By Vanessa Beene, Medill Reporter
Tia Carter has a smile that can brighten the darkest room. Her laughter is contagious and her poise immediately draws the attention of those around her. Upon meeting the 17-year-old, one would never guess that she has lived a life marred by periods of homelessness.
Tia, the middle child of five, recalls the last time she felt a sense of stability—at the age of 10.
“We had a house in Michigan, and then we lost it,” Tia said. “We bounced around from shelter to shelter before my mom decided to move us back to Illinois with my grandma.”
More than 18,000 students, like Carter, were identified by the Chicago Public Schools as homeless during the 2012-2013 school year, according to the latest available figures. This amounted to an 8.2 percent increase from the previous school year. Homeless students face a variety of unique challenges that most children simply don’t have to deal with. “I was so lost,” she said.
While relieved to know she would have a place to lay her head at night, Tia said she felt like a burden to her grandmother who was battling breast cancer at the time.
“We were all sleeping on couches in the front room. It just didn’t feel like home to me,” said Tia, whose family was “doubling-up,” a term used to include those who temporarily stay with others with nowhere else to go.
A 2009 American Psychological Association task force on homelessness reported that poverty and homelessness have far-reaching negative impact on children’s physical and mental health. Among them: depression, anxiety, PTSD and withdrawal.
While constantly moving from place to place and, subsequently, from school to school, Tia said she became socially withdrawn and also suffered anxiety.
“I would be in class and just burst out into tears and wouldn’t know why…it was just too much,” she said.
As Tia went from middle school to high school, she began to worry more about the ways in which her classmates might judge her situation. She would see students with more than what she had and began to question her own self-worth.
“I wanted to know why my mom couldn’t get nice things for me. I’m a girly girl, you know?” she said. “I like to get my hair done and keep my nails done.”
Tia even went as far as to try and transfer from her original school to a neighboring one that required the students to wear uniforms, in hopes of blending in with her peers.
As a sophomore, Tia transferred to Tilden Career Community Academy on the city’s South Side. At Tilden, nearly half, or 42 percent, of the students identified themselves as homeless during the 2012-2013 school year, according to Illinois State Board of Education figures.
Despite such daunting statistics, 61 percent of their students graduate within four years.
“Students at Tilden wish to break the norm,” said J.D. Klippenstein, a community organizer at the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless. “Maybe people feel that it’s like a dead-end place to be, but the students don’t see it that way. They don’t see themselves as people that are headed down a dead end”
Tilden is located in New City, a South Side neighborhood with high crime rates that barely fall behind neighboring communities like Englewood and Gage Park. According to the Chicago Police Department Crime Incidents Report, more than 100 cases of violent crime were reported in the area within the last three months.
Instead of aimlessly roaming the streets after school, a choice that could prove fatal, Tia decided to join Tilden TV and Radio. As she covered a variety of school events while learning multimedia techniques, Tia found a place where she belongs. “It’s like a family,” she said.
Tia was later assigned the role of president for the group. It was through this group that the collaboration between Tilden and the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless was formed. The Coalition, formed in 1980, is the only non-profit organization for homeless advocacy in Illinois.
In March, Tia and other students traveled to Springfield with the coalition to speak to legislators about the issue of homelessness for CPS students and their families.
“I get tired of people saying how they wish to help homeless students but don’t include homeless students in the planning or preparation,” Klippenstein said. “We wanted their voices to be heard.”
Their goal was to have $3 million approved in the state budget for homeless education funding and $4.1 million to maintain homeless youth programs. These programs typically rely on federal funds, and the State of Illinois had not allotted money in the budget for it since the 2009 fiscal year. Students like Tia were able to speak about how such a decision would directly impact them.
“I was nervous, but surprised that I had people listening to me…like, actually listening to me,” Tia said.
Legislators later voted to budget $1.5 million for homeless education and $5.6 million for homeless youth programs for the 2015 fiscal year.
As she ends her junior year at Tilden, Tia said she is looking forward to the future. Her goals are simple: to graduate and attend college.
“I need to set an example for my little sister,” said Tia, who plans to be the first of her siblings to graduate high school.
After attending an organizing training program through the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, Tia is now interested in public policy and homeless advocacy.
“I really want to help people,”Tia said. “The way people have helped me.”