Chicago Tribune: Homelessness a growing challenge for Illinois schools

Number of students without regular housing on the rise

By Noreen S. Ahmed-Ullah and Vikki Ortiz Healy, reporters

Since losing her job and then her apartment, Patricia Collins and her 13-year-old son, Antwan, have stayed with friends and relatives before finally moving into a homeless shelter.

In those nine years, Antwan has changed grammar school four times, been held back a grade twice and missed large chunks of school.

“Being homeless is not cool,” he said, recalling how classmates have poked fun of him for wearing shoes with holes. “When you go to school and everyone is talking about you, it bothers me every time. I think about it at school, in my room and even in my sleep.

“It makes you want to go off,” he said.

Antwan, who this year is enrolled at Courtenay Elementary in Uptown, a few blocks from the shelter where he and his mother are staying, is among a growing number of students counted as homeless in Illinois.

The 2013 Illinois School Report Card released last week for the first time includes a breakdown of the number of students classified as homeless at each public school in the state. Those numbers, for the 2012-13 school year, show that more than 600 schools — about 15 percent of Illinois schools — report homeless student populations of at least double the state average of 2 percent.

Following federal law, the state counts as homeless students who are living with relatives or another family because of financial hardship or loss of housing, as well as those living in motels, shelters or other temporary conditions.

The total number of Illinois schoolchildren reported as homeless in the last school year was 45,775, an increase of about 18 percent from two years earlier, according to the report card. But state education officials believe the number is even higher.

“From students not wanting to identify themselves that way to families not wanting to do so, we think that homelessness is actually under-reported,” said Jeffrey Aranowski, the Illinois State Board of Education’s coordinator for homeless education.

More than three dozen Chicago area schools are coping with homeless populations of 20 percent or more, according to the state figures. From the 2010-11 school year to 2012-13, state data show that city schools have seen an increase of more than 3,200 homeless students, to 17,248. There are about 400,000 students at Chicago Public Schools.

Suburban schools have also recorded a rise in students living in temporary housing during those three years. District U-46 in Elgin has identified 572 students as homeless so far this year, up from 400 last year, said Maggie Schroeder, the district’s liaison to homeless families.

“The face of homelessness is changing, there’s no doubt about it,” Schroeder said. “You just have to kind of erase that picture from your mind and realize that it isn’t just people living on streets in Chicago. It’s everywhere.”

“It’s heartbreaking,” said Amy Kruppe, superintendent of Elementary School District 71 in Niles, a 500-student one-school district in the northwest suburbs that has seen a jump in homelessness and poverty in recent years.

Research shows the academic achievement of homeless students declines across all grades. Children’s advocates say students have trouble enrolling in new schools. They often don’t have a quiet place to study, and they move from school to school as the family’s housing situation changes.

For school districts, the rising number of homeless children not only means additional costs for helping students who fall behind academically, but school systems are required to designate personnel to identify homeless students and then connect them to community groups and social service agencies for further assistance.

Kruppe said her district’s homeless population — which totals 8.3 percent of the student body — coincides with an increase in the number of families in the district facing financial hardship. Seven years ago, 23 percent of the district’s students qualified for free and reduced lunch. This year, 48 percent qualify, she said.

“Children are coming to school where parents are struggling financially sometimes to feed their kids,” Kruppe said. “We have some families that are going place to place, or the children might not be clean or rested. Other families that are doubling up, sharing beds.”

Nationally, the number of children identified as homeless also has been growing. According to the latest available data, released last month by the U.S. Department of Education, 1.17 million homeless students were enrolled in 2011-12, the highest number on record.

“Unfortunately since the recession hit we have seen a rise,” said Cara Baldari, a senior policy director with First Focus, a children’s advocacy group based in Washington. “There’s been a 72 percent increase in the number of homeless children since 2006-07, just before the recession hit. We know the recession is continuing to have a significant impact, and children and families are the first to be affected and the last to recover during a recession.”

In Illinois, the economic downturn, compounded with the foreclosure crisis and high unemployment, has led to more homeless families not just in the city but in affluent suburban communities, said Patricia Nix-Hodes, an associate director at the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless.

