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Coronavirus Precautions For Foster Youth


We've been talking this hour about the broad effects of the coronavirus pandemic. Now we're going to focus on some of the people who will be directly affected. In a minute, we'll hear about seniors, who are particularly vulnerable. But first, all across the country, K through 12 schools and colleges and universities have been shutting down temporarily or moving instruction online. For youth in foster care or who are vulnerable for other reasons, these orders pose all sorts of financial and logistical problems.

Congresswoman Karen Bass is a Democrat from California. She's the chair of the Congressional Black Caucus. She also co-chairs the bipartisan Congressional Caucus on Foster Youth, which is encouraging these institutions to consider the needs of foster students in making the decision to suspend classes. And she is with us now.

Congresswoman Bass, thank you so much for joining us.

KAREN BASS: Thank you for having me on.

MARTIN: You know, you held a press conference yesterday urging colleges and universities to make provisions for vulnerable students. Can you just give us some idea of what you'd like to see schools do?

BASS: Sure. Well, you know, we're going to have so many examples of this as our nation goes through this journey. And so when schools are closed, you know, the normal situation is, is that the student goes home. But young people goes home with their family. But young people in the foster care system don't have a family to go home to. And so what we were saying was, we wanted the colleges to not just have a blanket policy but to actually consider the fact that there are homeless students, and there are students who do not have families to go home to. So that was the point we were trying to make.

Now, we passed a major package to deal with the virus yesterday, but we know there will be additional packages that come. And so as we see the consequences, the collateral consequences of policies that we make or how the virus is impacting communities, we want to make sure that vulnerable populations don't fall through the cracks. Every - you know, the president's worried about the cruise industry. He's worried about the stock market. I'm worried about the people that don't necessarily have a voice in the Oval Office.

MARTIN: So I think some people might be surprised to learn just how many students experience homelessness at some point. I mean, according to data from the National Youth in Transition Database, 27% of 21-year-olds surveyed had experienced homelessness within the past two years. And, you know, they wouldn't necessarily be covered by some of the provisions that people have been talking about here, like, say, relief for a small business. You know...

BASS: Absolutely.

MARTIN: ...Covering people's - workers' paychecks - that wouldn't cover them, right?

BASS: No, absolutely. And not all of the young people are homeless. So, for example, you might have a child who's in college across country, but you might be a low-income person, and you can't afford to fly your son or daughter home, especially not knowing how long they're going to be home, not knowing whether you're responsible for two or three flights.

And then, you know, all of the students across the board - they have paid money in advance for their dorms. They've paid money in advance for their meal plans. So what happens to them? Is it possible for the university to give them vouchers so they could go to an Airbnb? All of those kind of things. Now, we had to respond to the virus immediately. But when you do respond immediately, then you don't know until after you have implemented policies what the fallout from those policies are.

So that's what we were saying. I am hoping that some of the colleges will allow their young people who don't have families to stay in the dorms. You know, we also have a number of international students. What are they supposed to do? They might not be able to travel home to their countries because their countries might be on a ban where they might be able to get there, but then they can't come back here afterwards.

MARTIN: Do some of the youth know - or I'm assuming sort of activists, groups or non-profits - know of your work in this area? What are some of the things that they're expressing to you? What are some of the concerns that they're sharing with you?

BASS: Well, they are just sounding the alarm. I mean, right now, all of this is just happening, so none of us really know. But they are sounding the alarm because they understand what happens to the people they work with on a daily basis in normal circumstances. In Los Angeles County, for example, on any given night, we have tens of thousands of people that are homeless. So what about that population?

So all of these things, I think it is perfectly right for us to respond in the moment. But what is the responsible thing to do is to respond in the moment and then track to see what happens to your response. How does it impact people?

MARTIN: Are you hearing any response or - from K-through-12 schools or from colleges and universities about what they can provide during this time?

I mean, I've seen that there's a particularly wealthy university - I don't want to name it - but they sent a letter out to alumni because apparently alumni are expressing concern about this, whether because of personal experience or because they just are, you know, thinking it through. And they've asked all students to leave the campus, but they're saying they're going to leave one dorm open for students who don't have anyplace else to go. So are you hearing any response - yeah, like that?

BASS: No. But that's exactly the model that we would like to see take place - for that - for the colleges to understand that, of course, it's their responsibility to make sure they clear out.

But they don't want to clear out and then create a bigger problem down the line because just think about it. You empty out your dorms. You tell everybody to go. Well, your students who don't have families or international students wind up homeless. Then they are more at risk for the virus. So when things do go back to quasi-normal or where you can bring the students back, you might actually be exacerbating a problem that - if you all follow me.

MARTIN: That was Congresswoman Karen Bass. She's co-chair of the bipartisan Congressional Caucus on Foster Youth.

Congresswoman Bass, thank you so much for talking to us today.

BASS: Thanks for having me on. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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