Chicago Sun-Times, Marlen Garcia: Money shouldn’t decide whether a kid can walk across a graduation stage

It isolates kids from their classmates. It shames them.

By Marlen Garcia, columnist

Geneva Baggett’s family had a milestone event to look forward to this spring.

Her daughter and a niece that Baggett is raising are 8th graders who will graduate next month from McKay School on the Southwest Side.


The family’s excitement soon turned to dread. Baggett owed $300 for each child to cover graduation fees. She found out about it weeks ago when the children’s teacher sent home a flyer outlining the fees along with a handwritten note to “verify that these graduation fees” were owed.

The teacher should have included another important piece of information: By law, public school fees, including the costs of graduation ceremonies, must be waived for families who are homeless. Additionally, fees must be waived for kids who are eligible for the federal free lunch and breakfast program. Many school districts, including Chicago Public Schools, waive fees for students who pay reduced prices for lunch and others who live in poverty.

Too many teachers and school administrators across Illinois don’t know about these rules or ignore them. They lead parents to believe that their children won’t be allowed to participate in graduation ceremonies if they don’t pay the fees.

Baggett has hit hard times and her family is homeless. She was under the impression that her daughter and niece couldn’t participate in graduation if she didn’t pay the fees. Eventually, she sought assistance from the Law Project of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, which assisted her in getting a fee waiver from the school.

But she still isn’t feeling any sense of relief. The school has asked for more money to cover a graduation trip and luncheon.

“I don’t understand,” she says.

During graduation season, too many families believe they have to decide between covering their rent or paying school fees so their children can be part of graduation ceremonies. But it is against the law to punish a child in any way over unpaid fees if the family can’t afford them. And make no mistake, barring a child from graduation, prom or a Great America trip over unpaid fees is punishment.

It isolates kids from their classmates. It shames them.

Another parent I spoke with, a single mom, said a staff member at Hyde Park Academy High School told her that her son could not participate in that school’s graduation unless she paid fees he had accumulated over four years at the school. She had a bill for $848.

The mom, who asked that her name be withheld, said that after she lost her job she couldn’t keep up with the school’s fees. She said she asked a school administrator if she could get financial assistance but the administrator said no. I reached out to the school’s principal, Antonio Ross, but he didn’t return my call or email.

The woman turned to Google for help and came across the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless. The organization’s law department specializes in advocating for homeless students and others who live in poverty. A lawyer sent a letter explaining the parent’s situation, and the matter was quickly resolved.

“Schools are usually responsive once they get a letter,” the lawyer, Alyssa Phillips, told me.

Ninety-six percent of the students at Hyde Park come from low-income families, according to Chicago Public Schools. I’m guessing many of those students qualify to have their fees waived. Many families probably don’t know it.

Hyde Park charges students annual fees of $200 for books, lab fees, computer software and other supplies. Families also pay $15 for each school uniform shirt, $20 for a gym uniform and $40 for a cell phone locker. Public school can be pretty expensive. It’s easy to see how a family of modest means could have trouble keeping up.

Each year around this time, the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless fields dozens of calls from parents who are broke and worried their children will be barred from graduation over unpaid fees.

Patricia Nix-Hodes, director of the coalition’s Law Project, told me there are several schools that have had multiple cases of kids needing assistance for fee waivers in the last two years, including Hyde Park Academy, Kenwood High School, South Shore International High School, Morgan Park High School and Wells High School. The organization also handles cases from students at suburban schools.

Kenwood’s information sheet for Class of 2019 events says, “All existing school fees must be paid before any payments for senior activities will be accepted.” There’s no mention of waivers.

Here’s a reminder to every school: If you’re going to hit parents with invoices or price lists, whether it’s at the start of the school year or before graduation, include a note telling them that if they can’t afford the fees, they should seek a waiver.

Then follow through and help them out.

Marlen Garcia writes a weekly column and is a member of the Sun-Times Editorial Board.

Enrollment begins for CPS preschool – children from homeless families promised priority placement

Chicago families with preschool-age children can now enroll in preschool for the 2019-20 school year.

Children must be 3 years old or 4 years old by September 1, 2019 to be eligible for the Chicago Public Schools’ (CPS) preschool program next year. A family can apply for up to two different preschools.

Families can apply online at They can also apply at a designated Family Resource Center or by phone, at (312) 229-1690.

Continue reading Enrollment begins for CPS preschool – children from homeless families promised priority placement

Homeless students and low-income families must ask in writing to get school fees waived

By Beth Malik, Associate Director of the Law Project

Now that the school year is coming to a close, students in Illinois look forward to special school activities, including graduation, prom, senior luncheons, and field trips.

