Foster youth Celena Johnson was nearly homeless when Beyond Emancipation stepped in.
By SCOOTY NICKERSON | Bay Area News Group
In early 2020, as health officials throughout the Bay Area doubled down on shelter-in-place orders asking residents to stay at home to avoid spreading COVID-19, Celena Johnson reached out to her caseworker at Beyond Emancipation, an Oakland nonprofit that provides services for foster youth. She had a more immediate concern – avoiding homelessness.
“I was… about to be homeless,” said Johnson. “It was really extremely stressful.”
Johnson was forced to scramble for housing because she had reached an otherwise celebratory marker in a young American’s life: turning 21. For foster youth in California, this occasion corresponds with aging out of most foster care services.
At the time, she was also pursuing a bachelor’s degree in public health at Cal State East Bay in Hayward and had spent months applying to housing programs. But she was struggling to get a spot as demand for public housing surged in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
That’s when Beyond Emancipation stepped in. The Oakland nonprofit assists young people as they transition out of foster care or probation. The organization’s staff helped Johnson navigate through a slog of bureaucratic paperwork to apply for a new public housing voucher program. Months later, she received notice that she had been granted a voucher, which helped her secure a one-bedroom apartment in Fremont for the last three years.
“It was like a blessing from God, truly,” Johnson said. “I just needed…to be grounded and only focus on school.”
As part of the East Bay Times’ Share the Spirit campaign, Beyond Emancipation is hoping to raise $20,000 to help pay for holiday gift cards, rent support, food and other essential support services for foster youth through the winter. Share the Spirit is an annual campaign that raises money for nonprofit agencies that serve disadvantaged residents in the East Bay.
Beyond Emancipation was founded in the 1990s by a group of East Bay social care workers who were appalled by the lack of available services for youth aging out of the foster care system. The organization’s director of development, Julia Lakes, says that foster youth would often be kicked out on the street with nothing but plastic trash bags containing their life’s possessions.
The problem persists. Nearly a quarter of California foster youth sampled in a 2020 University of Chicago study experienced homelessness in the two years following their 21st birthday.
Lakes said that even after all these years, one of the organization’s highest priorities is securing housing for youths like Johnson who are ageing out of the foster care system.
“Housing is a huge hurdle, particularly here,” Lakes said. “If [foster youth] miss a paycheck and are living paycheck to paycheck…”
Most of the foster youth that Beyond Emancipation now serve are young adults between the critical ages of 18 and 26 who are grappling with the consequences of turning 21.
The nonprofit provides one-on-one counseling and group workshops to help these young adults secure housing and employment. They also help youths sharpen practical life skills like learning how to vote, and provide health and wellness guidance that can be critical for foster kids who often lack other support networks.
Johnson has participated in the organization’s programming for years, and says the help she received has played a pivotal role in shaping some of her biggest life achievements.
As a teenager, she says she had no idea how to apply to college. No one in her biological family had studied beyond high school. She was also born with several developmental conditions related to her mother’s unaddressed alcoholism, during pregnancy, including a sometimes lethal brain condition known as hydrocephalus.
But after speaking with Beyond Emancipation staff who also grew up in the foster care system, as well as other foster youth who managed to attend college, Johnson decided to apply. When it came time to tour college campuses, a member of the organization’s staff joined her on the tours. When she was ultimately accepted to Cal State East Bay, Beyond Emancipation also helped foot the bill through their scholarship program.
Now Johnson has her eye on attending an entry-level master’s program in nursing at UC Davis. Her ultimate goal is to become a neonatal nurse, specializing in caring for babies like her who are born with developmental disabilities.
She says that she wants to show struggling families that a brighter future is possible through her own life story.
“I want to be a vessel for other families to know that despite what their child is going through, there’s possibilities,” she said. “I’m alive. I’m healthy… I’m only 23 years old and I never would have imagined being where I am today.”
How to Help