Progress Illinois: Advocacy groups call for restoration of state homeless student education funds

By Ellyn Fortino

Given the potential record-breaking number of schools closing in Chicago and a recent report showing an increased number of homeless students in Illinois, anti-homeless advocates say it’s more important than ever for the state to restore funding for the education of students with unstable homes.


Given the potential record-breaking number of schools closing in Chicago and a recent report showing an increased number of homeless students in Illinois, anti-homeless advocates say it’s more important than ever for the state to restore funding for the education of students with unstable homes.

The Illinois State Board of Education called for the restoration of $3 million in state funding for competitive, homeless student education grants in its 2014 budget request. The funds served more than 30 Illinois school districts in 2009 but hasn’t been renewed since that time.

But Gov. Pat Quinn’s 2014 budget proposal does not reinstate the funding.

“All these kids growing up in homelessness, it’s gut wrenching,” said Laurene Heybach, director of the law project at the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless. “It’s a sad statement about how we’re moving into the future, not to mention the increase of 200,000 people in extreme poverty in the state of Illinois [since 2006].”

The Illinois State Board of Education released a study last month that shows nearly 36,000 students statewide were living without a stable home as of November 2012, which is up more than 6,000 students from November 2010.

The Chicago Public Schools’ tally identified a little more than 17,000 homeless students at the end of 2012, Heybach said.

That number is expected to hit 18,000 by the end of this year, she said, and it’s unlikely to drop anytime soon, especially with the across-the-board spending cuts at the federal level and the high rate of foreclosures in the area, among other factors.

“It’s growing, growing, growing everywhere,” Heybach said. “The least we can do is create, again, a $3 million grant incentive program. Let the best ideas come forward. Let the districts compete. Let them coordinate with each other and stimulate compliance and provide quality services for our kids.”

But the governor has shown little interest in the issue, she explained.

“That’s troubling to us, but we are communicating with all the budget players,” Heybach said, adding that on April 10 some youth and other advocates for the funding will lobby in Springfield around the issue.

The initial 2009 competitive grant funding was split among some 36 school districts in Aurora, Glen Ellyn, Rockford and others, for providing social workers, case managers and homeless liasons to identify at-risk youth in the area and ensure they are supported and attending school.

Some of the money also went to districts for homeless students’ transportation to and from school and the expansion of academic programs like tutoring and summer school, in addition to other social and health services.

“They deserve some very specific funding resources; these are needy populations,” Heybach said. “Schools are asked to do a lot. Schools want to do a lot. Those who have already have grants have demonstrated they can do it.”

Township High School District 211, which serves some northwest suburbs including Palatine, Hoffman Estates and Schaumburg, was awarded about $34,000 in 2009 to start a “Coordinated Response to Homelessness Project” to provide a structure for aligning various supports and services to families and students experiencing stressors that have or may lead to homelessness.

And the Jersey Community Unit School District 100 in west central Illinois received almost $51,000 to offer summer school for the month of June in 2009. The summer school program for homeless students was tailored to reading asssistance and provided transportation and meals. Some of the funds were also slated for other tutoring services and the employment of a homeless mentor to oversee all related programs in the district.

Julia McClendon, CEO of YWCA Elgin, said she’s seen first-hand the positive impact afterschool programs can have on homeless youth.

About 50 students, some of them homeless, come from area schools nearly every day to participate in the YWCA Elgin’s Teen REACH program.

“There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t worry about our children here at the YWCA,” she said. “What a difference that the program has made in their lives, and I’m really afraid of what’s going to happen with all the cuts to all these great programs.”

She said afterschool programs are able to provide homeless youth with the consistency they need in order to make them feel like a part of the larger community again.

“They begin producing,” McClendon said. “Their grades come up. They talk and even sometimes laugh. They grow so much from just a month in a program.”

The 2009 grants helped to enhance an additional $3 million in federal money the state receives each year under the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act as part of the Education for Homeless Children and Youth program.

The federal funding is spread out across school districts, but it’s “never really been enough money to entice a lot of districts to move things forward to come up with creative ideas,” Heybach said.

In addition to the federal grant money, school districts can also spend their annual state aid on assisting their homeless students.

“But when a particular program gets particular funding from the Illinois State Board of Education, it has a much greater chance of expanding, of driving compliance, of gaining interest, of improving inter-district cooperation,” Heybach explained.

After 2009 when the state’s homeless education funding diminished, federal stimulus money trickled down to provide additional dollars to allow for homeless education work to continue.

But now that money has also dried up.

“Not only are the feds flatlining, but they’ve decreased in a sense because the stimulus money has disappeared,” Heybach said. “So now with much more significant numbers of homeless kids … there’s actually less money available.”

Anton Miglietta, director of the Chicago Grassroots Curriculum Taskforce, said it’s “preposterous” that funding is being cut from the students who are most in need of support.

“Not only is it inhumane, it’s also economically irresponsible,” said Miglietta, whose volunteer group works on developing curriculum infused with local and relevant content from students’ lives.

He said if homeless students aren’t supported when they are in school, they could end up in the criminal justice system later, which would cost the state more in the long run.

The most “humane and responsible” thing to do, Miglietta said, is to helpprovide needy students with high-quality education along with other vital services now.

“It takes a community to really wrap themselves around students in this position,” he said.