Some of the increase, officials acknowledge, is due to added diligence in identifying kids who fit the definition of homeless. Every district is required by federal law to have a liaison to the homeless and schools in Chicago are required to have two staff members assigned to identify homeless kids — usually through tracking down kids with low attendance rates — and follow up with CTA cards, hygiene kits and other help.

Aranowski of the state Board of Education said that over the last decade, “school districts have improved the education and training around being able to identify a student as being homeless for everyone from the teacher to the janitor.”

In Elgin, school personnel work to be sure homeless students have what they need to engage in everyday learning: backpacks, school uniforms, gym clothes — even copies of their birth certificates or medical records, which are often lost when families are in perpetual transition, Schroeder said.

Among the agencies available to help in the city is Chicago Hopes, a nonprofit that offers tutoring at shelters. It is run by Patricia Rivera, a former head of CPS’ homeless program.

“A lot of shelters, they’re no place for children to do their work,” Rivera said. “We have a place that’s separate from the shelter, and there’s someone there paying attention to them.”

Early in this school year in Chicago, CPS identified approximately 15,000 homeless students — a 25 to 30 percent increase from this time last year, says Amber Damerow, current manager of the district’s homeless education program.

Typically, that number grows through the course of the year as additional students become homeless and begin receiving services. By the end of last school year, 18,669 students had reported to CPS that they were homeless, Damerow said.

( Tribune, Tribune / November 7, 2013 )

Some of the numbers are truly startling. At Tilden High School in the South Side Canaryville neighborhood, almost half the students, 45 percent, are reported to be in temporary living conditions, according to the state report card. At Chalmers Elementary, which is across the street from a West Side shelter, 57 percent of the students were classified as homeless. In some suburban districts, the increasing homeless population has prompted officials to offer additional assistance.

In Niles District 71, students and staff fill boxes with clothes, food and other supplies for families in need year-round collections. At Thanksgiving, school employees and families “adopt” one of 25 homeless or needy families in the community by purchasing holiday wish lists and other goods. School officials also partner with a local nonprofit that helps the homeless find shelter.

“As schools we continue to have to be more than just educational places and we know that,” Kruppe said. “You know it’s something you need to do … but financially, can your community afford it?”

A single mother of four with children at District 71’s Culver Elementary School, who asked that her name not be used, said that when she relocated from out of state a month ago for personal reasons, she initially moved the children into her parents’ living room, with hopes she would eventually get their own place.

But weeks later, she is still unemployed and Social Security widow’s benefits only cover her bills and car payment, leaving little for food, much less a security deposit on an apartment.

So she, her two daughters and two sons remain in the living room of her parents’ three-bedroom apartment. She sleeps on the couch with two of her sons. Her daughters share a mattress on the floor. Their clothes line the walls of the dining room in bags.

She said she’s grateful for the help provided by her children’s school, which has given her bags of groceries, connected her with counseling for the children and offered some stability in a difficult situation.

“My kids say, ‘Are we poor?’ ” the woman said. “I say, ‘There’s no apartment right now, but we have food and we have a roof over our head so you shouldn’t be complaining.’ ”

Despite increased effort to identify homeless students and make sure their schooling is not disrupted, homeless families often complain of schools making them jump through hoops to get students enrolled.

Collins, the Chicago mother, said she struggled getting her son enrolled at neighborhood schools. School officials wanted forms and paperwork that she had misplaced in her constant moving.

It wasn’t until she got to the shelter that she felt her son’s needs were being addressed. The shelter got her son and other kids in the school immunized and enrolled at Courtenay, handed out backpacks and school supplies, and bought students shoes.

“It is what it is,” Collins says of her room at Cornerstone Community Outreach filled with a few belongings, a TV and two beds. “It beats sleeping on a park bench.”

Before becoming homeless Collins worked as a dietary cook at a nursing home. Now all she wants is a job that will help her and her son find an apartment.

Antwan does his homework on his bed (Tribune video), trying to ignore the sounds of children’s cries and blaring music that enters the family’s room through the shelter’s thin walls.

“We had to move around so much, I know it hurt his education,” said Collins. “Not having the stability, not being in a school long enough to make friends, not having a room to do his homework, where he can concentrate.

“I just want a decent job, and I think I can take it from there.”

Tribune reporter Alex Richards and photographer Chris Sweda contributed.