19 Volunteers Sharing an iPhone Are Trying to Support Incarcerated People Through COVID-19

Jessica Sylvia had a lot to look forward to this year. A transgender incarcerated person and advocate at Monroe Correctional Complex in Washington state, she was excited about the sociology classes she was taking for her bachelor’s degree. Her mother was coming for a visit in the spring. And she’d finally gotten scheduled for an evaluation for gender-affirming surgery, something she’s wanted for 27 years.

Then COVID-19 happened, and everything was canceled.

Now, Sylvia’s more afraid of the impact of prolonged isolation than of contracting coronavirus. “I’m feeling disconnected. I’m feeling higher levels of depression and anxiety,” she said. “And I don’t feel that there’s anyone to listen to me or understand my needs.”

LGBTQ people, especially those who are low-income and from communities of color, are incarcerated at a disproportionately high rate. They’re also more vulnerable to sexual and physical violence, and mistreatment.

Sylvia said she regularly experiences transphobia: Her birth certificate was legally changed to reflect her female gender, yet she is housed at a male facility and said corrections officers call her by her birth name. It took her nearly 11 months to get permission to wear barrettes. She spends most of her time, COVID-19 or not, by herself. Department of Corrections communications director Janelle Guthrie did not respond to any of Sylvia’s direct claims, but did point to an updated policy on treatment of transgender prisoners.

Around the country, COVID-19 cases are rising in prisons and jails as incarcerated people continue to have little outside contact. “A worry that’s widespread among all sorts of organizations is that less access to the facility means less oversight and accountability,” said Biff Chaplow, director of the Portland-based organization Beyond These Walls.

The organization connects LGBTQ incarcerated people in Oregon and Washington with pen pals and facilitates programs like the Transgender Leadership Academy, believing “there’s a Marsha P. Johnson sitting in prison right now.” When they paused their programming at three facilities, Chaplow immediately pivoted to create a prepaid crisis line. The goal is to provide emotional support to incarcerated people in the Pacific Northwest no matter how they identify, and to advocate for them. Every two weeks Chaplow sends a report to a coalition of partner organizations, including ACLU of Oregon, working to keep incarcerated people safe.

Other COVID-19 crisis lines for incarcerated people exist, also limited to state or local areas, for instance in California and Texas. So in Portland, 19 trained community volunteers take turns answering one iPhone that gets passed around door-to-door in a Ziploc bag, complete with Lysol wipes. “A lot of prisoners are surprised that somebody is answering the phone because they’re used to contacting organizations and being totally ignored,” said Chaplow. Given the limitation of one phone, however, volunteers sometimes miss calls.

Chaplow first got the word out about the crisis line to incarcerated people in their network through snail mail. He expected a low interest and response rate, underestimating how much incarcerated people needed to talk. Opening the crisis line to all has uncovered widespread fear in response to how prisons and jails are addressing the pandemic.

Volunteers ask incarcerated people whether they’re experiencing COVID-19 symptoms, what precautions their facility is taking, and if they need referrals. They can choose to remain anonymous, although most don’t. Asking “what’s your biggest concern?” has gotten people talking the most. Answers vary, but common themes have emerged: inability to physically distance, inconsistent mask wearing, and not being given information about the pandemic.

Out of 369 calls so far, some of which are from repeat callers, more than a quarter have been about not reporting COVID-19 symptoms out of fear of having to quarantine in solitary confinement. Solitary, or “the hole,” has a long legacy of being dehumanizing and causing psychological harm. It’s a familiar issue for Beyond These Walls. Often, solitary is used in the name of “safety” for LGBTQ incarcerated people who are subjected to violence and harassment by other prisoners. It’s also a way for staff to curtail sexual intimacy. A 2015 report by the prison abolitionist organization, Black and Pink, found that 85 percent of the 1,200 LGBTQ incarcerated people surveyed spent time in solitary — a stigmatizing practice for an already-stigmatized population at higher risk for mental health issues.

Carlee Roberts, a formerly incarcerated transgender activist and board member for Beyond These Walls, was sentenced as a teenager. Back then, she identified as a “loud, flamboyant queer” male and said solitary was a tactic to keep her in line.

