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$3 million sought for homeless youth in Quinn budget

Thu, Mar 27, 2014

More than half the state’s 55,000+ homeless students lacked services such as tutoring, preschool and counseling last year, according to a survey released Feb. 27 by the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless (CCH), which is seeking $3 million restored in Gov. Pat Quinn’s proposed FY15 budget to cover these services.

CCH did a survey in December about the level of services provided for homeless children and teens across Illinois. It received a response from 36 of the 54 school districts and regional offices of education that receive federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act funds. Key findings include:

52 percent said that more than half their homeless students do not receive tutoring or access to preschool.

56 percent said that less than half their homeless students received counseling.
44 percent said that their capacity to find and enroll homeless students is limited or very limited.

21 percent said that less than half of homeless students get transportation assistance to and from school.

The Illinois State Board of Education has also proposed restoring the $3 million to next year’s budget for these services, but the line item would have to be included in Gov. Quinn’s budget and approved by the General Assembly. The same funding was awarded in FY09 but the homeless student population has roughly doubled since then, according to CCH prepared materials.

In FY09, there were only 30,000 homeless students statewide; Chicago had 10,000 of them and consequently received $1.1 million of the state funding, according to Pat Rivera, retired director of Students in Temporary Living Situations for the Chicago Public Schools.

This year, CPS expects to reach 20,000 homeless students; there are now an additional 36,223 homeless students elsewhere in Illinois, said Laurene Heybach, director of The Law Project of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless.

What the state funds did was supplement the federal McKinney Vento money, which has remained stagnant over the past five or six years despite rising numbers of homeless students, Rivera said. Chicago was able to set up supplemental tutoring in shelters and to provide social workers and counseling in schools. Students also received uniforms and backpacks with school supplies. The program continued another year with funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 or Obama recessionary stimulus funds.

However, at the end of that year, CPS was also facing a severe financial crisis so the number of shelters with tutoring was reduced from 27 to 12 and then cut again to only eight shelters before it was discontinued.

In her retirement, Rivera has resurrected the tutoring program in shelters with the help of volunteers. The 501 (c)(3) Chicago Hopes for Kids has 80 tutors who help kids at four shelters three to four days a week.

Outreach to homeless students is the biggest need, according to Heybach, Rivera and Deb Dempsey, coordinator of the Kane County regional office of education’s Equal Chance program.
CPS has homeless liaisons in every school but many of those workers do additional jobs, Heybach said. “We see areas in which more staff and more training would make a huge difference.”

More outreach would allow CPS to find and enroll preschoolers. Truancy work is also needed, she said. The Chicago Coalition for the Homeless and the CPS Students in Temporary Living Situations program is now working with a 17-year-old who has barely ever attended high school. “It looks like nobody has been to the home where the family was living doubled up.”

The state money was particularly effective because it allowed CPS to hire social workers who went out to find homeless unaccompanied youth who were just a few credits short of graduation, Heybach said. For some of these 17- or 18-year-olds, summer school was all they needed, Rivera said.

More manpower would help schools identify homeless students, Dempsey said.
When schools have limited social work staff, they focus on getting homeless students into school, on giving them the services they need and on keeping them in their original school. Those services come before collecting data and before going out into the field.

“We need more people to work with families to create the relationship, to communicate, to say ‘If you are moving tomorrow you need to keep in touch with me so that we work on transportation, get your child stable at school,’ ” Dempsey said.

Elgin does a good job with its homeless student program, she said. The second largest school district in the state, Elgin had 775 homeless students as of last June 30, up from 400 students in 2008. “They have two liaisons for their district; they understand the value. They hired the second one this year.”

Ron O’Connor is McKinney Vento liaison for the Will County Regional Schools Office, which has seen its homeless student population rise from 969 in 2009 to 1551 today. O’Connor used economic stimulus money to fund 1 on 1 tutoring and would also like to see more educators trained to be able to identify and reach out to homeless kids.

Most of all, O’Connor sees the money as helping to “level the playing field” for kids so that they are more likely to be successful in school. This can mean finding alternative busing money so that a student can remain on the football team at Joliet West but go home to the shelter in Aurora. It can also mean giving them two new outfits at the start of a school year in addition to vouchers for thrift shop clothes.

“All of us recognize that school is more than reading, writing and arithmetic. Young people come to school to identify with others and participate with others, [they need] all that we can do to make them feel better about themselves. I could do so much more tutoring and so much more leveling the playing field kind of things If I had more money to expend for the success element.”

Suzanne Hanney
StreetWise Editor-In-Chief

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