As we learned in staff writer Melissa Silverberg’s story on Sunday, homeless students stopped a long time ago being just a Chicago problem. The number of Northwest suburban kids without a stable home — ranging from no home at all to bunking with a friend temporarily — ballooned by 55 percent over two years.
In DuPage and Lake counties, the increase was around 35 percent. And in Elgin Area School District U-46, the numbers of known homeless students escalated from 95 in 2005 to about 800 in 2013.
The biggest difference? Better identification. As trained advocates know, homeless kids and their parents often don’t advertise their status. You have to find them.
When the Illinois legislature passed the 2015 budget last month, the amount allotted school districts — which are mandated by the state and federal government to identify their homeless students and guide them to available services in the community — got as much state money to do that job as they did the last four years.
In the version of the 2015 budget that contained the extended 5 percent income tax, $1.5 million would have been allocated to homeless education. As it is, the best lawmakers could do was a line item inserted into the budget language in hopes an appropriation could be inserted into a supplemental budget later.
We know there isn’t enough money to go around. Lots of good causes and needed expenditures wind up on the cutting room floor as other, priority needs take precedence. Legislators aren’t heartless, and the budget does contain money for shelters and transitional housing, homeless prevention grants, homeless youth programs and supportive housing.
But there’s something to be said for a program that doesn’t take a lot of money to make a big impact.
In 2009, the last time homeless education was budgeted, a mere $3 million was allocated. It was divvied up among 36 districts, including schools in Glen Ellyn, Mundelein and Aurora. Palatine-Schaumburg High School District 211 got $34,000, and with it named point people in each of its schools and doubled the number of identified homeless students.
In 2013 more than 45,000 Illinois students were found to be homeless, a 93 percent increase since 2009. School districts are doing that without funding — shifting priorities in their own budgets to hire full-time coordinators or to move social workers and others into becoming part-time homeless coordinators.
With a little money, they can find more kids and families in trouble, hook them up with transportation to school, health services and employment services for the families, and expanded academic services.
The payoff is great, both for families today and young adults tomorrow. The cost is small.
Suburban schools are doing what they can. A little help could go a long way.