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  • Tracy Sherlock

Making the Grade part 3: Safe housing, graduate programs should be included, students say

More than 150 students have accessed tuition waivers at the University of British Columbia, but advocates would like to see the program broadened to include graduate school and supports like housing. Photo credit: Tracy Sherlock

Young people and education advocates say a B.C. program that waives tuition for people who grew up in government care is “vitally important.” One young person even called it “beautiful.”

In many ways, it is a success. But affordable housing remains one pressing concern for recipients, and others would like to see the program expanded.

The program has allowed about 1,700 young people to get an education, those who might otherwise not have, due to poverty and lack of parental support by waiving all tuition for undergraduate degrees and trades training at public post-secondary institutions for people between the ages of 19 and 26 who spent at least two years in government care.

About 850 young people age out of B.C. government care each year, often losing all of the supports they have come to rely on, such as their foster parents, financial support, youth health and mental health care and their social worker.

Since the government is the parent of these young children, we wondered if there are other ministries or jurisdictions that could follow this example and make a similar, significant difference.

Most of the experts we spoke to said yes.

Affordable housing is the number one concern, but other levels of education and health are not far behind.

When youth transition from care to adulthood, they must change all of their health service providers as well.

Jennifer Charlesworth, B.C.’s representative for children and youth, says there should be transitional care that is tailored for these young people to address their trauma, substance abuse and overall mental health.

“Their brain is still developing. We shouldn’t be putting a 21-year-old in a mental health placement with people who are 50 years old and who have had chronic mental health concerns for 30 years,” Charlesworth said.

Jennifer Charlesworth, B.C.’s representative for children and youth, calls the tuition waiver program “vitally important.” Photo credit: Submitted.

She would like the children’s ministry to take responsibility past the age of 19 to develop a transitional program with community care providers.

Anything that can be done to improve the experience of children in government care while they are in elementary and secondary school would help those who have other challenges or who fall too far behind to make it to post-secondary, Charlesworth said.

“Many of these young people can see the benefit of accessing the tuition waiver, but there are other things going on in their life that have not helped them be prepared to access that program — housing, dealing with the trauma of being in care, mental health concerns, not having had appropriate educational assessments to know what might be appropriate accommodations. There are things that get in the way for them,” she said.

Chris Rambaran, UBC’s enrolment advisor for former youth in care, agrees.

“When you talk about the transitions between communities and schools, if you had a wraparound navigator or even a team that overlooked these students ensuring that they don’t get lost in the cracks of the system, that all of their information and their needs follow them wherever they go,” Rambaran said.

Graduate school should be included, advocates say

At the other end of the education spectrum, those who have made it through their undergraduate degree would like to see professional and graduate programs covered.

A 24-year-old single mom of a six-year-old son, who did not want to be named publicly, graduated from the University of British Columbia in 2020 with a major in Psychology and a minor in Education.

She didn’t qualify for the provincial tuition waiver, but did qualify for UBC’s waiver and was able to use the income support program Agreements with Young Adults, which provides $1,250 per month to cover living expenses for students who aged out of government care on their 19th birthday and who are in school or do job training, or attend rehabilitation, mental health, or life skills programs.

“It didn’t leave much room,” she said. Her son was in daycare throughout her undergraduate education.

The UBC tuition waiver program doesn’t cover graduate studies, so she will have to cover her own tuition when she returns to school part-time this fall to complete a one-year graduate diploma at Douglas College in psychosocial rehabilitation. Eventually, she hopes to return to UBC for a masters in psychology.

So far, five students who used tuition waivers for their undergraduate studies are now in graduate studies at UBC and if the program was expanded to cover post graduate studies, that would be “fantastic,” Rambaran said.

She wishes the tuition waiver program covered all people who have been in care.

“You could go into care later in life, but you still don’t have support,” she said. “That’s something that I do wish was different about the program, is that they would make the timeline a bit shorter, or even if they were in care when they aged out, not specifically the amount of time they were in care.”

Housing is the biggest challenge

Finding safe, secure housing is challenging for former youth in care in B.C., including those at university. Photo shows student housing at UBC. Photo credit: Tracy Sherlock

The biggest issue facing everyone in B.C. is housing affordability, and none more so than youth aging out of care, who have no rental history or experience, no credit history and often very little reliable income. Nearly 20 per cent of all households in Metro Vancouver are in “core housing need,” which means their home is either too small, in poor condition or costs more than 30 per cent of their income. Rents are high, vacancy rates are low, and safe, secure housing is hard to come by.

The province should provide dedicated housing for youth aging out of care through a plan to end youth homelessness, the 2020 report from Charlesworth’s office says.

“We all know what a difference it makes to have safe and secure housing,” Charlesworth said. A 2016 Canadian study by Homeless Hub found that 57.8 per cent of homeless youth report having a connection to the child-protection services during their childhood. A person who is connected to child-protection services would have a higher likelihood of having grown up in government care.

When asked if it is considering any housing programs targeted specifically to former youth in care, B.C.’s Ministry of the Attorney General, which oversees housing, said in a statement that on top of 564 existing housing units it is building 206 housing units for youth, including those transitioning to independence and those experiencing homelessness.

B.C. Housing also has a homeless prevention program that includes rent supplements and supports for at risk groups including youth transitioning out of care who are at risk of homelessness. They are working on a youth-specific vulnerability assessment tool.

One 21-year-old UBC student, who didn’t want to be named because of safety concerns, said she has been trying for four years to get an affordable housing space on campus. The science student said living off campus isn’t an option for her, due to the same safety concerns, but living on campus has proven both expensive and challenging when it comes to living with other students.

She was only in care for nine months, so doesn’t qualify for the provincial tuition waiver. She didn’t know about the UBC waiver and may never have found out, except for a chance phone call with UBC’s Rambaran. After an experience in care where she was moved every month for several months, she decided to move back in with her parents for housing stability.

“I was in inappropriate placements with inappropriate people who didn’t understand what needs I have, who didn’t know how to support me,” she said.

There are some more affordable single-occupancy studios on campus, but there’s a long wait list. Students with disabilities, like this student, can be accommodated, but she didn’t have the right paperwork at first, so wasn’t prioritized. Now that she’s working with a different doctor, her paperwork is in order, but she’s still waiting.

Rambaran said housing on campus is a complex topic that involves all levels of governments.

As it is now, the only way to make it affordable is to share a space.

“If they are not willing or able to share, then there are very limited options and a massive wait list, such is the case when you have thousands of more students than housing spaces,” he said.

Rambaran has tried everything he can to help, she said.

“This isn’t sustainable for me. I’m here for the long game, I’m not just here for an undergrad. I need something that is sustainable and I need something that gives me housing stability, because I haven’t known much of that for the last decade of my life,” she said.

She is speaking out so that a solution can be found to help future students.

“There needs to be a conversation between BC Housing, MCFD and Advanced Education to say, hey, we’re part of the problem here and we need to take ownership and try to do something about this,” she said. “There’s already too few kids from care making it to university and it’s this kind of thing that makes them leave even if they were able to get here.”

This reporting was funded by Journalists for Human Rights and the Solutions Journalism Network and made possible by funding from the McConnell Foundation.

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Jun 18, 2022

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