Catalyst Chicago: For the record, homeless students lack services

By Melissa Sanchez

With the number of homeless children in Illinois on the rise, many school districts across the state admit that they aren’t providing students all of the educational services they need. Since 2009, the number of homeless students has doubled in size statewide to nearly 55,000. In Chicago, the number has risen sharply to 18,854 from 12,512.

In a recent survey, the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless documented the lack of services and is now urging the state Legislature to reinstate an additional $3 million that it last earmarked in 2009 for tutoring, preschool, counseling and other support.

The online survey of three dozen regional educational offices and school districts was self-reported. Among the findings:

–       52 percent of survey respondents said more than half of homeless students weren’t receiving tutoring or preschool, even though they needed it. Many respondents wrote about the kinds of services they’d like to offer, including “tutoring after school and in the evenings at shelters and transitional housing.”

–       56 percent said that more than half of homeless students did not receive counseling. In Chicago, for example, the district estimated that only 25 to 50 percent of homeless who need counseling services actually receive them.

–       44 percent said they had “limited” or “very limited” capacity to identify and enroll homeless students in the school.

Patricia Nix-Hodes, associate director of the coalition’s Law Project, says it was important to quantify some of the problems the advocacy organization had been hearing about anecdotally.

The federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act provides funding to states for services to keep homeless students in school, including preschool. Students are entitled to transportation to attend the school they were in before they became homeless to assure stability. Illinois receives $5 million, which homeless advocates say is not enough.

In its report, titled “Gaps in Educational Supports for Illinois Homeless Students,” the coalition carefully steered clear of criticizing districts for not providing mandated services; one of every five survey respondents said that less than half of students who need transportation get it.

“With more resources, districts will be able to provide the best services to homeless students and these gaps would be addressed,” Nix-Hodes says.

Students are identified as homeless if they’re living on the streets, in cars or if their families have doubled up for financial reasons.

“It’s very difficult to focus on academics when you don’t know where you may lay your head at night or where you’re going to get your next meal,” says Mary Fergus, an ISBE spokeswoman.

Tom Bookler, who serves as a homeless liaison for the north and northwestern suburbs of Cook County, says the additional state funding in 2009 coupled with other federal stimulus funds allowed districts to dedicate more personnel to homeless students and their families.

“Now we’re all stretched thin,” Bookler says. “I believe my districts are doing as much as they can for the families and certainly doing what’s required by law…but it’s difficult to implement everything you want because of the funding.”