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Homeless Kids Lack School to Call Home

As more kids become homeless, finding stable school environment is a struggle

by Carlos Sadovi

As Kathy Johnson walked from her family's cramped room in a West Side shelter to pick up her 10-year-old twin daughters from school, she asked God to make good on what she had promised them.

(photo: Chicago Coalition for the Homeless) "Release housing for me and my children. . . . God, give me strength. We didn't ask to be in this shape; unfortunately we are," Johnson prayed. Health issues cost her a job as a hotel room attendant three years ago, she said.

Chicago Public Schools officials say an increasing number of students are losing their homes, becoming casualties of the economic downturn.

The number of homeless students has risen dramatically in the last year. From July 1 to Dec. 31, the district counted 9,698. That's 23.5 percent more than the 7,851 for the same period in 2007. By the end of the school year, the district is expecting to top last year's record of 10,642 students, said Patricia Rivera, director of the district's homeless education program.

"I see that it will probably get worse," she said. "It has far-reaching consequences for our students."

For three years, Johnson, 43, and her children have drifted through a half-dozen Chicago shelters as she struggled to find work and housing. The twins, Laquita and Lakresha, and an older daughter, Pearlie, 18, have had to cope with new living conditions and people almost every semester, because shelters require clients to move every few months to free up space for others.

"Laquita came up to me and said, 'Mom, I'm very tired. I just want to get out of here. Can we just please move into an apartment?' " Johnson said. "I said, 'Baby, Mama's going to try and get us out of here this year, I promise.' "

The girls have struggled with homework because there is little privacy in shelters, Johnson said, and with making friends. Shelter rules prohibit outsiders, meaning the twins could not invite classmates to a birthday slumber party.

"I don't like being in a shelter because when I get to school I get friends and then I lose them," Laquita said.

Their grades have suffered, too. Johnson tried to keep her children at Shoop Academy on the Far South Side after they switched shelters and had to travel several hours to get to school. The girls failed state tests last spring and now are repeating the 3rd grade at Cather Elementary School, near their current shelter.

Federal law requires schools to provide services to homeless students, but little money is allocated. Chicago school officials said there have been slight increases in the last few years, with the district receiving $700,000 from the federal government for the current school year. Most of the money goes to transport students to the schools they attended before becoming homeless. The district also waives school fees and often gives students multiple sets of uniforms.

Each school has a homeless advocate to help children and families arrange for services. Students also receive free breakfasts and lunches through a federal program that allows $100 for each homeless child, Rivera said.

"It doesn't cover a lot," Rivera said.

A three-year grant made volunteers available to tutor children in some shelters. They hope to continue the program, Rivera said.

Rene Heybach, a lawyer with the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, said the district generally is doing a good job of working with the group on behalf of children. But upheaval is looming, she said, because of plans to close dozens of neighborhood schools for the district's Renaissance 2010 program to close under-enrolled or struggling schools.

"All of that displacement that Renaissance 2010 is causing is a huge problem," Heybach said.

Tiara, 6, has attended three schools since her mother, Aisha, lost her fast-food job and her apartment in September. Aisha, who did not want her last name used, said she changed schools each time so Tiara could arrive on time.

Tiara attends Westcott Elementary on the South Side, where her mother said teachers and others don't always understand the challenges she and her children face.

"The teacher says she's behind. I work with her but it is extremely hard," Aisha said. "It's not like I can just sit down and work with her one on one. There are 50 people that live in the same place as me."

Homeless high school students have their own issues, said Jimell Byrd, liaison for homeless students at Fenger High School. The schools used to deal with teens locked out of their homes because of family conflicts but who moved in with friends. Now more families are being evicted, Byrd said.

"Some students are really embarrassed that they don't have their own home or their own key," Byrd said.

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