The number of students in Illinois who qualify for homeless assistance has more than doubled in the past five years, according to data released by the U.S. Department of Education.

The DOE’s annual Consolidated State Performance Report Data marked the number of students meeting the federal definition of homelessness during the 2012-13 school year at 50,520, representing more than a 17 percent increase from the previous year.

Numbers already released by the Illinois Department of Education suggest that even this staggering increase may be a cautious estimate. They’ve identified 54,892 homeless students during the 2012-13 year, and 59,112 in 2013-14. That last figure is up more than 125 percent from the 2008-09 school year.

Image from CCH
Image from CCH

“On one level it’s shocking that this many students in homeless situations, but it’s part of trend we’ve been seeing play out year after year in Chicago, and that’s been reflected in the numbers for Illinois,” said Patricia Nix-Hodes, director of the law project at the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless.

Nix-Hodes points to a toxic housing market, still sluggish more than five years after the 2008 economic downturn, as a chief culprit for the explosion in youth homelessness.

“[The numbers are] in many ways a reflection of the state of the economy and the foreclosure crisis, which is still hitting families and students hard,” Nix-Hodes said. “Although there have been some reports of the economy improving, in Chicago that really hasn’t translated into more housing—there’s a real lag there.”

Illinois is not alone in its surge of recorded youth homelessness: The DOE reports youth homelessness rose by 8 percent across the country between 2012 and 2013, thanks in part to a 36 percent increase in New York and a 77 percent jump in New Jersey.

While a stubborn economy explains part of the story behind this spike, national advocates say, another reason may simply be that schools have become better at documenting homelessness.

“Because of public attention being drawn to the issue, we’re seeing that schools are doing a better job of identifying and counting their homeless students,” said Darla Bardine, executive director of the D.C.-based National Network for Youth.
“And that’s registering in the numbers we’re seeing nationwide.”

For Patricia Rivera, executive director of Chicago Hopes, this factor registers in Chicago numbers as well.

In 2003, when she began her tenure as the director of the Chicago Public Schools Homeless Education Program, “some entire parts of the city said they had no homeless kids in their schools,” Rivera said. “I’d say that’s almost impossible—there’s almost always at least one or two families doubled up in the same home.”

Families that are “doubled up,” she said, make up the greatest proportion of homeless students in Chicago.

By the time she left her post in 2010, the recorded number of students in Chicago who identified as homeless more than doubled from 7,000 to 15,000.

“A lot of that was economics,” Rivera said, “but a lot of that was also the fact that we got better at letting families know what kinds of [federal] services students would be eligible for if they came and talked to us.” The number of homeless school-aged youth in Chicago is now estimated at around 22,000.

While the real cause of this ballooning figure is up for debate, most organizations do agree on one point: action needs to be taken—on every level of government—to help tackle it.

Specifically, Nix-Hodes says the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless is lobbying for a $3 million provision to be included in the state’s Fiscal Year 2016 budget to address student homelessness. While included in the proposed budgets of both the Illinois Board of Education and Gov. Pat Quinn, this provision was left absent from the budget passed in May of this year.

“We haven’t given up yet—we’re going to try to get it passed in the supplemental budget,” Nix-Hodes said. “We think this is absolutely crucial, especially with the increase in homelessness we’re seeing, for districts to be able to serve their students.”

The last time such a motion was passed was in 2009, when school districts across the state were able to apply for grants with personalized plans to address homelessness. Under Rivera’s leadership, CPS was one of 36 districts to secure state money from the program.

The district used the money for outreach programs that encouraged homeless students to stay in school and provided them with the resources needed to graduate. It also paid teachers to visit shelters and lead tutoring sessions part time.

The result, Nix-Hodes said, was a resounding success.

“Students in situations of homelessness were able to stay in the same school which best academically suits them, which is huge,” Nix-Hodes said. That year, CPS reported that the graduation rate among homeless students was higher than the district average.

Another key weapon in the continuing war on homelessness in Chicago, Nix-Hodes said, would be an overhaul of CPS’s policy on student homelessness. The last time the district amended this policy was in 1996, before the federal government set its current definition of homelessness.

“In such a big system with such a high turnover rate, there’s a lot of training that needs to be de done on what teachers and administrators can do,” Nix-Hodes said. “And at most the most basic level, if a policy doesn’t contain a clear and correct definition of who’s eligible for (federal homelessness) services, some students who are eligible may not be identified.”

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