experienced homelessness at least once.

“When I started this job, I was floored to learn that youth in foster care could be homeless,” Verity said at a March meeting of the Los Angeles County Commission for Children and Families.

Young people in extended foster care in Los Angeles County now have better access to funding to help them secure housing in times of transition. Illustration by Christine Ongjoco.

Young people in extended foster care in Los Angeles County now have better access to funding to help them secure housing in times of transition. Illustration by Christine Ongjoco.

But she quickly came to find out it was all-too common.

Extended foster care in California provides housing stipends for 18- to 21-year-olds aging out of the system who meet certain conditions and check in with a social worker and judge. But that funding can be abruptly stopped when placements fall through. Finding the next place, meanwhile, is no small feat in the state’s brutal housing market: The $1,059 monthly rent allowance provided through extended foster care does not go far in much of California.

“Supervised independent living” settings for foster youth can be apartments, college dorms or rented rooms. But to be eligible for extended foster care funding, housing units must be approved by a social worker, a process that can take more than a month because it requires a physical inspection of the living space, an assessment of roommates, and sometimes completion of a “shared living agreement” that outlines expectations and ground rules.

Assembly Bill 1979 expanded the definition of these supervised independent living arrangements to include short-term housing solutions that young people need when they’re in between homes or just entering extended foster care. The payments buy time for more stable housing and for county workers to complete the approval process.

The legislation also provides for periods of instability and transience. In transitional housing programs, designed specifically for foster youth, AB 1979 allows counties to continue paying rent during brief absences, as long as the resident is expected to return within two weeks. It also bars housing providers from evicting foster youth or filling their spots during brief absences.

Continuing payments on these placements while youth are temporarily away is estimated to cost the state $3.5 million annually, according to a bill analysis. A measure requiring counties to assign staff to assess emergency housing for youth in extended foster care and their kids is expected to cost an additional $515,000. There was no cost estimate for providing emergency housing arrangements, which would be paid at the same rate as a youth’s normal rent stipend. 

Describing the need for AB 1979, the bill she authored, Assemblymember Laura Friedman has stated that while extended foster care was intended to prevent youth from becoming homeless when they reach adulthood, the program is “falling flat” due to a lack of available supportive housing. In a legislative analysis, the southern California Democrat said her bill attempts to “bridge the housing gaps for youth.”

There were multiple reasons for the long delay before Los Angeles County took action following passage of the new law, advocates told The Imprint. Key among them were pandemic-related strains on the child welfare agency and its struggle to devise a way to quickly access and deliver the funds.

Serena Garcia knows what it’s like to have to wait for that vital lifeline.

As a college freshman, Garcia, 26, lived in a dorm at California State University, Northridge paid for with financial aid money. But her roommate was “hostile” and she said the girl’s boyfriend stole her brand new Apple laptop. Feeling unsafe in the dorms, she decided to move out at the end of the school year.

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But when the 18-year-old turned to the extended foster care system for housing, her social worker had no options for her other than homeless shelters. Without an inspected and approved placement, she couldn’t receive the rent allowance provided by the program, said Garcia, who is now a project coordinator working with transition-age youth in Los Angeles at the nonprofit Public Counsel.

“I was in crisis mode,” she said.

As a result, she spent the summer of 2015 crashing with a former foster sister’s family. They charged her $700 a month to stay in a spare room, which she paid for out of savings.

Now, a spokesperson for the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services said the agency is working with the state on a process to draw down federal funding for such placements. But in the interim period, local funds are being used, and youth in extended foster care can now access emergency housing funds within three to five days.

Assemblymember Laura Friedman. Photo via Friedman’s Twitter account.

Assemblymember Laura Friedman. Photo via Friedman’s Twitter account.

The state law allows counties to fund these interim measures, but does not require them, and so far there is no statewide accounting of which local governments have opted in. They can also set local standards. In Los Angeles County, the temporary funds can be used for up to 120 days.

The law does require all counties to inventory their extended foster care housing capacity and their ability to meet emergency housing needs, which advocates say falls far below the demand in Los Angeles. The problem is especially acute for young people with high behavioral and mental health needs, as well as those who are pregnant or raising children, said Sarah Manimalethu, a senior policy attorney with Alliance for Children’s Rights.

As of March, there were 3,214 18- to 24-year-olds seeking housing assistance through the county’s homeless authority. Sixty percent of those young people were either currently in extended foster care or had previously been in child welfare or probation custody, Simone Tureck Lee, director of housing and health at John Burton Advocates for Youth, reported at a March public meeting.

But because the child welfare system and the homeless authority don’t work in tandem, youth experiencing housing instability while in extended foster care are ineligible for many of the services offered to homeless youth, said Manimalethu.

“This prevents them from timely accessing supports and services, particularly in the lead up to exiting care and immediately afterward,” Manimalethu said at the March meeting.

Advocates for foster youth say more needs to be done. In Los Angeles County, they want the child welfare agency to contract with more hotels to provide immediate, short-term housing for foster youth in need — a strategy relied on during the early days of the pandemic. They also want more collaboration with the county’s homeless authority and mental health department so youth in extended foster care can tap into the resources those agencies provide.

“There’s definitely been some positive steps,” said Rachel Stein, an attorney with Public Counsel’s Children’s Rights Project. “But there’s still a ways to go.”

By the time Garcia’s school started back up in the fall, the foster care system still hadn’t been able to find her more appropriate housing, she recalled.

But she relied on her own devices. And eventually, she was able to line up a room to rent through an on-campus resource program for foster students, paying the security deposit and first month’s rent herself in order to secure her spot. At that time, the foster care system would have simply taken too long to act.

Having to scrimp and then scramble to keep herself housed took a toll on Garcia’s mental health. 

What would have made a difference is immediate access to emergency funding,” she said. “If I had some type of funding at my disposal to say, hey, I could just stay at a hotel or Airbnb for a couple months while I get another placement.

Crossposted from The Imprint