Mothers, students, teachers and community volunteers from our new Homeless Education Committee are busy running outreach at Chicago schools.
They decided to launch fall outreach to raise awareness about the educational rights of homeless students and to learn about the experiences of other students and families. Committee leaders chose schools where they work or that their children attend. They have been to Senn, Rickover, and Orr high schools, as well as Gale Elementary, on the North and West sides of the city.
Outreach has been very successful. Nearly 200 flyers with information about the educational rights of homeless students have been handed out and more than 75 parents and students have been surveyed so far.
Said leader Amaro Julian, 20, “Outreach was a great time for me, because it gave me a chance to let students know what their rights are. I talked to a student who was in a tough spot. He was moving from place to place and having trouble paying school fees. It felt awesome to give him information that could really help him.”
“While conducting surveys, I met students with very valuable perspectives. I learned a lot from the experience,” said leader Andy Greenia, 20 (pictured above, conducting a survey).
The committee plans to continue its outreach throughout the month of October.
Last week, women survivors from our SAGE group held a vigil in the Garth Courtyard of Chicago’s Fourth Presbyterian Church. Survivors, advocates, providers, and community members were in attendance to hear testimony and gather resources and inspiration to help create more survivors of prostitution before they are killed in the violent sex trafficking industry.
CCH Policy Director Julie Dworkin submitted a letter to the editor published by the Chicago Sun-Times.
Last week, Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced Plan 2.0, the city’s new strategic plan to address homelessness. The Chicago Coalition for the Homeless participated on the steering committee that led the nine-month effort to create the plan.
We believe the process was open and inclusive of all stakeholders and benefitted from the strong support of Commissioners Evelyn Diaz and John Pfeiffer, the city’s key leaders on homelessness. It resulted in a truly comprehensive seven-year plan, with specific strategies and numeric targets that will have a great impact on the problem, if implemented.
In particular, we are happy about the plan’s new focus on youth homelessness; the attention to removing the barrier of criminal backgrounds; the acknowledgement of the needs of “doubled up” families identified by public schools, and the commitment to create more affordable housing for those surviving at the lowest income levels. We are concerned, as always, about the commitment of new funding. This ambitious plan will require significant new resources to be successful, and so far, we are unsure about the city’s strategy to find resources.
New funding — $1.7 million for homeless youth services was found from the cost savings realized by privatizing the city’s homeless outreach and transportation program. The city-run transportation program was poorly run for years. We applaud efforts to improve these services. However, giving any private agency considerably less money — a 40 percent reduction in this case — to run the same service will not necessarily result in better quality services.
Catholic Charities — the private agency now chosen to manage transportation services — is an excellent agency with a great track record. We hope they will be able to deliver with reduced funding, but that remains to be seen.
We realize that these are difficult financial times. We need to be creative about where to find resources, but we are concerned about privatization and shrinking resources for existing programs as an ongoing strategy to fund new programs. We hope we can work with the mayor to find existing untapped resources, like tax-increment financing funds and other new funding streams to make this plan a reality.
Attorney Elizabeth A. Cunningham said some children in Chicago Public Schools might qualify as “homeless” under federal law and not even realize it.
The legal definition of “homeless” remains broader than just those who live in shelters or on the streets, said Cunningham, staff attorney for the Law Project of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless (CCH).
“The majority of families experiencing homelessness in Chicago Public Schools are living doubled-up (with other family or friends), not necessarily in shelters, and they might not know they are homeless,” Cunningham said.
Federal education law defines “homeless” as most types of temporary living arrangements–a hotel, a friend’s house, a shelter, a campground–and offers special rights for students meeting that definition.
Last week, attorneys from CCH walked door-to-door with lawyers and staff from JPMorgan Chase & Co. to distribute brochures, door hangers and posters in the Austin neighborhood about education laws regarding the homeless.
“I think there isn’t enough outreach and community education done to let people know about their rights,” Cunningham said.
“That’s why this project is so important–because no one else is doing this.”
Homeless students remain entitled by law to school fee waivers, free or reduced meals and transportation to their school of origin under state law.
Chicago Public Schools (CPS) rely on students and families to self-report homelessness, said Molly Burke, director of multiple pathways at CPS. The system counted about 17,255 homeless students, she said.
CPS trains staff on how to recognize signs of homelessness and works closely with CCH, Burke said.
Last week’s outreach effort, titled “Every Child in School, Every Day,” began in 2008. JPMorgan provides a grant to pay for the printed materials, said Laurene M. Heybach, director of the Law Project of CCH.
