By Maureen Foertsch McKinney
For Kaleyah Wesley, thoughts of her family’s life in a Chicago homeless shelter made it difficult to focus on school, particularly in math, the subject she found hardest.
The then-sixth-grader woke at 5 a.m. on weekdays to take a pair of trains from the north side Rogers Park shelter to her school in the North Lawndale neighborhood, which is on the west side. She says she had a negative attitude that rubbed off on her three younger siblings.
“When we were traveling back and forth with the CTA transportation, the way my mood was … I was always tired and bored and unfocused. It had affected them, as well, because they started doing the same things I was doing, and they started to get unfocused in school, as well.”
The family moved to a shelter in October 2011 after matriarch Marilyn Escoe lost her job. They stayed there until November, when Escoe got work that enabled her to move her family into an apartment. They no longer had to deal with the obstacles the shelter presented to studying: Other children were loud and would fight.
Escoe says, “There really was no quiet time.”
She told Kaleyah to stay positive. “Kaleyah was always worried that her friends knew she was homeless. I always told her not to worry about it. Just to keep on. No matter how her situation was, she still had a right to a fair education.”
That right to a fair education for homeless students has been promised since 1987, through the federal McKinney-Vento Act by which the state of Illinois receives about $5 million a year. But that money — split almost evenly between the Illinois State Board of Education and seven regional districts, often on costs such as administration and compliance — doesn’t stretch far, and the state has not allocated specific funding for homeless education since $3 million was provided in 2009. By the end of the 2012-13 school year, the recorded homeless student population had climbed by more than 100 percent to 54,892, according to the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless.
“The need is very, very dire,’’ says Laurene Heybach, who is senior counsel at the coalition, an agency that in February produced a report citing services that were not provided because of the lack of state funding. “We’ve laid out the ways school districts and kids they wish to serve are suffering because of the lack of this money.”
Deb Dempsey, homeless liaison for Kane County, traveled to Springfield to go before the legislature and outline what would be provided with additional money: “There would be the ability to have more staffing, people … who could work toward identification of students and get services to students.
“The intent of the (McKinney-Vento) law is to remove barriers for students to enroll, attend, stay stable and have a chance for school success. That being said, if there was more funding toward this initiative, then we could have more people out there finding more students, assisting school districts to assist these students. Then money could go toward more tutoring for these students, more services, more case management,’’ she says. “Because the thing that makes the difference in these kids’ lives is the individuals working with them. So if we could work with more individuals whose job is to work with these students that are in need of assistance, then we’d have more students being successful.”
In Kane County, Dempsey documented 1,921 homeless students last year, up from about 1,700 in 2012-13. That growth, she says, is at least in part because of more students becoming aware of services — a situation reported by other district officials interviewed for this story.
Districts in 2009 spent money, among other things, on tutors and parent education, social workers, programs for dropout prevention and attendance improvement, transportation — which is mandated but not necessarily funded —and school supplies. The awards ranged from $1.3 million for Chicago Public Schools to $10,491 for Rochelle Community Consolidated School District 231.
Advocates again sought $3 million this fiscal year, and the Illinois State Board of Education and Gov. Pat Quinn’s budget recommendations included the $3 million, as well. But in its final form, the budget allocated $1.
“It leaves me a little speechless. … One is just stunned,’’ Heybach says.
Homewood Democratic Rep. William Davis, who is chairman of the House appropriations committee for elementary and secondary education, says that dollar does not speak to the importance of funding programs for homeless students. Davis says there was support in his committee for homeless education on both sides of the aisle, but members decided to not further reduce the $4.5 billion general state aid pool. Davis says they would lose the mechanism for funding the line item if it was “zeroed out” rather than kept active at $1.
Rep. Robert Pritchard of Hinckley, the Republican spokesman for the education budget committee, says: “The appropriations committee has had to look at priorities as to where it funds programs, and members have generally favored funding the foundation level line of the budget and trying to put as much money in it as they can into it so that schools have flexibility on funding homeless education — if that’s a concern of the district, or gifted children or some of the other things that don’t generally get a line item appropriation. So we’re certainly aware of the problem, and the issue, we just feel that the dollars aren’t there to fund every program that may have merit.”
The per-student foundation level, as it has been for the previous five years, was set at $6,119, and then prorated 89 percent, he notes. The state hasn’t been putting a priority on education in general, he contends.
Economist Richard Dye, at the University of Illinois’ Institute of Government and Public Affairs, describes in an email the state’s situation as a “huge and multidimensional” crisis: “The budget FY 2015, which began on July 1, is seriously out of balance — or rather only balances by using time-shifting gimmicks like borrowing revenue from other years, by ignoring deficits outside the general funds, and by wearing rose-colored glasses.”
