By: Alyssa Laube and Ashley Wadhwani
A program designed to help former youth in care succeed financially as they pursue post-secondary training has instead left many pinching pennies and frustrated with the conditions attached to it.
Advocates want more equity and simplicity in the allotment process for the Agreement with Young Adults program — dubbed AYA — a monthly provincial stipend available on a per-need basis for adults formerly in the Ministry of Children and Family Development’s care.
To be eligible, applicants must be under 28, in a ministry-approved life-skills or training program, taking a 60 per cent post-secondary course load, or be in a 15-week rehabilitation program. While part-time work is generally allowed, full-time work can lead to the agreement being terminated.
For those who meet the requirements, receiving up to $1,250 per month can mark the difference between living comfortably and couch surfing in their attempt to transition to prosperity.
But for many, the funding isn’t enough to get by on, particularly in major B.C. cities that have seen a steady increase in the cost of living.
Adil Walker-Chagani, 22, relied on AYA for about 16 months starting in March 2016 while living in the Lower Mainland. He said his $1,024 in monthly AYA stipend left him struggling to afford groceries, his phone bill, medications and a stable place to rent.
“One of the biggest problems with AYA and the youth agreement is it’s great that they give you money, but it’s really not enough,” he said.
“Obviously there are other young people who have been under the care of the ministry who may say something different.
“But, from when I’ve been in groups and meetings where people have told me their stories, and my personal experience, the only benefit of AYA is that…despite how little you get, there is still some money, which is better than nothing.”
Nearly two years after his last cheque from AYA, he said he would rather work full-time to support himself than get back on the program.
“I would honestly rather try to make it on my own, even if sometimes that means I will be homeless for a bit,” he said.
“I would rather not have to rely on the ministry because I can’t guarantee that they’ll always be able to help me, whereas if I have a job – even if I’m suffering – I can rely on the fact that as long as I’m not messing up my job, I’ll have a steady source of income.”
|Adil Walker-Chagani, 22, said that he has had to couch surf and struggled to afford basic necessities, despite being in the AYA program. (Alyssa Laube/Spotlight:Child Welfare)|
Amber Moon, a 20-year-old Vancouverite, received AYA as she upgraded science classes at Vancouver Community College from spring 2017 to spring 2018.
And while she feels she was adequately supported by the program, she said her positive experience was in part due to having additional supplements to her income. Essentially, it works well as a top-up to things like scholarships and bursaries and other types of subsidies.
“For me it was enough only because I was on subsidized housing, and I still am on subsidized housing, so my rent isn’t very much and I also got a program that helps with gift cards for groceries,” she said.
“With all those different things it made it super easy to pay for everything with what I got from AYA. But if I didn’t have those things I feel like it would be more difficult and I might have also had to have a part-time job while I was in school.”
As B.C. makes upgrades to AYA, advocates call for more equity
The program has been available in B.C. since 2008. As of Dec. 31, 3,800 young adults have used it.
Since its introduction, the provincial government has raised the age limit from 24, made adjustments for inflation and allowed eligible young adults to access the funding over two years instead of one. Despite this, cries for further changes continue.
“Our concern is with the fact it’s not still comprehensive, it’s not seen as an entitlement for every youth that age out of care as a safety net, regardless of their circumstances,” said First Call BC provincial coordinator Adrienne Montani.
But for most, the AYA application process is confusing and riddled with lengthy wait times.
“[It’s] kind of a net with a lot of big holes in it – you might not qualify for anything, you might not find about it in a timely way, meanwhile you have to afford your rent,” she said.
With the tuition waiver program now fully accessible across the province, housing tops the list of the largest expense young people are facing. For those who don’t get into subsidized housing, the average rent in B.C. tops $1,000, according to the latest data from the Canadian Rental Housing Index.
Montani said the maximum AYA funding of $1,250 just isn’t keeping up.
And unlike other young people, most former kids in care can’t call on the bank of Mom and Dad.
|Amber Moon, 20, is weighing whether she should try to work more hours, or re-apply for more AYA funding, while going back to school. (Alyssa Laube/Spotlight:Child Welfare)|
“Some foster parents go out of their way to say, ‘You’ll always be my kid you can come back anytime,’ and others don’t - because they either can’t… or told that they shouldn’t continue to engage,” Montani explained.
Some former youth may not have finished their high-school level education by the time they age out, or face untreated mental health or trauma issues.
“If they age out into poverty right away then those issues are exacerbated.”
The B.C. government said it has and will continue to listen to those accessing AYA as it reviews the best ways to support the province’s youth over the next two years, backed by $30-million included in its 2018 budget.
“We know there’s more work to do,” the Ministry of Child and Family Development said in an emailed statement.
“We need to continue to make improvements and raise awareness so that, whether it’s at age 19 or age 26, former youth in care know they can come back and receive supports available through AYA when they’re ready.”
AYA allotment lacks comprehensive standards: First Call BC
Moon is planning to pursue a career in forensic pathology in the months ahead, but she’s not sure if she’ll receive AYA again or will have to find other ways to support herself as she gets her necessary accreditations.
“I would have to work and go to school at the same time, and [have] to find a job that would pay enough to cover rent and everything,” she said. “I feel like it will be pretty difficult to be able to have a regular job while I’m in school, especially if school takes up a lot of my time.”
She said AYA could offer her relief, depending on how much she’d qualify for, but she’s not sure what she can depend on – a component of the program that First Call BC wants changed.
|First Call BC provincial coordinator Adrienne Montani wants the B.C. government to create a more comprehensive process for former youth in care who are applying for AYA (First Call BC photo)|
“It should be that everybody knows what they are entitled to, and it shouldn’t be so conditional,” Montani said. “It’s just disrespectful in my opinion and really unhelpful for young people who just need to know that we as their parents care about helping them through this transition.
“You shouldn’t have to prove yourself of being deserving of this, just like how my kids didn’t have to prove to me they were deserving of me covering their rent one month or being able to bounce back home or being able to ask for help financially if I could afford it.”
Greater MCFD resources needed to help former foster kids transition to adulthood
Jess Boon, who accessed AYA herself, has seen the varying experiences of young people while in the social assistance program first-hand.
Boon, is now a coordinator and outreach worker at the Network of Inner City Community Society. She said that being on the program “can be the difference between being homeless [and having a home] when going to school,” but sees many former youth in care coming up short when paying for increasing rent and basic necessities.
“When you think about the Vancouver housing market, how much is $1,250 going to get you a month? There are a lot of people who are supplementing their AYA with additional work,” Boon said.
“Some people have to take undercover cash jobs. Some people have said they’re considering turning to sex work, even though they’re on AYA.”
Boon remembers scraping by while she was using the program’s funding, but remains grateful for the impact it had on her life.
What she would like to see now is the ministry hiring more workers to help former youth in care use and thrive on AYA, particularly in rural areas where access to guidance and resources from the ministry is limited.
“When people can get it right and people can find that balance, it has the potential to save lives,” Boon said.
This story was produced as part of Spotlight: Child Welfare — a collaborative journalism project that aims to deepen reporting on B.C.’s child-welfare system. It was originally published on Black Press Media. Tell us what you think about the story.