“Not only was solitary used as a tool in the moment to punish me, but for a long time it worked my sense of self… that I was this horrible person who maybe should hide who they are as a person,” she said. “Even to this day, a lot of this stuff has stuck with me.”

Now, using solitary units to separate sick, incarcerated people during COVID-19 has become common practice, affecting more than LGBTQ incarcerated people. David Cloud, research director at Amend, a nonprofit that works to transform correctional culture, explained: “Part of the reason I think it’s used is the physical realities of having a vastly overcrowded, understaffed, overburdened, problematic prison system. These are corrections officials and public safety agencies performing the work of what should be a public health response.”

Amend created guidelines to help correctional facilities distinguish between solitary confinement, quarantine, and ethical medical isolation — the last of which includes sanitary conditions, access to amenities, contact with loved ones, and more. Cloud can’t say, however, how widely those suggestions have been implemented.

Just because we're not allowed inside doesn't mean we're not still watching.

James Moffatt, a 56-year-old incarcerated man at Santiam Correctional Institution, said he was one of the first to test positive for COVID-19 in Oregon’s prison system at the end of March. It started with a violent cough, then a fever and chills that shook him like a “washing machine on spin cycle.” After transferring to the infirmary at Coffee Creek Correctional Facility and spending nearly three weeks there, the rest of his quarantine was spent in solitary confinement at maximum security prison Oregon State Penitentiary (OSP).

For Moffatt, who has underlying health conditions and experiences post-traumatic stress disorder, solitary was the worst part. His cell at OSP, he recalled, had fluorescent lights on most of the time and paint peeling off the walls. He slept on a concrete slab without a pillow. Drinking water came from a rusty faucet, and the smell of bleach made it hard to breathe. He had extremely limited access to media or the outside world — he wasn’t allowed to call family much, even though his mom is dying of lung cancer. Officers would yell at him to stop whining.

“Mentally, it was the most draining thing that I’ve ever experienced,” he said. “I kept saying to them, ‘I’m being punished for being sick.’ And they said, ‘Well, we realize you’re in DSU [disciplinary segregation unit], but you’re not being punished.’ And I said, ‘Well, if I’m being treated exactly the same as somebody that’s here on a disciplinary measure, then how is it not punishment?’”

Other incarcerated people said they underwent similar treatment. Oregon Department of Corrections communications manager Jennifer Black said they’re now “making every effort to provide activities to keep [incarcerated people] busy and basic comforts while keeping them safe.” The message that “medical quarantine is not punishment” is also displayed on Santiam’s television for all to see.

Moffatt, whose cough lingers, said he still has conversations with fellow incarcerated people who won’t report symptoms out of fear of going to the hole. He recently called the Beyond These Walls crisis line as a last-ditch effort to implement change and said sharing his story has been vital to his mental health. He was referred to the ACLU of Oregon but when faced with the choice of calling their legal numbers for nine cents per minute or buying toothpaste, his basic needs come first.

Criminal justice reform advocates agree that releasing incarcerated people is the most beneficial thing that can be done right now, although the challenge is balancing the urgency of the pandemic with a slow bureaucratic process.

While incarcerated people wait, the crisis line remains open.

“It’s a safety tool that’s saying to prison staff, ‘Hey, this is a way for folks to communicate with the outside world and let people know what’s going on,’” Roberts said. “Just because we’re not allowed inside doesn’t mean we’re not still watching.”



Florida Police Are Still Clearing Homeless Camps Despite CDC Guidance

Tears stream down Venettia Moultrie’s face as she recalls the day that she was evicted from her encampment in Gainesville, Florida. Her tent had space for up to twenty people and included a meditation room. About twenty others lived in tents nearby, and residents looked out for one another. In May, law enforcement arrived at the camp with bulldozers.

Officers from the Gainesville Police Department and Florida Department of Corrections announced over a loudspeaker that residents had six hours to vacate before demolition of the camp, in defiance of the Center for Disease Control’s recommendation to leave encampments intact during COVID-19. Florida’s state public health website provides no guidance on protecting people experiencing homelessness from COVID-19. Moultrie left with just one change of clothes.

