Montoya Thomas can’t sleep.
The 23-year-old former foster youth’s insomnia returned last month after she was laid off in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. Every evening, she gets into bed around 8, but when she closes her eyes she’s beset by questions that won’t stop gnawing at her nerves: How will she pay her phone bill? Will she be able to keep the lights on? How many groceries can she afford this week?
Thomas considers herself lucky if she can fall asleep by 6 a.m.
“I’m up all night trying to figure out what to do,” she said. “With me not having work, not having income and then trying to make sure I keep everything afloat, it’s stressing me out, so now I can’t sleep.”
As millions of Texans clamor for public benefits during the global health crisis, the pandemic has exposed gaps in support for young adults like Thomas who have aged out of foster care. More than 1,000 a year venture into the world from Texas’ foster system.
Up to 46% of former foster youth experience homelessness by age 26, according to a 2013 study of young adults in the Midwest. Mary Green, director of the HAY Center, which provides services to current and former foster youth in the Houston area, said the coronavirus pandemic has likely heightened those risks.
“We’re seeing all the inequity in health care that we knew was there, and well, it’s the same thing with our kids,” she said. “There is just a lack of resources, a lack of an ability to get them housed quickly, and what can happen to them on the street is so damaging.”
Thomas entered the foster care system at age 5 after experiencing sexual abuse. At 18, she aged out of the Huntsville residential treatment center where she’d been living. Now she’s on her own in an apartment on the north side of Houston, and she’s just a few classes short of earning a college degree.
Before the global health crisis shut down her city, Thomas would wake up on weekdays early enough to catch a 6:18 a.m. bus. Her one-way commute to Lone Star College, where she’s studying communications with a minor in psychology, spanned two hours and three bus routes. The days were exhausting, but she wanted desperately to finish her degree so she could stop bartending and start a career.
Her dream job is to travel and advocate for foster youth. “I want to be able to help someone else coming through the foster care system. I want to be able to give back,” she said.
A few weeks ago, the community college she attends moved all its courses online to reduce the risk of students and staff falling ill. But Thomas doesn’t have an internet connection at her one-bedroom apartment, which she rents with help from a voucher through the local housing authority. Before the shutdown, she’d do her homework at the library on campus or a cafe with free Wi-Fi. Those options have since evaporated.
So has her part-time employment, at a pool hall down the street from her apartment. Like thousands of other Texans in the service industry, the coronavirus shutdown has left her at home without a paycheck. She’s trying to apply for unemployment benefits, she said, but a state worker told her she needed a pay stub that she’s yet to receive in the mail.
In the meantime, she’s applying to jobs at nearby grocery and retail stores.
“It’s hard to get certain things taken care of if you’re in this by yourself,” she said. Former foster kids “go through so many obstacles, and I guess that’s why graduation rates for us are so low.”
The last time Thomas experienced insomnia like this was in late 2018, when she spent a month homeless after a voucher with the housing authority suddenly fell through. The setback interrupted her studies.
“At that point, it’s like, I can’t be worried about classes,” she said. “I’m trying to figure out where I’m going to sleep at, just trying to figure out where to go.”
She said she still owes about $1,000 from that period of chaos: the hotel rooms, the emergency storage for her furniture and other belongings, the membership to the gym where she would shower when she didn’t have a roof over her head.
Now she’s trying desperately to avoid a similar free fall from the coronavirus upheaval.
“I’m still here,” she said. “I’m still pushing. It’s a learning experience, and I know in the future, once I get stable, I can be able to help somebody who may be going through what I’ve gone through.”
“We tend to have less of a support system”
With so many former foster youth in unstable housing, Green worries about their ability to receive unemployment benefits or government stimulus payments. “They move so much, and a lot of them don’t even have bank accounts,” she said.
Green's staff includes four employees who work directly with former foster youth to help them find housing. Because of a contract with the state, her organization has knowledge of virtually every foster youth in the Houston area who’s aging out of care. Nonetheless, “it seems like at least every three days a youth would call in who we hadn't seen, or maybe they're here from another region, who are now homeless," she said.
To cover rent and other living expenses, Keimche Wickham, 26, was working as a home attendant for adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities in Austin. The job involved changing diapers and helping clients with daily tasks like eating and bathing, which meant close contact with a vulnerable population at higher risk of serious illness from the coronavirus.
As a result, Wickham, a former foster youth, has been out of a job — and almost out of cash — for about a month. She recently deferred her April rent payment, she said.
“Emotionally, what I’ve noticed is, as a former foster youth, a lot of the experience I’ve gone through makes me feel isolated and like the ‘other,’ so to speak,” she said. “This kind of brings a lot of those feelings back. I do feel more vulnerable. There’s no sugarcoating it.”
Wickham is a master’s student in clinical mental health at Texas State University. She was supposed to take her licensing exam to become a counselor last week at a testing center, but because of Texas’ stay-at-home order she had to take the test online. Fortunately, she said, she has internet access at home — and she still has a home.
But she said that she and other former foster youth often feel like they don’t have anywhere to turn during a crisis.
“Aged-out foster youth, in general, we tend to have less of a support system,” she said. “For the ones that I’ve spoken to in my circle of support, this is really a trying time.”
Choosing groceries or rent
Former foster youth in Texas can receive publicly funded health insurance until they’re 26 years old, and they do not have to pay tuition at in-state colleges and universities.
Despite dorm closures, public universities have offered emergency housing to students with nowhere else to go, said Monica Faulkner, director of the Texas Institute for Child and Family Wellbeing at the University of Texas at Austin.
Only one student at the university applied to live in emergency housing at an on-campus dorm, Faulkner said, but her office has been inundated with requests for money for groceries and rent payments.
“When I was in college, when I needed groceries I would just tag along to the grocery store with my mom and just throw stuff in the basket,” she said. “These kids don’t have that luxury, and it’s really important that we look out for them.”
Like most similar groups at Texas colleges, Faulkner’s organization supporting former foster youth does not receive university funding and relies on small donations of items like H-E-B gift cards. “It’s mostly through informal networks that we’re able to get that support,” she said. “I have been that person that takes students grocery shopping.”
For Tiffany Jackson, grocery store runs were, until recently, her only source of income. The 34-year-old former foster youth moved to Austin to enroll in a college program to become a certified medical assistant. To make ends meet, she delivered food orders for Whole Foods.
That was until her truck broke down last month.
It was a crushing setback for Jackson, who’d recently moved into an apartment in a student neighborhood after going through an eviction and having to sleep in her car. Suddenly there was a difficult choice to make about the few hundred dollars in her bank account, she said.
“I’m like, should I get the truck fixed and pound it out and work, and hopefully I can make the money back? Or should I just make sure I can pay rent?” she said. “My thing is, I just went through the whole homelessness thing and eviction. I just don’t want to have to go through that again.”
The coronavirus pandemic left Jackson in a panic. Then, in an ironic twist of fate, it landed her a job.
In early April, Jackson found work at a public health laboratory inspecting biological specimens and ordering tests on them, including for traces of the coronavirus. She now has money to pay rent and get her truck fixed, she said.
After weeks of depressing isolation, “it’s really a dramatic difference working in close proximity with the other people in my lab,” she said. “We’re laughing while we work, and I feel like it’s better for me than I even know.”
Disclosure: Lone Star College, Texas State University, the University of Texas at Austin, H-E-B and Whole Foods Market have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.