About 28 attorneys and staff from JPMorgan and CCH distributed about 10,000 pieces of information and visited about 2,550 residences, Heybach said. They also gave CPS fee waiver forms.
“We’re trying to reach people on the street–the churches, the food pantries, the businesses–so everybody knows,” Heybach said.
Sharlita Davis, assistant vice president and contract officer at JPMorgan, helped organize the effort and spoke with several Austin residents, she said.
At one point, Davis encountered three teenage girls from low-income families, she said.
“They were so happy we were in the community giving information on school fee waivers because they didn’t have the money,” Davis said.
The project targeted the Austin neighborhood because JPMorgan feels that area, specifically, remains in serious need of rebuilding efforts, Davis said.
CCH also brought its Youth Futures Mobile Legal Clinic for the outreach. The minivan contains wireless Internet, a laptop and printer so attorneys can complete case intakes from anywhere. Cunningham generally staffs the mobile clinic full time.
“Instead of having them do a more traditional in-take process coming downtown, we think it’s better to reach them by going out to where they’re at,” Cunningham said.
Cunningham and Mary S. Binder, vice president and assistant general counsel in JPMorgan’s legal and compliance department, also spoke with the homeless liaisons at various Austin schools during the outreach. Binder and Cunningham gave the liaison materials to distribute to students.
“What struck me is how vulnerable people are,” Binder said. “I think there’s a lot of middle-class families one paycheck away from losing their homes.”
The Palette Fund, the Forty to None Project (a project of the True Colors Fund), and the Williams Institute released today the results of the LGBT Homeless Youth Provider Survey. Researchers fielded the survey in late 2011 and early 2012 to better understand the capacity of organizations serving homeless young people to provide services to gay and transgender youth. The survey also analyzed the prevalence of gay and transgender youth within the larger youth homeless population. The final report aggregates the survey responses of 354 agencies in the United States that serve youth who are, or are at risk of becoming, homeless.
The survey found that approximately 40 percent of homeless or at-risk youth are gay or transgender, which aligns with previously aggregated local, state, and regional estimates. This study should leave no doubt in anyone’s mind that gay and transgender youth do, in fact, constitute a significant and disproportionate segment of the homeless youth population. More importantly, this study shows why service providers, advocates, and policymakers who work to end overall youth homelessness should take into account the unique needs of gay and transgender youth.
In particular, the survey found that of all youth clients served, 30 percent identify as gay or lesbian and 9 percent as bisexual. Providers also reported that 1 percent identify as “other gender,” while another 1 percent of transgender youth identify as either male or female. These figures are alarming since gay and transgender youth only make up approximately 5 percent to 7 percent of the total youth population in the United States.
The report’s other findings demonstrate that the current network of homeless youth service providers is not adequately addressing the needs of gay and transgender homeless youth. While the full report contains a detailed breakdown of the survey results, below we describe five key findings that highlight the need for comprehensive youth homelessness policy reforms that pay particular attention to the gay and transgender population. Steps the federal government can take to help gay and transgender youth either avoid becoming homeless or, if they do, get access to services that can help them get off the streets follow each finding.
Key finding #1: Of homeless or at-risk gay or transgender youth, 46 percent ran away because of family rejection due to their sexual orientation or gender identity, and 43 percent were forced out by parents because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
Action needed: Pass the Reconnecting Youth to Prevent Homelessness Act.
Section 106 of this legislation, introduced by Sen. John Kerry (D-MA), creates programs to help families accept and support their gay and transgender youth. The proposed legislation is based on research-driven service delivery models that the Family Acceptance Project has developed and is implementing.
The Family Acceptance Project works to strengthen relationships within families that have gay or transgender youth with the goal of improving the lives and life opportunities of these young people. Section 106 of Kerry’s legislation would fund programs like the Family Acceptance Project and is a commonsense first step that would help decrease the overrepresentation of gay and transgender youth in the homeless youth population.
Key finding #2: Large numbers of service providers working with youth at risk of homelessness report that their clients are predominantly under age 18.
Action needed: Pass the Safe Schools Improvement Act and the Student Non-Discrimination Act.
The average age at which youth come out has decreased each decade, and providers are noticing a significant increase in gay and transgender youth who seek services. As more youth come out in their early and mid-teenage years, appropriate safety nets must be widened and strengthened.
One of the most efficient and effective ways to support this population is through school policies. The Safe Schools Improvement Act requires schools to have clear policies regarding bullying, effective training for personnel, and comprehensive data collection regarding the prevalence of bullying and harassment—all inclusive of sexual orientation and gender identity. The Student Non-Discrimination Act extends existing student nondiscrimination protections to gay and transgender youth by federally prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity and providing legal recourse to students who experience antigay or antitransgender bullying or harassment.
