By Mark Brown, columnist
The Chicago Public Schools’ official policy for handling homeless students instructs school personnel to provide them with CTA “tokens” to help them travel back and forth to class from wherever they are temporarily staying.
The reference to the long-obsolete token system is only the most obvious example of how the 1996 policy is outdated, homeless advocates, students and parents say.
They are pressing CPS to rewrite the policy in recognition of important legal protections for homeless children enacted in the intervening years — and to place greater emphasis in schools on providing them the support to which they are entitled.
“If they don’t see it in the policy, you pretty much won’t get the services,” said Marilyn Escoe, 39, referring to her experiences with local school personnel after ending up in a Rogers Park homeless shelter with her four children in 2011.
Escoe said she struggled to use mass transit to get her children to and from their old school on the West Side — a four-hour combined commute — before learning a year later that they were entitled to have a school bus pick them up at the shelter because she had a job.
“We were already unstable, so I didn’t want to make it worse,” Escoe said of her decision to keep the kids at the old school.
Her daughter, Kaleyah, who was 12 at the time and temporarily saddled with the job of supervising her siblings for the commute, explained why that was important to her.
“I wanted to stay in my school. I didn’t want to leave. I knew everyone, and I didn’t want to start all over again,” said Kaleyah, who is now doing well in high school after her mother found an apartment last year.
The purpose of the homeless policy is to put an emphasis on keeping homeless students in school. A good education too easily becomes a casualty when families are uprooted from their homes and moving regularly to keep a roof over their heads.
Those “tokens” aren’t really a problem, everyone admits, with schools well adapted to current CTA payment systems.
More problematic is an attitude at some schools that resists making transportation and other legally required benefits available to homeless students, say the families.
Homeless students are entitled to free school uniforms and supplies, a waiver of most school fees and even school bus transportation under some circumstances.
Most important, they are entitled to immediate enrollment in school without getting caught in any bureaucratic hold-ups over missing paperwork from their previous school.
Charles Jenkins, 60, who took in his two young grandsons when their mother temporarily lost custody, said their admission to the school near his North Lawndale home was delayed two weeks by school employees unfamiliar with the legal requirements.
Each school is required to have one person on staff trained to serve as the homeless liaison to assist displaced students.
Although many of those liaisons are strong advocates for their students, Jenkins believes too many others see their function as “gatekeepers” who are more concerned somebody will receive a benefit for which they don’t qualify than whether a student who needs it will go without.
CPS officially refers to the 22,144 homeless students it has identified this year as “Students in Temporary Living Situations.”
That might sound euphemistic, but it’s also probably a more accurate description of the problem.
Most homeless students aren’t living on the street or even staying in homeless shelters.
More likely, their families are “doubled up” in a home with relatives or friends, or they are “couch-surfing,” as students sometimes call the practice of moving around constantly to keep from wearing out their welcome.
Not every doubled-up family situation is an indication of homelessness, of course, but if it’s the result of an eviction or some other economic hardship that leaves one of the families without a place to stay, that truly is being homeless, even if it doesn’t fit our normal concept.
Even many of the affected families don’t recognize this hidden homelessness.
“We’ve been in schools where 50 percent of the students are homeless, and they think nobody is homeless,” said Hannah Willage, of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless.
CPS officials told me they are in full support of revising the policy and have been working closely with the coalition to get it done.
Then, let them think of this article as encouragement to get it done sooner.