When the 37-year-old set up camp in November of last year, she made strong connections with others who lived there, people at higher risk of contracting illnesses even before COVID-19. Since the eviction, she’s been worried about their safety.

“I lost my community, and it’s hard to know if my friends are alright,” Moultrie said. “I can’t pay to keep my phone on all the time and neither can they. I’m so angry at what happened […] I worry about my former neighbors who probably don’t have a place to stay now. At our camp, many of them had houseplants and pets, it was nice. We weren’t a typical community, but we were still a community.”

She holds a handwritten list with her lost friend’s phone numbers as we speak outside of her current homeless shelter, GRACE Marketplace. GRACE, formerly Gainesville Correctional Institution, was converted to a secular shelter in 2014. The shelter does ‘bed checks’ to make sure residents are in their rooms three times a night, which Moultrie is not used to after living freely in her camp.

“If you’re not there for bed checks two nights in a row, they kick you out,” Moultrie said, “You have to be on the street until you’re allowed back in.”

The camp was established in November of last year, after other options had failed. GRACE was at full capacity, so people started camping around the edges of the shelter’s property, which the campers and GRACE called “Dignity Village.” At its peak, the camp was home to around 220 people.

It does not make sense to evict anybody in the middle of a pandemic.

They camped there so they could use GRACE’s hygiene services and other resources. When the City of Gainesville ordered Dignity Village to shut down in January, Moultrie and about 50 others set up a new camp in the woods nearby, on Florida Department of Corrections (FDOC) property. FDOC officers were upset by their presence, and asked Gainesville PD to threaten the campers with trespassing charges if they refused to leave.

Many camp members left between March and May, for fear of arrest. Moultrie and the last 20 residents were evicted on May 14th by the Gainesville PD and officers from the FDOC.

According to a 2019 survey, there are an estimated 752 homeless people in Gainesville’s Alachua County, 191 of whom were in shelters. GRACE currently has the ability to house 141 people. Their capacity has been reduced by 25 percent to reduce risk of spreading COVID-19. Those who can’t make it in are often waiting outside of the facility, hoping for a chance at a roof over their heads.

“I think the big question raised by this eviction is, if they can’t be in these places, then where can they be?” asked Kirsten Anderson, litigation director at Southern Legal Counsel. “GRACE doesn’t have enough space for everyone, and you’re going to see more situations like this because people have to exist somewhere. But it’s often criminalized.”

Shelter access is particularly important during the current pandemic.

CDC guidelines specifically state: “If individual housing options are not available, allow people who are living unsheltered or in encampments to remain where they are.” This is a precautionary measure meant to control the spread of COVID-19.

“Clearing encampments can cause people to disperse throughout the community and break connections with service providers,” the guidelines say. “This increases the potential for infectious disease spread.”

A Southern Legal Counsel press release says that the CDC also encourages federal aid from FEMA and the CARES Act to be used for emergency housing, but that Gainesville officials have not secured housing for the people they are displacing.

Requests for comment were made to the Gainesville PD and FDOC. Shelby Taylor, City of Gainesville Communications Director responded in their stead.

“The Gainesville Police Department has worked compassionately with representatives from GRACE Marketplace over several months to transition people experiencing homelessness into a more stable housing environment,” Taylor said. “But GPD serves to protect the rights and property of all property owners in the city of Gainesville. In May, at the request of FDOC officials, GPD was asked to notify people camping on the property that they were trespassing.”

Taylor went on to say that the eviction effort was coordinated with representatives at GRACE.

“It would be safe to say that the capacity of all the shelters in Gainesville is about half of the homeless population,” said GRACE Executive Director Jon DeCarmine. “For all of the narrative that people are safer at home, it does not make sense to evict anybody in the middle of a pandemic.”

However, DeCarmine confirmed that GRACE worked with Gainesville PD and FDOC to evict Moultrie and other campers from the nearby encampment, claiming that it was done out of fear for residents’ safety after an incident involving a drunk driver nearly hitting people in their tents.