These policies would help foster a safe educational climate for gay and transgender students who might not have any other place to seek support, and thereby keep them from turning to the streets as an escape.
Key finding #3: A clear majority of gay and transgender homeless youth are receiving services available to all clients, with 24 percent of programs designed specifically for gay and transgender youth.
Action needed: Pass a Runaway and Homeless Youth Act that is inclusive of gay and transgender youth.
This act constitutes a major source of federal funding for youth homeless services. When it comes up for reauthorization in the next session of Congress, changes should be made to make it more inclusive of gay and transgender youth. For example, funding should be made available for programs that mediate family conflicts due to a child’s sexual orientation or gender identity.
Most importantly, Congress should add a nondiscrimination statement to the law that includes sexual orientation and gender identity and require grant applicants to include sexual orientation and gender identity in their planning documents and funding proposals. By specifically acknowledging gay and transgender youth in strategic planning documents and tailoring services to this overrepresented population, providers will address this population’s unique needs more effectively.
Key finding #4: Nearly 60 percent of the responding agencies reported that transgender youth are in worse physical health than other youth, while almost a quarter reported they are “much worse.” Half reported that gay youth are in worse health than other youth.
Action needed: Improve data collection by including sexual orientation and adding gender identity metrics to the Center for Disease Control’s biennial Youth Risk Behavior Survey at the state level.
Most of what is known about gay and transgender homeless youth comes from local or regional surveys that are not conducted on a regular basis. States should follow the lead of the Department of Health and Human Services, which has launched a Data Progression Plan to add sexual orientation and gender identity questions to the National Health Interview Survey, and add these questions to their Youth Risk Behavior Survey.
By better understanding the risks facing gay and transgender youth, advocates, researchers, and policymakers can work to advance programs and preventive services that help improve the lives and life chances of this population.
Key finding #5: The top three barriers to improving services related to reducing gay and transgender homelessness relate to lack of funding.
Action needed: Prioritize and provide additional funding for providers.
Providers note that the most significant barriers, ranked in descending order, to improving services for gay and transgender youth are a lack of state, local, and federal funding. Without more funding, these service providers—often the last line of support for gay and transgender youth—will continue to struggle to meet the needs of these youth.
These agencies provide critical services such as emergency shelter, transitional living, and street outreach, in addition to educational, medical, and counseling services. With adequate financial support, providers can tailor programming and implement best-practice policies, such as those outlined in the National Recommended Best Practices for Serving LGBT Homeless Youth, to help gay and transgender youth transition from the streets and back to permanent housing.
The new report from The Palette Fund, the Forty to None Project, and the Williams Institute provides a comprehensive picture of the challenges gay and transgender youth face as they try to navigate a society that often rejects them. It additionally highlights many of the nation’s youth-serving homeless agencies’ lack of capacity to serve this population. The report’s findings provide us with a policy roadmap that can help our government and service providers establish programs that meet the needs of all youth who are or are at risk of becoming homeless.
Andrew Phifer is an intern for LGBT Progress at the Center for American Progress. Jeff Krehely is the Vice President of LGBT Research and Communications Project at the Center and a co-chair of the advisory board for 40 to None.
* In this column, “gay” is an umbrella term used to describe individuals who identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual.
One recent spring morning, Cynthia Scott leaned in on a bush that blooms at the entrance of the brick walk-up she calls home and slowly inhaled. Scott just tops 5 feet and looks as if she could barely tip the scale at 100 pounds. But the 51-year-old seemed especially petite standing in the foreground of scores of vacant, boarded-up apartments that stretch down her block.
Scott’s narrow street is lined with five buildings identical to hers. All of them are empty. Hundreds of more units in walk-ups and row houses sit vacant just across the street in a stretch of the Julia C. Lathrop Homes that some residents have called the suburbs because the lawns are wide and the neighborhood peaceful.
“This whole place was packed,” Scott said, scanning the block of fenced-off buildings where plywood has replaced the curtains that once covered the windows. “People could live in these. Instead, they’re deteriorating.”
With each passing year, Lathrop—a public housing development that sits on a prime piece of land along a bank of the North Branch of the Chicago River—empties out a little more. This year, the occupancy rate fell to 18 percent. When families move out or are evicted, the Chicago Housing Authority declines to lease out the units even though there are roughly 40,000 families queued up on a waiting list for an apartment.
