This Bay Area county will be the last to try to pay a basic income to a vulnerable population

Xochtil Larios entered the Oakland condo last year and breathed a sigh of relief at her first stable home in ten years.

For Larios, plucked from a volatile home at the age of 12, she’s spent the last nine years finding her footing while vacillating between foster homes, homeless shelters and the occasional youth center. After falling out of government benefits at age 21, Larios was happy to get subsidized housing in one of America’s least affordable regions

“I’ll never forget that feeling of having my own apartment,” recalls Larios, now 22. “It felt almost unreal, like I was in a dream. Having my own home – feeling safe and having a permanent roof over my head – I cried tears of joy.”

To help other young adults who face a service cliff as they age out of the foster care system, Larios and a team of 11 former foster children helped Alameda County develop its first Guaranteed Basic Income, or GBI, program.

On June 30, district supervisors approved $2.8 million for the two-year pilot program. The program is expected to begin in January 2023 and will provide $1,000 a month to an initial cohort of 90 foster children aged 21. The freely available money is intended to help smooth out the often turbulent transition from government service.

The team Larios worked on was called the Net Growth Movement. They shared stories of hardship and hard times and developed the language for the county’s program.

Larios spoke about how she is navigating the foster care system with her three siblings, the youngest of whom was a month-old baby. Growing up in a home riddled with domestic violence, she recalls the insecurity that came with being placed in numerous foster families and being dependent on homeless shelters, where she was sometimes accompanied by her mother and sometimes not. She struggled at school and also had to deal with the juvenile court system.

“All my mother needed at the time was stable housing,” Larios said. “Our family would have been more consistent together. So much trauma could have been avoided if we had had safety nets in place.”

Larios said she turned things around by the age of 17, taking her education more seriously and getting involved in advocacy groups working with marginalized youth. After dropping out of the foster care system last year, Larios said she was able to get subsidized housing through another program. Larios, who is not eligible for the new district pilot program, said the additional income provided by GBI programs can alleviate some of the economic hardships faced by foster youth.

Those behind Alameda County startup GBI agree.

“Cutting off foster kids on their 21st birthday, when they might be in the middle of college or changing jobs, or struggling with home insecurity, puts them in a precarious position,” said Casey Farmer, an Oakland-based public affairs adviser hired as a project manager to oversee the youth group. “The (guaranteed basic income) should help.”

California in 2012 raised the minimum age for nursing services from 18 to 21. However, given the high cost of living in the Bay Area and current inflationary trends, foster children are more prone to slipping through the cracks when they are released from government services and experience higher rates of homelessness, unemployment and mental health problems, said Darryl McDavid, a former Foster youth who was part of the group tasked with shaping Alameda County’s GBI program.

Guaranteed basic income programs have started at the local level. Alameda, Marin, san francisco and Santa Clara counties are testing pilot programs for low-income families, artists, pregnant women and foster children. Cities like South San Francisco and Oakland also have programs. Recipients receive between $500 and $1,000 each month and can spend the money as they please.

Most people spend it on basic necessities, said Michael Tubbs, who launched a successful universal basic income program during his time as Stockton mayor and now heads the nonprofit End poverty in California. Universal basic income differs from guaranteed basic income in that it serves a larger population rather than a specific target group.

Former Stockton Mayor Michael Tubbs, who oversaw California’s first universal basic income program, now heads the California nonprofit End Poverty.

Gabrielle Lurie / The Chronicle

The Stockton program, the first in the state, gave $1,000 a month to 125 participants from 2019 through 2021. Tubbs and his supporters point to the program as one of the most effective ways to combat poverty and other hardships. Stockton participant report greater financial stability so they can pay bills, groceries, and unexpected expenses. They also reported greater emotional well-being.

Hot on the heels of local efforts in Stockton and the Bay Area, California last July approved the nation’s first federally funded guaranteed basic income program and committed $35 million to support current or new pilot programs that prioritize foster children and pregnant women.

“If poverty is a political problem, then guaranteed and universal income programs are part of the solution,” Tubbs said.

McDavid, 30, knows the importance of safety nets as you age out of the system.

He entered a foster family when he was 2 years old. But he didn’t know he was part of the system until several years later, when he was removed from the home he was in and the woman he believed was his mother.

“This (removal) happened when I was five,” McDavid said. “I lived with two of my older siblings, who were also in foster care, with a loving woman who I thought was my mother. My sisters and I stayed with another family for a weekend and everything changed overnight.”

McDavid said he couldn’t say goodbye to his first foster mother, nor take any of his belongings – clothes, toys, books and other things – with him. He said the upheaval of that abrupt change left a lasting impression.

Around 11, he realized he needed to be the architect of his own life, beginning with his education, which he had been disinterested in in elementary school, he said. He made his way to California State University, East Bay, took out student loans, graduated with a degree in business administration and is now working in the nonprofit world after spending a few years in finance. He has had a permanent home and job for several years and lives a happy life with his wife and child. But the trauma still shows itself in unexpected ways.

“The concept of home was a challenge for me,” said McDavid. “Even today, when I come home, I’ve been sitting on the couch in my jacket and shoes, all my ‘outside attire’ on. I didn’t know I was doing this, but I think part of me will always be this kid that got dressed up for the weekend only to be snatched away from home forever.”

Shwanika Narayan is a contributor to the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @shwanika

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