Every year the Law Project receives many calls from low-income students and families who are being pressured by their schools to pay hundreds of dollars in fees before graduation or year-end. In some cases, school officials threaten to exclude students from important events, such as prom or graduation.

Yet under state law, many of these fees are required to be waived for students and families unable to afford them, including those who are homeless or low-income.

In most cases, a student or parent must file a written request to have their school fees waived. In the Chicago Public Schools (CPS), students or parents fill out a CPS Fee Waiver Form.

School officials cannot bar a student from participating in school activities, such as prom or graduation, due to their inability to pay. The Illinois School Code prohibits “discrimination or punishment of any kind, including the lowering of grades or exclusion from classes… against a student whose parents or guardians are unable to purchase required textbooks or instructional materials or to pay required fees.”

To qualify as low-income in CPS, a student or family cannot exceed 130% of the federal poverty guidelines (used to determine eligibility for free school meals). That includes annual incomes of $21,398 for a family of 2; $27,014, family of 3; and $5,616 for each additional family member.

In suburban and downstate schools, students who qualify for free school meals are eligible for fee waivers.

Some examples of school fees that must be waived for low-income students:

  • Charges for textbooks and instructional materials
  • Fees for field trips taken during school hours, or field trips taken after school hours if the field trip is a required or customary part of a class or school activity. This includes annually scheduled trips such as end-of-the-year or graduation field trips and activities.
  • Graduation fees, including caps and gowns
  • Charges or deposits for uniforms or equipment for sports or fine arts
  • Charges for supplies for a particular class, such as shop or home economics materials, or laboratory or art supplies.
  • Charges and deposits for use of school property, such as locks, towels, and lab equipment.
  • Driver’s education fees
  • Fees to obtain school records and health services

Schools do not have to waive some fees and costs, including ordinary school supplies, class rings, yearbooks, school photos and diploma covers, admission to school dances and athletic events and optional travel. While these fees are not required to be waived, many schools have programs to help students and families with these costs.

The Law Project of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless is available to assist students and families seeking school fee waivers.

Families needing information or assistance can call toll-free at 1 (800) 940-1119.

Chicago Sun-Times: Huge milestone for ex-offenders to access affordable, public housing

Editor’s Note:

U.S. Rep. Danny Davis published this letter to the editor in the Chicago Sun-Times to commend the reentry housing pilot advocated by our CCH Reentry Project. The pilots were implemented through 2017 at both the CHA and the Housing Authority of Cook County.

I want to commend the Chicago Housing Authority Board of Commissioners, which voted recently to permit residents with a criminal conviction on their record an opportunity to access public housing.

It has been a 20-plus year struggle to get to this important milestone.

HUD adopted the “One Strike and You’re Out” Rule in 1996, effectively banning people with criminal records from public housing.

In 2011, then-HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan sent a letter to all public housing authorities in the U.S., asking them to rethink their admissions criteria and to join HUD in “welcoming these deserving citizens back into our communities.”

In 2014, the CHA Board of Commissioners engaged with a coalition of anti-homelessness advocates, re-entry service providers, and CHA tenants and staff, with support from the mayor’s office to create what become known as the  CHA Reentry Pilot.

Over the past decades we have chipped and whittled away at public housing and affordable housing.  At the same time we have undertaken a construction boom in U.S. government-subsidized housing in the form of prison cells.

Some 2 million people were locked up at the federal, state or local level. Eventually, almost all of them will return to the community. The question of where they will live is an immediate and critical one, and has important consequences for both the ex-offenders and society-at-large.

Ideally, incarceration should change an offenders’ assessment of the benefits and costs of crime in two ways. It should alter their value system, and it should enhance and enrich the options available to returning ex-offenders by offering real alternatives to their lifestyle before incarceration.

Most ex-offenders return to families or friends in their old neighborhoods. Often, this is the environment that helped them get into trouble in the first place. Chances are, they don’t have a job. Chances are they can’t afford first and last month’s rent. That creates the conditions: the lack of stability, the chaos, the poverty, where crime can flourish and where re-incarceration becomes almost inevitable.

I hope that public housing authorities and advocates will follow their example.

Now let us move urgently to creating enough affordable housing so every one of our people in Chicago, and across the nation, have access to a safe, healthy place to stay.

Danny K. Davis, U.S. representative, 7th Congressional District of Illinois

Horizons showcase set for May 21 at the American Writers Museum

Horizons welcomes the public to its 2019 writers showcase on Tuesday, May 21. Sponsored by the American Writers Museum, this free event will feature original poetry read by shelter-resident writers.