DeCarmine said GRACE offered beds and services to those who were displaced. However, Moultrie said she was only offered a bed at GRACE after she went to the local university’s newspaper, The Alligator, about the eviction. She claimed her fellow campers did not get beds, and said she feels lonely and constantly under surveillance at GRACE.

She still hopes to see her friends again, but doesn’t know if it will ever happen. In the meantime, she’s working on forming a nonprofit that helps fellow homeless people by providing food, first aid equipment and the basic necessities of life. She recently got accepted to Santa Fe Community College in Gainesville to study Public Health. She’s going to stay at GRACE for as long as she can. While it’s not her ideal situation, she knows that it’s hard to survive without shelter during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“People aren’t asking for much,” Moultrie said. “Just three meals a day and suitable shelter. This city, any city, should provide that to everyone during a time like this.”



Mutual Aid for Incarcerated People Is More Than Just Bail Funds

As Americans across the country lead nightly protests against the historical racism and violence of our police forces, they are being met with violent cops in paramilitary gear — and sometimes, the actual military. In the past few weeks, Portland has been ravaged by secret police who are disappearing protestors into unmarked vehicles; soldiers in D.C. were given bayonets to quell protestors; police in Buffalo, NY shoved a 75 year-old man to the ground, then walked around his body while blood leaked from his ears; and a reporter in Minneapolis lost her left eye after she was shot with a pepper round.

Meanwhile, COVID-19 continues to spread throughout the country. Public health officials recommend isolation, social distancing, and frequent hand-washing to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus. They certainly don’t recommend inhalation of chemical agents like tear gas and pepper spray, which are being used liberally against protestors. Protestors put in jail and incarcerated people held in prisons are not given options to isolate or maintain recommended hygiene practices to protect themselves from coronavirus.

Mutual aid — people coming together to meet basic needs that aren’t being met by our current government or other systems — is a critical part of the response to the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and so many other Black people. It can include money, time, or resources, and is a political act of solidarity amongst individuals and communities, rather than charity. People on the outside are coordinating rapid-response bail funds; providing jail support to find out where arrested protestors are taken, arranging bail if applicable, and waiting for their release; and fundraising for injured protestors. Monetary support like GoFundMe fundraisers to pay for medical bills, safe houses, and other forms of care are “a way to be there for our people, to build community, and to ensure that people are cared for,” according to Micah Herskind, an Atlanta-based organizer and writer. “I think jail support is another way to live out the abolitionist truth that ‘we got us.’ It’s also saying that there’s a role for everyone in the struggle — some will be in the streets, some will be doing support from home, some will be at the jail to welcome those who are released.”

According to abolitionist Mariame Kaba, “Mutual aid is not new […] It’s basic survival work that relies on the fact that human beings are interdependent.” She pointed to this chart created by Dean Spade as a way to show the important differences between mutual aid and charity, including the fact that mutual aid is an effort to flatten hierarchies without expectation of anything received in return. According to Spade, where charities and NGOs have high costs to operate and must follow government regulations, mutual aid is volunteer-powered, resisting the government’s efforts to “regulate or shut down activities.” K, a Black nonbinary organizer in Brooklyn, echoed this: “Mutual aid is so effective because it works outside of the bureaucracy of the nonprofit industrial complex. People have more control and autonomy over how aid is distributed and used, and also because mutual aid contains a political education component, longer-term relationships are built.” When it comes to mobilizing resources to support detained protestors, it also means having the speed to respond with the urgency the situation demands.

Mutual aid, however, extends beyond short-term, urgent needs. Many protestors and organizers realize that the murders of Black people at the hands of the police are just one part of a very violent system and many of those working to help protestors normally support incarcerated people. Incarceration is another violent — and often deadly — form of oppression for Black and brown people, and as with the protests, K notes, coronavirus has complicated the response.

Communities are coming together to act where the government refuses to.