Lathrop has more vacancies than any other public housing development in Chicago, but the number of empty units isn’t an anomaly. Nearly one in five of the CHA’s 21,204 units is unoccupied, the bulk for planning purposes, and that puts the agency at odds with written federal rules, The Chicago Reporter found.
CHA officials justify keeping a majority of the units “offline” because they’ve fallen into disrepair and could end up in litigation if they’re leased out. The officials maintain that they’re eligible to continue collecting millions in operating subsidies even though the units are vacant.
But some housing advocates point out that the disrepair is the result of the CHA’s own doing. “The issue is not just vacancies,” said Carol Steele, a tenant leader representing residents from the North Side’s Frances Cabrini Rowhouses, where the occupancy rate slid to 21 percent this year. “The issue is that the CHA is trying to get out of the public housing business.”
Last year, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development issued a notice reminding public housing agencies that they need to get permission before taking units offline for court litigation or any other circumstance. But the Reporter found that CHA officials haven’t provided any evidence to HUD that legal action is, or could be, imminent. They also failed to receive a letter of approval—though it’s a requirement spelled out by written HUD rules.
Yet HUD officials have let them slide. Bob Whitfield, former chief operating officer of the CHA, is among a group of local housing attorneys crying foul over the way HUD has let the CHA circumvent the guidelines.
“The only units that they have in that [court litigation] category [are ones] they have deliberately kept vacant,” said Whitfield, an attorney who represents an advisory council of public housing tenants. “There is no way possible that that qualifies.”
Richard Wheelock, director of advocacy at the Legal Assistance Foundation of Metropolitan Chicago, points out that disrepair was “self-inflicted” by the agency.
“Now, [the CHA] can hide behind this HUD notice to both say, ‘We cannot fill these units, but at the same time, we are going to collect money from HUD for them,’” he said.
* * *
During the past decade, the CHA has stopped leasing units at Lathrop and a handful of other developments to bide time as its officials grapple with how to revamp the communities under the Plan for Transformation.
That plan, to overhaul the city’s deteriorating public housing stock, was supposed to wrap up in 10 years. With the plan now in its 12th year, CEO Charles Woodyard announced in the spring that his agency will recalibrate the struggling plan to factor in the slumping housing market.
In the meantime, vacancies continue to pile up in some of Chicago’s last-standing developments. Apartments in Lathrop, hundreds of row houses that sit on coveted land in the former Cabrini Green community and a section of the Altgeld Gardens and Phillip Murray Homes on the Far South Side account for 40 percent of the 3,423 units that the CHA has decided to stop leasing. But the low occupancy rates aren’t exclusive to the traditional housing stock.
Nearly a third of all family units—in both traditional public housing and smaller buildings scattered throughout the city—were also empty last year.
The Reporter review of city building-code records found that scores of the empty homes were in good repair. Last year, Lathrop, the row houses at Cabrini and Murray Homes passed federal inspections, though each did fail repeatedly in the past decade.
“Who’s responsible for them not being up to code? The owner,” said Janet Smith, an associate professor of urban planning and policy at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Smith said that CHA officials have failed to rehab hundreds of units that passed the agency’s own viability tests.
Whether the units are filled or not, the CHA keeps collecting a full operating subsidy. Financial records show that expenses have held steady in developments with some of the lowest occupancy levels. Take Lathrop, for example. The CHA spent roughly $2.5 million in operating expenses each in 2009 and 2010, despite the fact that the number of occupied apartments slid by 17 percent.
The Reporter found that roughly 50 cents of every $1 spent at Lathrop was used to cover administrative expenses during 2009 and 2010, according to the agency’s audited financial reports. The CHA hasn’t released the same report for 2011.
HUD spokeswoman Donna White said that the scope of the vacancies “concerns” agency officials. HUD officials turned up the heat on the CHA in the past year to lease out more unoccupied units, she said, and occupancy rates have shown improvement since.
In 2009, the average occupancy rate for family units was at a low of 45 percent, shows the analysis of CHA data. At the end of 2011, it reached 63 percent.
“This is not something that we’re taking lightly,” White added. “We are working with the CHA to get some of these units back online.”
The fact that federal money flows to the agency regardless of the number of occupied units gives CHA officials the power to drag their heels, said Leah Levinger, a low-income housing advocate at the Chicago Housing Initiative.
“Ultimately, they can wait us all out,” she said. “They can go through a 10-year planning process. Financially, it doesn’t hurt them to leave the units unoccupied.”