Looking at the total budget picture, and not counting borrowing or other one-time revenues, his organization estimates the FY 15 budget deficit at $3.5 billion. “On top of the deficit in the annual flow of spending versus revenue are: unfunded liabilities for pension obligations of about $100 billion, another $34 billion of unfunded promises to pay for state retiree health care and an accumulation of unpaid bills on the order of $4.5 billion.”
But somehow out of that strained budget came $35 million to build a new Chicago school in House Speaker Michael Madigan’s district, Heybach says. Madigan spokesman Steve Brown says the issues don’t compare: the new school will address overcrowding, and funding comes out of the state’s capital budget for construction.
“I think the homeless issue kind of mirrors a lot of issues in Illinois regarding funding. I think one of the big differences with the homeless issue is there are not an abundance of other resources for the problem,” says Jeff Dosier, superintendent of Belleville Township High School District 201.
Sen. Kimberly Lightford, a Maywood Democrat who is vice chair of the Senate Education Committee, has been pushing to increase education funding even as the state goes through a budget crisis. She says she is drained by the lack of resources, but she thinks often-overlooked homeless children should be a priority.
Heybach says, “For some reason, this is just not on people’s radar. … People think of this as kind of a niche thing when … almost one out of every four American children lives in poverty, and about two years ago we crested at about 2 million homeless, and everyone agrees we’re not reaching everyone. People hide it. Homeless youth hide it.”
The students who are homeless come from all across Illinois. They are in cities, suburbs and rural communities. Their situations vary considerably, as Dempsey, the homeless liaison for Kane County schools, explains: some students come from families that have no housing; others are independent from their families because of issues of dysfunction, such as drug and alcohol abuse and physical threats. In some cases, students are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgendered and kicked out for that reason. Some of the kids are U.S. citizens whose parents have been deported.
Nathan Strain, now a 19-year-old chemical engineering student at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, spent a good share of his senior year at Hampshire High School in Kane County without a home after his mother told him he had to leave. He spent some days in a car; others in the empty house his mother had previously owned that was foreclosed upon — “until the bank came and changed the locks, and then I was in my car for another few days.” Eventually, neighbors took him in, providing lodging but not money to pay for food. Or school supplies or the gas that got him to his job at McDonalds.
“I was ready to quit school and work in a factory because it was impossible even when I’d go to
school — I missed so many days — it felt useless because in class I was anxious because I was needing to find a way to make money, so I could find a place to stay. I needed to find food for the rest of the week. Stupid stuff. … I just knew I’d have to go to the food pantry to get some stuff.
“I was always thinking of things that needed to be done because I was so nervous that everything that would fall apart, so every time I was in school it felt like a waste of time. I basically got good grades because I forced myself to because I figured it was my only opportunity out, but my other two friends that were independent youths at the time, stopped caring about school.”
School was also hard because he found he wasn’t interested in the things that seemed important to most of his classmates. “I didn’t want to talk about the things they wanted to talk about because the things they wanted to talk about seemed so trivial and stupid, a waste of time. I couldn’t relate to them anymore. And teachers, especially, they wanted me to commit my time to these things. And whenever I told them I couldn’t they would never understand why, or why I couldn’t commit a little money to something. I could not possibly describe ‘like no, I don’t have $10.’”
But somehow he managed to keep up his 4.0 average and graduate in the top 10 of his class.
He went to Springfield to lobby lawmakers. Strain says he was disappointed with how the budget turned out, and believes that legislators would have listened harder had he not been such a successstory.
But Heybach says the fight’s not over. She’s heard talk that the Legislative Latino Caucus will push for a supplemental appropriation in the fall veto session. Neither caucus chair would confirm that, and co-chairwoman Sen. Iris Martinez, a Chicago Democrat, says it depends on whether the General Assembly takes action — not now planned — to extend boosted income tax rates beyond January’s end date. The other co-chair, Rep. Cynthia Soto, also a Chicago Democrat, says she can’t speak for her members.
Rep. Linda Chapa LaVia, an Aurora Democrat, says, “Whatever support I can give to the caucus, to make sure that gets done, I’m 100 percent on board. One of the most important populations, especially, are homeless children. … We should be making sure we afford them the same ability to be well-educated as other children. We should not discriminate.”
Pointing to lawmakers like Chapa LaVia, Heybach of the homeless coalition says, “We did get a lot of support, but as you can see, when somebody goes in a back room, and they all trade off their interests or issues, in the end we ended up with a dollar. We’re trying to be optimistic about that, and we’ll see.”