Chicago Coalition for the Homeless is grateful to our city’s newest museum for generous sponsorship of this showcase. Opened in 2017, the American Writers Museum at 180 North Michigan Avenue was voted Illinois’ best attraction in a USA Today Readers Choice poll and named one of the world’s 10 best new museums by Fodor’s.

The hour-long program will begin at 6 p.m. To attend, you must RSVP to the museum.

Director of Organizing Wayne Richard

Horizons is a creative writing outreach program offered at shelters and transitional housing programs, led by Director of Organizing Wayne Richard. This year, CCH’s Alyssa Rodriguez and Bisma Shoukat assisted Wayne in offering creative writing sessions with men and women at programs where they organize homeless families and adults, including women and men in reentry.

Our 2019 writers live at Breakthrough Urban Ministries, Grace House, and La Posada. Their writing is prompted using the “power to pain” model. Participants are asked to write about their experiences with homelessness, and later, finding their voice as advocates.

Last May’s showcase at the museum drew almost 100 people, including shelter residents and their families. The audience was asked to cheer for their favorite work at the close of the evening. Showing enthusiasm for all the writers, the audience selected D Naize for her moving poem, “Faded Hope.”

Of the loud cheers for her work, Ms. Naize joked, “Some of them are my kids!”

Terry Cooks

The youngest participant, 10-year-old Terrell (Terry) Cooks, was runner-up. Terry said later that his poem, “Future and Past” — carefully penned in a stenographer’s notebook — is his first.

A selection of new poems will be published online in the Horizons Reading Room and in a booklet distributed at the showcase.

Wayne Richard started Horizons in 2007. A CCH organizer since 2000, Wayne first became involved with the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless when he participated in an early version of its writing program while living at a West Side shelter.

“Everyone has a song to sing,” said Wayne, adding that writers are encouraged when others appreciate their work.

Adler University collaborates with Horizons. Graduate student Julie Miller is this year’s program intern. Adler’s art department, led by Dr. Jennifer LaCivita, will contribute students’ “emphatic art responses” to a selection of poems. These will be displayed at the showcase, with the art given afterward to the writers whose poems inspired the drawings.

CCH thanks the American Writers Museum for its generosity in hosting our showcase for a second year.

Allison Williams Photography

– Anne Bowhay, Media


April mainstream media reports: Doubled-up students, homeless encampment removed by neighboring alderman, disabled in city shelters, and more

April 27, 2019

NPR Illinois: The fight over what it means to be homeless — and how that could affect Illinois

By Lee V. Gaines

Just because someone has four walls around them every night, that doesn’t mean they’re housed. That’s what Paul Hamann believes. He’s the president and CEO of the Night Ministry, a Chicago-based non-profit that provides shelter and healthcare services to the homeless.

Hamann said he knows young people who sleep at friends’ homes every night. They’re able to take a shower, and they go to school the next day.

… More than 50,000 students in Illinois were classified as homeless during the 2016-17 school year, according to data from the National Center for Homeless Education. Of those 50,000 students, 83% lived doubled up, about 5% lived in hotels or motels, and fewer than 1% lived unsheltered. Nationally, there were more than  1.3 million homeless students identified by their school districts during the 2016-17 school year, and more than three-quarters of them shared housing with others, according to data from NCHE.

Patricia Nix-Hodes director of the Law Project at the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, said her agency identified more than 80,000 homeless individuals living in Chicago during 2016 — and 80% of them lived doubled up.

“They’re excluded from housing resources for homeless individuals because they’re not considered homeless by HUD even though they are considered homeless by other federal definitions,” Nix-Hodes said.

“So it just doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t reflect the reality of how people experience homelessness in Illinois and nationally…

Link to the report

April 23, 2019

Block Club Chicago: Alderman’s removal of SW Side homeless encampment dubbed ‘heartless, but he says critics don’t live there. 

By Mauricio Peña

BACK OF THE YARDS — Ald. Raymond Lopez (15th) is defending the removal of a homeless encampment in Back of the Yards (outside his 15th Ward), after a Facebook post publicizing the removal efforts was criticized as being “heartless” and promoting a “war on the homeless.

… “These sweeps are harmful, they’re counterproductive and you cannot expect to build trust with people and offer services when (people connecting them to services) come out during these types of sweeps,” CCH Community Lawyer Diane O’Connell said. “It’s dehumanizing and wrong.”

Link to the article

April 17, 2019

Chicago Reader: A chronic problem

By John Greenfield

… Smoky el cars and other homeless-related quality of life issues on the CTA reflect Chicago’s larger problems.

