COUNTY OF SANTA CLARA, CALIF. – When the pandemic hit, the future took a sudden and bleak turn for Veronica Vieyra.
The San Jose State University student was poised to exit the foster care system and on track to graduate the following year, fulfilling a dream of her beloved and hardworking mother who died in 2013.
But COVID-19 meant the dorms were to be vacated, a disruption that could prove particularly devastating for Veronica.
“I saw my roommates leaving, their families had come to help them pack up and move back home,” said Vieyra. “I didn’t have a home to move back to. I was boxing up my stuff and thinking I might be living on the streets.”
That’s when Vieyra, who is now 25, heard about what she calls her “second chance” – she was an early participant in the County of Santa Clara’s Basic Income Pilot program, which offers young adults exiting out of the foster care system a leg up in the form of a $1,000 monthly stipend.
"It really was like a superhero coming in to save the day," Vieyra said. "A lot of us when we exit foster care have no idea what to do next. We don't have savings and we are struggling. This program came in as a second chance to save money and plan for the future."
The County of Santa Clara’s innovative program – the first of its kind in the nation specifically targeting those exiting the foster system – was approved in June 2020, with first payments going out last summer. It was set to expire in August but in June the Board of Supervisors voted to extend the program for six months.
That, said County program manager Melanie Jimenez Perez, was crucial. Recipients were initially in “survival mode, trying to figure out what they would be doing the next day,” and needed the funds to maintain a semblance of stability through the pandemic.
“Back then, they weren’t sure where they were going to sleep,” said Jimenez Perez. “Now, they’re signing leases, holding down jobs, graduating from university, and helping their peers while being able to stand on their own two feet. You can see the transformation since a year ago, and I can’t wait to see their growth through the remainder of the program.”
The pilot program was proposed by former Santa Clara County Supervisor and current State Sen. Dave Cortese after meeting with philanthropist Giselle Huff. It served as a model for statewide legislation authored by Cortese and approved in July that will do the same for 2,500 transitioning foster youth for up to three years.
Program participant Aleta Smith, who volunteers as a financial mentor to others leaving the foster system, said the program isn’t there to “make anyone rich.”
“This is made to help people meet their basic needs,” she said, adding that she would – and does – advise those in the program to take full advantage of the financial counseling that is offered.
“You don’t know what you don’t know, and it’s OK to ask, especially with finances,” she said, adding additional tips she offers peers. “Be responsible. Pay off debt. Save for emergencies – the unexpected happens all the time. If you are in a situation in which you have no one to depend on, you are going to have to be very responsible. Use the basic income to get ahead and help with your survival.”
For Vieyra, it meant the survival of the academic dream she shared with her mother. She graduated from San Jose State in May with a BA degree in public health and is looking to start her career.
“If it wasn’t for the County of Santa Clara’s help I wouldn’t have the stability I have right now,” she said. “I’d probably have put my last semester in college on hold, just to figure out where I’d be living. This program is changing lives.”