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 homelessness, 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 students are registered.”
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 think the growing numbers are actually miscounted.”