Link to the article

April 10, 2019

Illinois News Network: Progressive income tax plan clears first hurdle

By Greg Bishop

… Niya Kelly, state legislative director for Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, spoke in support of the progressive tax during the Senate committee. She said it will give (other) organizations certainty in providing services for the homeless.

“And not have to answer the cruel question of what other things we’ll have to cut in order not to provide them stability,” Kelly said.

Link to the article

April 9, 2019

Chicago Tribune: Questions about how the city homeless shelters handle people with disabilities go unanswered

By Rex Huppke, columnist

There are some well-documented concerns about whether the city of Chicago’s homeless shelters are properly equipped to accommodate homeless people with disabilities.

Chicago Coalition for the Homeless and Access Living of Metropolitan Chicago recently filed a lawsuit on behalf of a Chicago woman who claims she was turned away from several shelters because she has rheumatoid arthritis that prevents her from climbing stairs and carrying her own bags….

So I decided to ask the appropriate city office — the Department of Family and Support Services — a series of questions unrelated to the aforementioned lawsuit… Cristina Villarreal, the department’s director of communications, would only answer one question fully — No. 2, the one about shelters that are ADA compliant. In an email back, she wrote: “The city has 5 ADA compliant Shelters across the city and other shelters make reasonable accommodations for residents.”

… I’m just asking city officials to answer some questions and be transparent about how they work with people who constitute a large percentage of Chicago’s homeless population.

If those officials don’t want to answer, or if they want to hide behind a broad interpretation of the “we don’t comment on pending litigation” excuse, that’s up to them.

But I’m going to keep asking the questions. Something tells me there are plenty more to come.

Link to the article

April 5, 2019

Chicago Sun-Times: ‘The Public’ movie examines role libraries play in serving the homeless

By Tony Closson

… For those social workers and librarians, some of whom were present at the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless-sponsored screening, Estevez said he wants the film to bring attention to the large responsibilities often placed solely on them.

Link to the article


Chicago Furniture Bank helps homeless families make a new home

Furnishing an apartment after being homeless is an obstacle for families who no longer have beds, chairs, and the household basics everyone needs to make a home.

CCH families at the Chicago Furniture Bank.

Chicago Furniture Bank helps families like these. Families have been referred by 150 partner agencies in the city and suburbs, including CCH, since the furniture bank opened its warehouse space last July at 4800 W. Roosevelt Road.

CCH Senior Organizer Keith Freeman was one of the first to bring homeless families to the furniture bank, says co-founder Griffin Amdur. Ten homeless leaders active at CCH have received furniture, with more than 550 families and 1,400 people helped to date, Amdur says.

“Families love it,” said Keith. “When they first move in, they walk into an empty space with only plastic bags of clothes. There’s literally nothing else in there. At the furniture bank, they can pick out all their furnishings, even picture frames, and within 48 hours have a furnished apartment.”

The furniture bank hopes to progressively expand operations so that it can grow from serving seven households a day to 10 families daily.

“We’re looking for volunteers,” said Griffin. “We’re looking for furniture donations and donations. We’re raising funds to buy a third truck and hire two more guys.”

The furniture bank now staffs 14 people, including 11 job-training graduates from Cara Chicago and Chicago CRED. Griffin started the non-profit with fellow University of Pennsylvania grads James McPhail and Andrew Witherspoon, assisted by a $100,000 award from Penn.

The furniture bank charges $50 for a family in need to select furnishings valued at $1,100, based on thrift store prices. About half their clients also contract to have their furniture delivered ($150 curbside, $250 in home). Some agencies assist clients with the fees.

Those donating furniture also pay $100 to $200 to have furniture picked up from their home. Pickups can be arranged using a form on the furniture bank website. 

It’s obvious how relieved and excited people are when they realize they can get a bed and the other things they need to make a new home. Organizer Bisma Shoukat says her leaders have fun testing sofas to find just the right one.

“It’s even sweeter when the kids are along. They get to pick out their own bedroom sets,” said Bisma.

Keith said he recently helped one of CCH’s Bring Chicago Home leaders, a man in his late 60s, pick out furniture for a new SRO apartment.

“He’s like another person now. He’s excited. His morale is through the roof,” said Keith.