* * *
Last year, HUD officials released a set of guidelines that spell out acceptable reasons that housing agencies can cite for keeping units vacant while still collecting federal subsidies for them.
Whitfield, who also served as the chief lawyer for the CHA in the 1980s, said the notice has two purposes: to clarify HUD’s offline policy and to send a message to housing agencies that they’re not free to keep units offline indefinitely.
The regulations spell out six conditions—from natural disaster and pending demolition to court litigation and modernization—that housing authorities can cite. Each of the conditions has a three-year time limit except unfavorable market conditions, which can only be invoked for one year.
As of this year, a quarter of the CHA’s offline units are undergoing modernization. The bulk—2,196 of 3,423 offline units, or 64 percent—is tied up in the “court litigation” category, despite the fact that at least 60 percent of these units are not named in a court case.
HUD regulations don’t define what “court litigation” means, but they leave the door open for agencies to cite the rule to prevent lawsuits. The guidelines note that the rationale should be “infrequent.” Agencies are required to submit court orders, settlement agreements or other litigation-related documents to the local HUD office to back up their decisions.
Open records requests filed by the Reporter reveal that HUD’s local public housing office, which is overseen by Director Steven Meiss, signed off on keeping the units offline without reviewing any of the requisite litigation-related documents. No approval letter was ever inked.
“They may want to use discretion, but that’s not what HUD’s rules say,” Whitfield said. “If the regulations are impractical, then HUD needs to change the” regulations.
HUD officials have no plans to push the CHA to lease out more offline units in the developments. Instead, HUD backs the agency’s decision to keep units offline until there is a clear strategy for filling them.
Catherine Bishop, a senior staff attorney with the National Housing Law Project, said that begs the question: “How long can you keep these units offline?”
* * *
The CHA is one of only 35 agencies participating in a national program called Moving to Work, which is intended to drive innovation by giving high-performing agencies flexibility to comingle operating and capital funds to experiment with new housing strategies. Traditional agencies are paid based on how much it costs to run public housing, on a per-unit basis. Moving to Work agencies are given lump-sum grants. Last year alone, the deregulated agencies were funded to the tune of $3.3 billion, which accounts for more than $1 in every $10 that HUD spent on housing.
Red flags were raised about deregulating the CHA from the beginning. Control over the agency had just been returned to the city after it was taken over by federal officials because of mismanagement. But after intense lobbying, then-Mayor Richard M. Daley won approval for his proposal to revamp public housing.
“From the perspective of what a public housing agency is supposed to do, its primary mission is to provide public housing,” Smith said. Joining Moving to Work allowed the CHA to “reframe” its mission as “a facilitator” of developing housing for people across the income scale, she said.
Smith said that Chicago officials have repeatedly used the deregulation as a cover for eliminating decent low-income housing. With occupancy rates drifting toward the single digits, it won’t be long before many of the buildings with the highest vacancy rates fit the federal criteria for becoming physically obsolete. That would free up the CHA to justify demolishing the buildings.
“I’ve never met people who were thrilled with high-rise public housing,” said U.S. Rep. Danny Davis. But as far as Davis is concerned, CHA officials need to keep their priorities straight as they continue overhauling public housing. “The first line of defense should be for those who are low-income and homeless,” he said. “Anything other than that usurps the intent of the Public Housing Act.”
Meiss’ office said that it’s working with the CHA to make sure new housing continues to come online. It’s up to the CHA to decide where and to report annually on its progress.
Oversight continues to be a weakness, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office. This spring, the office audited the Moving to Work program and found “key weaknesses” in the way HUD monitors the agencies. Among them is the fact that HUD “does not have policies or procedures in place to verify the accuracy” of this self-reported data that agencies submit in their annual reports.
Ultimately, it’s up to HUD to monitor compliance. Until federal officials demand that the CHA follow agency rules, there’s no reason to expect accountability, Whitfield said.
“They continue to allow the CHA to escape what they’re supposed to be doing: Rehabbing those units and putting them online,” he said. “Who’s watching the shop?”
Chicago Coalition for the Homeless (CCH) has awarded renewable $2,000 college scholarships to four young women who achieved academically while coping with homelessness.
Another eight students received $2,000 renewal awards as they continue their studies, two of them in post-graduate programs.
“The young people receiving these scholarships are really something special. They’ve gone through struggles that no youth should have to go through, yet they got good grades, were leaders at school, and realized their dream of getting into college,” Executive Director Ed Shurna told 50 people attending a June 28 awards event at Loyola University Law School. Continue reading CCH awards 12 college scholarships to homeless youth