By Josh McGhee
CHICAGO — Imagine, as a child, trying to do your homework by the light of a cellphone, or spending your lunch breaks napping in the attendance office because you couldn’t get a decent night’s sleep.
These things are commonplace for homeless children in Chicago. According to the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, over 13,000 families in the city were homeless during the 2014-2015 school year and only about 1 percent — about 123 families — have access to permanent affordable housing.
More than 20,000 students in Chicago Public Schools were homeless last year, according to the coalition’s numbers. Latoya Ellis, a single parent of three children ages 8, 14 and 16, is the matriarch of one these families. Since August, they’ve lived in a shelter “due to a lack of affordable housing,” she said.
“My 16-year-old daughter told me we should just pick up and leave Illinois and live somewhere more affordable. She said to me, ‘Your struggle is my struggle, and I can’t keep watching you struggle. I have very few years left as a child, and I would like to enjoy some of it,'” said Ellis.
While homelessness is difficult in any life stage, it’s particularly hard on school-age children. Children need structure and routine, which are hard for parents to provide at a shelter when you don’t have control over things like when the lights go off, Ellis said.
“My 8-year-old, last year, was doing so well that they wanted to skip him a grade. This year his reading comprehension is not up to level, [and] his math is also down,” said Ellis, adding she believes his classroom difficulties directly correlate with his homelessness.
“Homelessness is a major distraction. When they should be studying in class, they’re worried about things like: When are we moving from the shelter? When are we getting our own place?” Ellis explained. “There are constant distractions that keep them from sleeping and getting a good night’s rest. As a result, they sleep during class time. Sometimes my girls go into the attendance office and nap during lunch time.
“My children are often left trying to do their homework by the light of a cellphone or on the bus [on] the way to school the next morning, or sometimes, even in class the next day,” she said.
In Uptown schools, nearly 300 kids are homeless. McCutcheon Elementary has about 124 homeless students, which falls on the high end of the spectrum compared to other Chicago schools, according to the coalition.
Simeon Career Academy in Chatham had the highest count, with 219 students, while McCutcheon had the 26th highest of the 644 schools that participated in the count for the last school year.
The key to success at McCutcheon, which was awarded a level 1+ rating by CPS (the highest rank available) earlier this month, is creating a family environment and ensuring that “a child doesn’t feel ostracized, because everyone has a story,” said Principal Jenn Farrell.
“We feed from specific attendance areas, which means if a shelter is within your attendance area, that’s where your kiddos come from. So our school truly reflects the community … people in a lot of different situations,” said Farrell. “That’s why I came back to the community: because I love it.”
At McCutcheon, the staff takes “responsibility” for such things as clothes and gym shoes if a child needs them. “If we need something we ask for it,” she said.
Last year, the school received a $15,000 donation from a private donor to help meet these needs. It’s also implemented three meals a day for students, she said.
“Getting the basic needs met is how the student feels part of the family. You make sure they have everything they need,” Farrell said.
Ellis was speaking to reporters and onlookers in City Hall Wednesday morning at a news conference announcing the coalition’s new campaign, “Home Works,” which aims “to create affordable housing for homeless families and improve school services for homeless students.”
The campaign unites parents, students, teachers and homeless providers to push for better school services and more family-sized housing, including 500 units dedicated to families through the Chicago Low-Income Housing Trust Fund, said Eithne McMenamin, associate policy director for the coalition.
“[Homeless families] are suffering the effects of unstable housing and the resulting education instability,” she said. “We know intuitively that housing and school instability have a negative impact on children: on both their behavior and academic performance.”
While thousands of CPS students received their report cards Wednesday, the coalition gave Chicago its own report card, assessing how the city meets the needs of homeless students and their families. The city was given its “grades” based upon a survey of 118 homeless families with school-age children, according to a news release.
The results show:
• 66 percent reported changes in their child’s behavior after becoming homeless
• 57 percent said their children lacked an adequate place to study
• 46 percent reported being homeless more than a year
• 40 percent didn’t have a quiet place to sleep
• 26 percent of parents had to live apart from their children, including at a different shelter, at some point
• The most commonly cited reasons for being homeless was job loss and the high cost of housing
“We are failing the most vulnerable children and families in our city as they struggle to stabilize their lives,” said McMenamin. “The severe shortage of affordable housing and lack of support service cripples families as they attempt to move out of homelessness and provide stability for their families.”
CPS said it is “committed to providing students and families with the supports they need to access a high-quality education.”
As an example, CPS pointed to its “Students in Temporary Living Situations” program, which is designed to ensure students without stable housing have the support to be successful in school.
“To remove barriers that a child’s living situation may place on instructional continuity, we provide an STLS liaison at every school and will waive fees so that all students can participate in an academic environment that will put them on a path for success in college, career and in life,” said Emily Bittner, a spokeswoman for CPS.
CPS provides uniforms, school supplies, fee waivers and access to tutoring to those in need. It also provides transportation to more than 13,500 students, and each school has a liaison and clerk to support students in the temporary living situations program. CPS also said it meets monthly with the coalition.