Due to stay at home orders, mailing checks and visiting the post office have to be done “strategically” and loved ones can’t visit their family or friends in prison. Even when mail can be sent out, K said “prisons are limiting people’s access to mail and lying about it.” Morale is low on the inside, where some people “are being forced to stay inside their cells for 23 hours a day.” People on the outside are struggling with lost jobs and access to resources, but “with the help of our comrades on the inside,” K said they are doing their best. Amani Sawari, the statewide coordinator of the Michigan Prisoner Rehabilitation Credit Act, knows this well. Sawari is fundraising to help incarcerated people access prevention products like hand soap and disinfectant, putting money in people’s commissaries to get around Michigan Department of Corrections’ very restricted mailing. Sawari said it is integral “that the community step up in order to provide these materials to people in prison.” In New York, Survived and Punished NY and the Inside/Outside Soap Brigade similarly began a combined grassroots fundraising effort to send commissary money to incarcerated people while continuing decarceration efforts. They stress the importance of direct monetary aid because of the mail, movement, and other restrictions due to COVID-19.

In addition to bail out funds for protestors, a COVID-19 Bail Out Fund has been organized to get people out of New York City jails if they cannot afford to pay bail. Many people held in jails haven’t even been convicted of a crime, but are trapped inside because bail can often be unaffordable. In fact, the vast majority of people in jails — nearly 500,000 people — are held there in pre-trial detention. Release Aging People in Prison’s Melissa Tanis points out there are a large number of people who could be released immediately, regardless of innocence. Families and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children (FFLIC) Co-Founder and Executive Director, Gina Womack, explains they are advocating releasing youth from detention, where outbreaks have unfortunately already begun. Womack stresses that “[D]uring a crisis, the facilities could be put on lockdown. In the aftermath of Katrina, when prison staff couldn’t get to work, youth went without food and sanitation for days.” If a similar situation arose due to COVID-19, the results would be inhumane and devastating to incarcerated youth.

Rapid-response mutual aid is necessary for the survival of incarcerated people, and taking to the streets to prevent further incarceration and police violence remains of the utmost importance. That said, while the ultimate goal is decarceration, it’s heartening to see the swift action of organizers in response to crises. Faced with unprecedented challenges during both a global pandemic and a national movement, “communities are coming together to act where the government refuses to,” according to K.



45,000 California Child Care Providers Just Won the Largest Union Election in Decades

On Monday, 45,000 family child care owners and employees in California voted to join a union in a landslide, the largest union election the country has seen in two decades, according to organizers. In a mail-in secret ballot election, 97 percent voted to join Child Care Providers United (CCPU), a coalition of larger unions Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) that will bargain with the state over how it subsidizes child care.

The vote is the culmination of a 17-year fight to be granted the same right to organize that is available to their counterparts in 11 other states, including Washington and Oregon to the north. The fight started long before Miren Algorri, a family child care provider in San Diego, opened her family child care center. When Algorri first immigrated to the United States from Mexico, she became an assistant to her mother, who ran her own family child care. Algorri watched the children her mother cared for while her mother went to organizing meetings.

Algorri took up the mantle when she got her license to operate her own child care. In the more than two decades that she’s run her business, she hasn’t been able to take a single hour of paid sick leave. “That’s inhumane, that is criminal,” she said in an interview. She only has health insurance because she’s on someone else’s plan; when she was younger and a single mother, she had no coverage and paid hundreds of dollars to cover her daughter’s medical issues. “I cried myself to sleep countless nights,” she said.

She still can’t afford to offer health insurance to the assistants who now work for her. For providers like Algorri, who accept children whose parents pay for care with state subsidies, the rates are set by the state. With what the state pays her for caring for an infant, she’s barely making $4 an hour. But she needs to pay her assistants at least minimum wage. “They deserve way more than the minimum wage, because they’re shaping the future of California,” she said. But in order to compensate them adequately, that means that many months, after her other expenses, she doesn’t have enough money to pay herself a salary. So, she goes without.

It’s a common theme among family child care operators in California. In a 2019 survey, the top challenge providers said they faced was low wages, followed by receiving few benefits. Nearly one in five that had closed said it was because of the lack of benefits. Nationally, child care workers make on average less than $24,000 a year.