– Photos by Keith Freeman & Bisma Shoukat

– Story by Anne Bowhay, Media

WTTW: New nonprofit gives old furniture – and people – second chances

Chicago Tribune, Mary Schmich: Three college grads – with a truck – want to send your old couch to the needy

Bring Chicago Home town hall set for May 15 at the Chicago Temple

By Nick Jefferson

Associate Director of Organizing, Strategic Campaigns

Bring Chicago Home’s innovative solution to tackle homelessness in Chicago will be featured at a May 15 town hall, with the public invited to attend the downtown event.

Speaking at the town hall will be Chicago aldermen and community members who are committed to making this solution a priority in the first 100 days of the new Lightfoot administration.

To attend, register HERE.

When: Wednesday, May 15, 6 p.m. – 7:30 p.m.

Where: Chicago Temple, 77 W. Washington

Why: Chicago needs a BIG solution to end homelessness

For decades, the city of Chicago has failed to advance a solution to address the growing number of people who experience homelessness. As a result, more than 80,000 Chicagoans are homeless each year. This includes those who live on the streets, in shelters, or “doubled-up” – staying with a friend of family member due to hardship, often in over-crowded, unreliable situations.

The lack of stable housing for many Chicagoans plays a major role in exacerbating systemic inequities that plague our city. To address this massive problem, the Bring Chicago Home coalition – over 80 organizations throughout Chicago – aims to raise the real estate transfer tax (RETT) by 1.2 percentage points on properties that sell for over $1 million. This would generate an estimated $150 million a year for permanent supportive housing, a proven model that links housing with services to ensure long-term stability for people who have coped with homelessness.

Our town hall comes at a critical moment for Chicago: Less than one week after the event, a new mayor and city council will be sworn in. Mayor-elect Lori Lightfoot campaigned on being a mayor for the people. Raising the RETT to increase funds to address homelessness was a critical piece of her platform.

To date, more than 30 aldermen in the new City Council have committed to support the Bring Chicago Home resolution, which would add a ballot question asking voters whether to raise the RETT.

The coalition working for Bring Chicago Home is made up of community, policy, and labor organizations from across Chicago. If you or your organization are interested in getting more involved, contact Nick Jefferson at

Friday’s Kupjack Studio miniature rooms preview to benefit CCH

The sudden passing of artist Henry “Hank” Kupjack this past February was met with sadness here at CCH. Hank was a friend to CCH staff who had long harbored a dream of staging an ambitious exhibition of his unique miniature rooms, with the proceeds to benefit the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless.

The public will get an opportunity to view 21 of these exquisite rooms this upcoming weekend at Navy Pier in the Lakeview Terrace.

On Friday, April 19 from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. there will be a preview party open to the public, with proceeds from this event benefiting CCH. Preview party tickets are $50 each and can be purchased HERE.

The 21 miniature rooms on display will be a delight for all ages – transporting the viewer into vivid glimpse of history.

Many of these rooms have never been exhibited locally. Others have been unavailable for public viewing for several decades.

To create these splendid works of art, Hank worked alongside his father, Eugene Kupjack – one of the principal artists behind the famous Thorne Rooms on permanent display at the Art Institute of Chicago. Hank also created rooms working with his brother, Jay Kupjack, and Lee Meisinger.

This retrospective exhibit will extend through the weekend, with showings on Saturday, April 20 and Sunday, April 21, from 10 a.m. until 10 p.m. each day.  Tickets for Saturday and Sunday are $25 for adults and $15 for students and for seniors age 65 and older.  Children ages 6 and under get in free.  These GA tickets can be purchased HERE.

The exhibit is being held at the Lakeview Terrace, which is at the far east end of Navy Pier, just past the Shakespeare Theatre.  For drop-offs and parking, it is best to go to the last turn-in.

“Hank Kupjack made magic in miniature,” the Chicago Sun-Times wrote in February, “creating Lilliputian rooms that were richly detailed, perfectly scaled, historically accurate and enchanting.”

Michael Nameche, Director of Development

Completed college scholarship applications due Monday, April 8

Updated April 8

Applications are due in April for $2,500 renewable college scholarships awarded by the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless to students who have succeeded in school despite coping personally with homelessness.

Graduating seniors from Chicago and suburban schools are eligible to apply, as well as DREAMers, CCH youth leaders, and former CCH legal aid clients who are younger than age 24 as of April 1. Most scholarship winners receive $10,000 to complete their bachelor’s degree. Up to five new winners will be selected this spring.

The deadline to submit an online or paper application, with brief personal essays, was Monday, April 1, 2019 at 5 p.m.

Applicants were given an extra week to submit supplemental materials. These are due by Monday, April 8 at 5 p.m. These required materials include two references that will be reviewed by our selection committee.

Access the application here. 

Continue reading Completed college scholarship applications due Monday, April 8