Keyana Johnson woke on her 21st birthday to a harsh reality. She was just weeks from giving birth to her second child and unable to work because of illness related to her pregnancy. And she had no money for rent because she had just become too old to continue receiving foster care benefits.

But Johnson did have tenacity. She spent the next year cycling in and out of emergency shelters and hotels until she had cobbled together enough money working as a cashier to move into a duplex in north Minneapolis with her two children — Stephon, 2, and 1-year-old Prodigy.

"I felt like a wolf thrown out into the wild," Johnson said. "It seemed like there was no path forward."

Each year, about 600 to 800 youths in Minnesota are required to leave foster care because they become too old — a transition known as "aging out" of care. Many are left to fend for themselves with little or no support, extending the trauma they endured during a childhood separated from their birth parents.

Now, Minnesota state officials are extending a lifeline to this often-forgotten population of adolescents moving into adulthood.

In response to federal legislation, Gov. Tim Walz's administration earlier this month imposed a moratorium on youth being discharged from foster care through September, while allowing those who aged out during the pandemic to return to care. The state is directing all counties and Indian tribes to quickly identify these youths and encourage them to remain in care so they have access to benefits.

As a result, nearly 800 Minnesota youths, ages 18 to 21, who would have aged out of the foster care system will continue to receive monthly benefits during the pandemic — preventing them from being cast into an uncertain future without a safety net.

"It has been extremely difficult for young people who have recently, or are about to, age out of foster care," said Lisa Bayley, acting assistant commissioner of Children and Family Services at the state Department of Human Services (DHS).

"Think about young people who have a stable family. During this difficult time, they've had somewhere to go home to when schools closed down, when jobs were terminated. ... But if you've aged out of foster care and you don't have anywhere to go, that's been really tough."

Some argue the change is long overdue. Minnesota child welfare advocates have spent much of the past year appealing to the Walz administration to issue a freeze on older youth aging out of foster care. At least a half-dozen states, including California and Ohio, implemented policies last year to continue foster care benefits during the pandemic.

Further emergency relief — including $400 million to help older foster youth with tuition and housing — was included in a federal stimulus bill that was signed into law in December by President Donald Trump. Nearly $8 million of that new funding was allotted to support foster youth in Minnesota.

Falling into 'negative spiral'

The pandemic has hit Minnesota's older youths in foster care particularly hard. The long-standing challenges of finding stable work and housing have only been exacerbated amid the economic crisis that followed the outbreak.

Many work in service-related jobs and have been laid off or had their hours cut. Others have had difficulty finding apartments amid a severe shortage of affordable housing, related in part to an eviction moratorium during the pandemic that has caused fewer units to become available, say advocates for foster youth.

A rare survey of Minnesota's foster youth last summer painted a bleak portrait of their living circumstances. More than 80% of 156 current and former foster youth reported negative changes to their lives because of COVID-19. Fully a third said they had lost their jobs during the pandemic, and a high percentage had trouble paying for basic needs.

Nearly 50% of foster youth over 18 said they were worried about being able to pay for food. And more than 40% said they worried about exposure to the coronavirus in their current living situation, according to the statewide survey.

"This [moratorium on aging out] should have been done a year ago, like other states did in response to the pandemic," said Hoang Murphy, executive director of Foster Advocates, a St. Paul-based nonprofit that conducted the survey. "Older foster youth have spent the pandemic living with a sense of dread, of perpetually wondering, 'Where am I going to live and what will I do?' That kind of toxic stress — combined with the lack of support from a family or the system — leads to a negative spiral."

A circle of support

Like many states, Minnesota allows children to stay in foster care and receive monthly benefits up to age 21. Foster youth remain eligible for benefits so long as they work at least 80 hours per month, attend school, participate in a program or activity designed to remove barriers to employment, or have a medical condition that doesn't allow them to meet other criteria.

Those living on their own can use the benefits for rent, food, clothing and other essentials. They also receive ongoing support from county or tribal social workers who can help them secure housing, employment and social services. The payments to foster youth range from $964 to $2,054 per month depending on need, according to DHS.

The state's duty to provide care ends when a youth ages out of the foster care system at age 21, a transition to adulthood that can be abrupt. Many foster youth have trouble renting apartments because they lack credit histories or close relatives who can co-sign loan applications.

Even a temporary setback, such as losing a job or an apartment, can be devastating for a young person who does not have parents or a support network to rely on for financial and emotional assistance, foster advocates say.

One study tracked 700 former foster youths in three Midwestern states — Illinois, Iowa and Wisconsin — and found that 39% had become homeless or had slept on others' couches since exiting foster care.

"Most of us are allowed to be kids so much longer, but our young people in foster care are expected to rock 'n' roll and be ready to hold it all down at 21 — and that's just not realistic," said Mary Lennick, executive director of Family Alternatives, a Minneapolis-based nonprofit that licenses child foster care homes.

Lucina Kayee, 25, of St. Paul, likened the experience of aging out of the foster care system to "falling off a cliff." Six years ago, she was pursuing a law degree at Hamline University in St. Paul while teaching disadvantaged students how to read at a school in Shoreview. But she had no financial cushion to fall back on when she was suddenly diagnosed with jaw cancer and became unable to work.

Kayee missed several months of rent payments while she was undergoing chemotherapy and wound up getting evicted, a blemish that has stayed on her credit record. She spent two years couch surfing in friends' living rooms before she finally found a landlord willing to take a chance on her. "It was exhausting," she said.

The experience prolonged the chaos and trauma that Kayee had endured as a child. Her family fled Liberia for Minnesota when she was 6 and she fell under the care of her stepfather, who had PTSD from his time as a child soldier in Liberia, she said. His substance abuse problems led to domestic violence, and Kayee bounced back and forth to St. Joseph's Home for Children in Minneapolis so many times that staffers referred to her as "the princess of St. Joe's," she said.

Twice she ran away from foster homes because she objected to being treated like a criminal; one of the homes had locks on the fridge and cupboards, she said.

"The message was clear and it was, 'You are not my child,' " Kayee said of her time in foster care. "I am only supposed to house you, clothe you and feed you until your time is up and then I'll bring in another child."

Today, Kayee's life has come full circle. She runs a grassroots organization, Atlas of Blackness, that advocates for Black foster youth in the Twin Cities and provides them with resources. She has enough money saved to make a down payment on a house, though she can't get a mortgage because of the eviction. Kayee sometimes wonders why social workers never taught her practical skills, such as how to negotiate with landlords, before she ended up on her own.

"People just assume that because you're an adult and you look strong that you're going to be OK," Kayee said. "But if you don't have a circle of support, then you will fall through the cracks." 612-673-4308 • Twitter: @chrisserres