“Being underpaid, underrepresented, overworked is not something that I wish upon anybody,” she said. “We deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. That’s what the union means.”

The union vote result was announced on an emotional Zoom call on Monday, and in reaction child care providers across the state took themselves off mute to cheer and clap. “This election is historic,” said Zoila Carolina Toma, a child care provider in Los Angeles, on the call, with a classroom chalkboard and shelves full of supplies in her background. “Together we are unstoppable.”

“I cannot find the words to describe how I’m doing,” Algorri said. “I have been crying, I have been laughing… I’m overwhelmed with joy because I know that wonderful things are coming for us.”

Even before Monday’s vote, 2,500 child care workers in the state had joined SEIU without having the formal right to organize and bargain. Then, in September, Governor Gavin Newsom signed a bill finally granting providers who receive state subsidies the ability to form a union. “I’m so proud to be a little bit a part of your journey,” Newsom said in a pre-recorded video played on the Zoom call. “You had the moral authority, and…now we have the formal authority enshrined in this historic vote.”

We don't want to be 78 years old still trying to lead circle time.

The vote, however, is only the start. “Today the real fight begins,” Algorri said. Now that they voted to unionize, they’ll be able to bargain directly with the state for improvements in the child care system. As they negotiate their first contract, their priorities will be ensuring a livable wage for providers, good health insurance, and a retirement plan. Nancy Harvey, a child care provider of 16 years, said on the Zoom call, “We don’t want to be 78 years old still trying to lead circle time.” They also want to ensure professional development and training.

The child care provider workforce in California is overwhelmingly female and 74 percent people of color, according to the union. “This is not just a victory for union rights and economic justice,” Lee Saunders, president of AFSCME International, said on the Zoom call. “It’s a movement led by women of color. Your win today is an important step toward gender justice and racial justice.”

They also care for many children of color, and as part of their negotiations plan to push the government to expand access to child care. The vision of the union includes “excellent early education for all in California regardless of what you look like, where you come from, where you live, regardless of ability, regardless of language,” said Max Arias, executive director of SEIU Local 99.

All of these things are even more necessary in the middle of the pandemic. Across the country, more than 70 percent of child care providers say they’re incurring substantial new costs for staff, cleaning, and personal protective equipment to operate safely. But they have little wiggle room to cover those expenses. Over 40 percent said they had to close in May. Two out of five say they will have to shutter permanently unless they receive public assistance.

Many of the union members are already sick with COVID-19, some even hospitalized and intubated, according to union leaders who were on the Zoom call. Algorri has kept her doors open throughout the crisis to care for the children of essential workers, even as many of her families lost their jobs and had to keep their children home. She’s had to implement new procedures — such as asking parents to bring their own pens for sign in and having the children change into a child care-specific set of shoes — and spend a lot more on personal protective equipment and extra cleaning supplies. She wants a contract that will ensure providers keep getting paid if they close due to the coronavirus crisis, and will offer them extra support to keep their doors open.

“We’re not asking. We’re going to demand,” Toma noted. “It’s time to demand what we deserve, what our families deserve, what the people in California deserve.”

“I know wonderful things are coming our way,” Algorri said. “I’m just excited.”



A New UBI Pilot is Targeting Former Foster Kids in Silicon Valley

“From freshman year to senior year I was in 21 different placements — group homes [and] foster homes. It was hard to go to school, especially. It also really affected me because I never really felt like anywhere was home.” Kody Hart, an upbeat person with a positive outlook, will be 25 in August. He aged out of the foster care system when he was 18, after six years of state-run care. He doesn’t have family money to fall back on and is working hard to stay afloat, pay off educational debt, and find a way to move out of the increasingly expensive Bay Area.

Every year, 150 young people age out of the foster care system in California’s Santa Clara County. Statewide, 90 percent of foster youth don’t have a source of income when they leave state care, and between rent, school, clothing, food, and other living expenses, surviving in the Bay Area as a foster youth in transition is difficult.

