What Is It Like to Age Out of Foster Care During the COVID-19 Pandemic?
Struggles with housing and economic woes are already expected for youth who age out of the foster care system, but these challenges have only worsened during the coronavirus pandemic, especially in New York.
Unlike California, Illinois and Ohio, New York has not extended foster care past their current age cutoff during the pandemic, despite proposals from legislators. In New York City, Fair Futures NY, a coalition, model and movement for youth in foster care, had to fight to secure funding for foster care youth, but it only covers a fraction of what they need to support young people long-term.
Their model serves New York foster youth across the city’s 26 foster agencies from 6th grade through age 26, but at the moment there is only state funding until age 21. The crux of their services includes a coach for foster care youth that helps them navigate mental health and educational struggles as well as any challenges during their transitional period after aging out of foster care.
Young people aging out of foster care face homelessness and barriers to education with LGBTQ+ youth particularly at risk. According to Fair Futures NY’s website, only 21% of those who age out of foster care in New York City have a high school degree or equivalency, compared to 67% nationally. Research suggests that only 3% of former foster youth will ever obtain a college degree, and in New York 20% will enter a homeless shelter within three years of aging out. The process of working against these odds and finding housing is long, tedious and exhausting.
“They give us the best options they can provide, but I don’t think it’s enough”
Youth aging out of foster care are provided housing opportunities based on their foster care agency. In the supportive housing model, a foster care youth is paired with a stranger as a roommate. Often, they’ll be selected to cohabitate together because they have similar medical needs and can be assigned the same doctor through their foster care agency’s healthcare system. Alternatively, youth can apply for a Section 8 voucher for the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) affordable housing, but it is sometimes a two-year process.
“They give us the best options they can provide, but I don’t think it’s enough,” said former foster youth Ericka François in an interview with YR Media. Ericka is 23, which means she aged out of foster care two years ago. She is a recent graduate with a dual degree in journalism and psychology, but she still is having housing troubles. She is relying on attaining that NYCHA Section 8 voucher because in the past her experiences with randomly assigned roommates have been awful. During the pandemic, trying to find stable housing has been “terrible because everything is so delayed,” Ericka said. “I feel stuck.”
“Now you’re completely on your own, there’s no support.”
The other alternative for housing is the Fostering College Success Initiative, which is a partnership between the Administration for Child Services (ACS) and the City University of New York (CUNY), that provides students in foster care with academic, social, financial and professional support while they pursue a four-year degree. While the program provides housing security for students like Sadaf Shiekh, a rising senior at Medgar Evers College where she majors in social work, she still faces economic woes. If she were still in foster care, she may be able to lean on a support system to help her through these challenges the pandemic has caused her. “Now you’re completely on your own, there’s no support,” she said. “You’re totally independent.”
While Sadaf was able to get NYCHA housing, financially speaking, the pandemic threw her life off course. During a stretch of pandemic layoffs (and also her finals), she lost her job in K-Mart’s customer service department. Before her economic woes, Sadaf says rent was $800/month but since NYCHA regulates her rent based on income, it has now come down to a much more manageable $200/month. Even so, she still needs a job to get by. Paid summer opportunities with her college that could have gone towards rent were nowhere to be found with many programs canceled or postponed.
From Erica and Sadaf, it’s clear that aging out of foster care is a mess of maneuvers in a nonstop effort to stay afloat. While COVID-19 has stripped away funding and safety nets, emancipated foster youth continue to fight to not become a bleak statistic on their way to adulthood.
“I can’t really make sense of what [my life] is going to look like in the future,” Sadaf said. “Because things are just everywhere, it’s all unexpected.”