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Lauren Chooljian/MEDILL

Students in shelters across Chicago have the opportunity to be tutored one-on-one after school, providing some stability in their otherwise unstable lives.

Homeless youth rising by the thousands as state money is cut by the millions

by Lauren Chooljian
March 03, 2011


Lauren Chooljian/MEDILL

This graph shows how the number of homeless students in Chicago Public Schools compare with four other school districts across the nation. Note: Some school districts could not provide the figures for some school years, and the base number for population was given as an estimate from all four districts questioned. Click on image to enlarge.

CURL research on youth homelessness forthcoming

In 2003 Chicago introduced the “Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness,” an initiative that would attempt to radically transform Chicago homelessness by moving people from temporary housing to permanent housing.


Researchers at the CURL center at Loyola University set out to determine if the plan is working by following 600 homeless individuals and families over the course of the year. Included in that group are around 100 homeless families.


“Of all the families with school-aged children, we asked parents to report things about their children in terms of school, and problems they were having,” said Christine George, researcher at the CURL center.


The details of their findings on youth homelessness will be released this summer. 

Who qualifies as a student in a temporary living situation?

With the recent change from CPS’s “Homeless Education Program” to “Students in Temporary Living Situations Program,” there is still some confusion as to who qualifies, and what type of services they are entitled to.


“There have been people who are surprised to learn that what we called 'doubled-up' qualifies, and that people who were taking care of a child but didn’t have permanent guardianship could receive services too,” said Julie Yerganian, who works with the Students in Temporary Living Situations Program support team. “I think definitely getting that word out is important, I don’t think it’s completely understood.”


According to the federal McKinney-Vento Act, Chicago students who qualify for the program are defined as:


1. Homeless children and youth means individuals who lack a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence. The term includes:


            --Children and youth who are sharing the housing of other persons due to loss of housing, economic hardship, or a similar reason; are living in motels, hotels, trailer parks, or camping grounds due to the

lack of alternative adequate accommodations; are living in emergency or transitional shelters; are abandoned in hospitals; or are awaiting foster care placement.


2. Children and youth who have a primary nighttime residence that is a public or private place not designed for or ordinarily used as a regular sleeping accommodation for human beings.


3. Children and youth who are living in cars, parks, public spaces, abandoned buildings, substandard housing, bus or train stations, or similar settings.


4. Migratory children (as defined in section 1309 of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, as amended) who qualify as homeless because they are living in circumstances described in this



5. Enroll and enrollment include attending classes and participating fully in school activities.


6. Unaccompanied youth includes a youth not in the physical custody of a parent or guardian.


For students who qualify for the program, there are a multitude of resources available to them.


First, the student is allowed to stay in the same school for as long as the child remains homeless, even if his or her family is forced to move to another part of the city.


Transportation will be provided for the student, free of charge, to make sure he or she can get to this school from their new home.


Other transportation services include CTA transit cards and transfer fares for both parents and students. If the child is 12 years of age or older, they could qualify for their own CTA riding permit.


After school tutoring is also provided for program students who request it. This is a service, Yerganian said, that many parents don’t realize is available. Parents of students in temporary living situations are able to contact their student’s teacher to arrange for one-on-one tutoring sessions.


Upon entrance into the program, students will be given forms for free uniforms, reduced fair or free lunches or any other services the school deems necessary.


The Program Support team encourages anyone who thinks their child may be eligible for the program to call 773.553.2242.

Note: Names have been changed to protect the children’s identities.

Andrew quickly looks down at his homework. He can’t keep his eyes away from the door too long — Isabella should be here any minute. He looks down and reads the problem.

How many lines of symmetry does this shape have?

He looks up at his tutor, inquisitively, glancing quickly at the door out the corner of his eye, and then back to the shapes on his wrinkled homework sheet. Focusing on math is hard for any fourth grader, but when your crush could walk through the door any second, it’s next to impossible.

Suddenly, the door opens. Isabella and her three brothers tumble into the classroom. Andrew’s face breaks into a mixture of worry and excitement.

“Hellooooo!” she squeals, like only a 6-year-old can. As Andrew’s eyes widen, his tutor laughs, and encourages him to continue with his homework.

For most students, the anxiety and heartache that come with secret (or in Andrew’s case, not so secret) crushes, are some of the biggest concerns they’ll face in their younger years.

But for students like Andrew and Isabella, their problems run much deeper. The classroom they are in is part of the Ubuntu Community Shelter, a homeless shelter in Brighton Park where they live with each of their families. Both of them have moved from place to place, or in Isabella’s words, old house to big house to small house.

According to data from the Chicago Public School district, Andrew and Isabella are far from alone. Of the approximately 409,000 CPS students, 4 percent live in temporary living situations. The number has increased by the thousands over the last few years. In the 2008-2009 school year, 12,525 students were registered as students in temporary living situations. That number rose by almost 3,000 students the following year, reaching 15,027.

As of Jan. 31, the number of CPS students in temporary living situations was 13,326 — a number that CPS staff members say will only continue to climb.

“We are on track to be higher than last year,” said Julie Yerganian, an Americore VISTA member working in CPS’s Program Support team, an outreach team that addresses the needs of homeless students. “We are looking comparatively to be ahead of last year for every benchmark we’ve looked at.”

The number has the potential to increase because students, or their parents, can identify themselves as living in a temporary living situation at any point in the school year. Because of changing situations, or because they weren’t aware of the program for students in temporary living situations, students continue to be registered up until the last day of school.

Registering in the program is important for students because it gives them access to a number of services, provided to them through the 1987 McKinney-Vento Act. The federal legislation provided school districts with a framework for defining homelessness, and what services should be provided to students who fit that framework.