The average cost of rent in San Jose, located in the southern part of the county, is $2,790. Up to 50 percent of foster youth experience homelessness when they leave state care, and in Santa Clara County alone, nearly 50 percent of those under the age of 25 who lack access to shelter had spent some time in the foster care system. Statewide, nearly 50 percent of foster youth are chronically absent from school, 60 percent of foster youth in transition don’t have a high school diploma, and most don’t go on to obtain a college degree. As a result, many higher-paying jobs are not accessible.

A new pilot program put forth by the county’s Board of Supervisors aims to make life easier for young people like Hart by providing the country’s first universal basic income for foster youth in transition. A universal basic income has been shown to increase educational attainment, health care coverage, and provide access to healthier food for all people, but results are especially pronounced for people who are low-income.

For a 12-month period that started in June 2020, eligible young adults will receive $1,000 every month, no strings attached. The program is designed for young adults aged 21 to 24 — an age range at which many become ineligible for other social safety net programs — and eligibility is based on a number of factors, with higher priority given to 24-year-olds. Young adults must have been dependents of Santa Clara County between the ages of 16 and 21, and must currently live in the county.

For 23-year-old Bayleen Solorio, the UBI payments she’ll receive through the county will help her address her number one issue: housing. Before the onset of the pandemic, she was “tight on cash,” and now that businesses are closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic, she’s working one shift per week at her job. The UBI is coming at the right time, but it still might not be enough to last through this economic downturn.

Solorio said the UBI program will offer her “that extra cushion I [need] to afford to pay off my debts.” The program “is going to help me a lot with financial struggles,” she said, and potentially address years of inadequate financial support. Solorio says that her main emotional struggle now is navigating her depression, and the UBI will make it easier for her to manage daily life.

For most, if not all, of the 72 young people enrolled in the program, the UBI isn’t just a guarantee of income, but a pathway to continue school and an opportunity to step back and think more broadly about their lives, rather than just focusing on the day-to-day. Santa Clara County Supervisor Cindy Chavez said that county staff will check in with the recipients every three months to offer financial guidance that they may not have received elsewhere.

Foster children don’t have networks and support systems that can help them launch.

Chavez explained that the UBI program was born out of a long-held belief that young people in the “custodial care” of the county community should be cared for as if they were her own — or any parent’s in the area. It’s not an unreasonable approach to early adulthood: 70 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds nationwide are supported financially by their parents, which is its own informal basic income program that keeps young adults afloat while they find their footing.

“Foster children don’t have networks and support systems that can help them launch,” Chavez said, noting that she has long been invested in the wellbeing of her constituents from a “justice” perspective. “When you’re making investments in justice, you’re launching human beings to reach their highest capacity,” she says. As she sees it, providing a UBI isn’t about charity.

This “justice” framework addresses more than the need for financial support: It speaks to the multi-layered challenges that await foster youth in transition when they age out of the state-run system. States largely get to shape policy including when young people “age out” and what financial and social services are made available to them. For instance, in California, some former foster youth are eligible for educational assistance. Most of these funds have an age limit and aren’t necessarily calibrated with the rising cost of living. What’s universal, however, is the way that the foster youth system disconnects young people from their home communities, suffers from chronic underfunding, and doesn’t address emotional and mental needs of foster youth prior to the onset of illnesses.

Chavez is aware of the UBI’s shortcomings, mainly that a fixed income for a certain period of time can’t solve all of the problems with the foster care system. Still, it may keep youth in transition financially solvent while they work out for themselves what adult life looks like. “This small amount of money offers a little bit of [protection]” Chavez said, “For our foster programming this is a new area, that our success or failure of the Board [is measured] as guardians of our children.”

In addition to providing financial guidance to the youth, county staff will conduct routine interviews with recipients of the basic income to evaluate its efficacy. Chavez hopes that the program inspires action in other counties around California and potentially in other states.

“Being in the foster care system did one thing and one thing only: It helped me become codependent,” Hart says. But initiatives like this one could actually allow Hart to build economic independence. “With programs like these, I’m able to actually be comfortable somewhere.”