By Mary Kate Malone
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.”