Because the language used in McKinney-Vento, reauthorized in 2009, went beyond just
“homelessness,” CPS decided to create a more inclusive name for their own program. Two years ago, CPS moved from the Homeless Education program to the Students in Temporary Living Situations program.

“The name change was in part to be more inclusive, because we don’t only serve students in shelters, but also people who are doubled up, which means living with other family members, or another family, or a family friend,” said Yerganian. Another reason was “to get away from the stigma of the word homeless.”

Why the numbers are so high?

There are varying opinions on why the number is increasing so rapidly. But one factor that experts will all agree on is the state of the economy.

Laurene Heybach, director of the Law Project at the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, says one of the major components is the state of the housing market.

“I think what’s going on is a perfect storm of housing troubles. We have a massive amount of foreclosures, and the market has not bottomed out,” she said. “We really don’t see the real estate market picking up in a positive way.”

She added, “I think it’s bad. I don’t see any relief in sight.”

Chapin Hall Senior Researcher Amy Dworsky, who has devoted years to researching homeless youth, believes the economy is just one of two causes.

“I think one, there’s a real increase in the number of families experiencing homeless, but there’s also an increase of the identification of the problem,” she said.

Dworksy said when CPS changed its homeless education program to include students who are doubled-up, more parents realized that services provided through McKinney-Vento were available to them as well.

“There is increased awareness and identification of these children,” she said. “I think these schools are doing more now to make sure these student are registered.”

Heybach disagrees.

The name change, she said, “promotes people participating, but I don’t think that’s really responsible for the bump up.”

In fact, Heybach thinks the staff of the temporary living situation program has undercounted the number of students, due to budget cuts and losing staff members over the last few years.

“They’ve actually cut the staff in the program, so we know there’s not as much work going on,” she said. “I do think it’s easier and more attractive to families to identify with STLS when they don’t have to call themselves homeless, but I also thing the growing numbers are actually miscounted.”

What does this mean for students?

According to the National Center for Family Homelessness, students in temporary living situations are twice as likely to have repeated a grade, to have been expelled or suspended from school, or to have dropped out of high school as their classmates who are in permanent homes.

Dr. Carl Bell, psychiatrist and CEO of the Community Mental Health Council and Foundation, has witnessed the struggles low-income or homeless children face in the classroom.

“Well, you know it’s just rough as hell, it creates insecurity, fear, anxiety, worry -- all those things can be an impact,” he said. “Depending on where and how you’re homeless, you might have to change schools, which might be disrupting as well.”

Other problems Bell says students may experience are speech problems, adjustment disorders, lower reading levels, and possible depression.

But according to Bell, hope is not lost: Two-thirds of homeless children turn out OK, and the remaining one-third may not struggle forever. Success, he said, is up to the parents.

“Just because something bad happens to a kid, like homelessness or whatever it is, it doesn’t automatically put them at risk,” he said. “If the parents are intact, I’ll say, and thoughtful in providing some certainty, then it’s easier to be homeless than if the parents are catastrophizing.”

Bell said parents need to be positive around their children consistently, providing what he calls protective factors — elements of positivity or stability that reinforce normalcy.

Another factor Bell and advocates like Laurene Heybach also stress are that students in temporary living situations are individuals, and as such will have varying learning struggles and triumphs.

“Homeless kids represent a range of learners, and of learning styles,” Heybach said. If the schools meet the needs of students in temporary living situations, they “can do fine in school.”

But even with the attempts at stability, Bell said youth homelessness is still problematic.

“I’m not minimizing the problem, but it’s not the gloom and doom and death and destruction,” he said.

Is there an answer to the problem?

The solution to the rising number of homeless youth in Chicago is not, as Heybach calls it, a systemic or magic bullet solution, as there are many levels to the issue.
Some initiatives, run by CPS or by advocacy groups, are working to address the effects of homelessness, rather than the causes.

For example, the classroom where Andrew waits for Isabella is part of Chicago HOPES, a three-day a week, two-hour a day tutoring program for students who live in certain Chicago shelters. Children receive one-on-one help on their homework assignments from volunteer tutors.

Bell said it is programs like this one that can provide those needed protective factors.

“The more stable the environment is, whether it’s family or school, the more protective factors a person has. It’s all about the protective factors, not just the stresses,” he said.

Advocacy groups, such as the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, work to get government funding to some of these youth-focused initiatives, as well as larger funds that tackle homelessness as a whole.

But with the state’s current budget crisis, that may be harder then ever this year.

According to Gov. Pat Quinn’s proposed 2012 budget, three key funds to help homelessness could see deep cuts. The Department of Children and Family Services could see a 30 percent cut in comparison with the 2008 and 2009 budgets. The Homeless Prevention fund, which lends money to low-income families during unforeseeable changes such as illness or job loss, could be cut from it’s $11 million budget in 2009 to $1 million in 2012.

Lastly, if the budget is passed, $95 million would be cut from the Illinois State Board of Education for school transportation, which, according to the Coalition for the Homeless, could potentially affect transportation assistance to homeless children and liaison support for the students in temporary living situations program.

While many of these solutions may seem in flux, at the core of all the potential answers, Bell said, is one element: stability. In order for students like Isabella and Andrew to have a fulfilled life, the key is to find consistency in any part of their day, and hold on to things that are positive.

These protective factors can even be found within themselves.

“Children can have their own level of protective factors if they’re very clear about their purpose,” he said. “So if I’m an A student and I wind up homeless, and I know I’m going to be an A student, I’m going to continue to be an A student.”