An Illinois Law Aims To Help Homeless Students — Is It Enough?
Last summer, Chantil was forced to leave the townhome she shared with her two daughters and her mother in Des Plaines. (We’re withholding Chantil’s last name to protect her family’s privacy.) Her landlord wanted to sell the building, and Chantil had only about a month to find a new home.
Landlords, however, kept turning her down because of her credit, and her income. Chantil makes $12 an hour at a department store.
Moving day came, and Chantil still hadn’t found a place. So she moved her family into a hotel. It was one of several they lived in for the next two and a half months.
“Living in the hotels was something I wouldn’t wish on anybody, like if I can help somebody, I would. I would open my home to anybody that’s living in hotels because that’s a stressful event.”
During that two-and-half month period, Chantil’s eldest daughter was one of the more than 50,000 homeless Kindergarten through 12th grade students in Illinois, according to data from the Illinois Department of Education. Homelessness, as defined by school districts and the U.S. Department of Education, means a student lacks “a fixed, regular, adequate nighttime abode.”
That leaves out the vast majority of the state — and country’s — homeless youth who live “doubled-up” with another family member or friend. A much smaller portion of Illinois’ homeless students wind up in Chantil’s situation — living in hotels or motels.
But Chantil and her family were lifted out of homelessness thanks to a little known state law passed in 2017.
The law allows Illinois school districts to use a portion of their transportation funding to help homeless families, and those at risk of becoming homeless, pay for a place to live. So far Chantil and one other parent are the only two families to have benefited from the law, according to Tom Bookler, a homeless education liaison for dozens of school districts in northern Cook County.
The state law builds off federal requirements for school districts, which are laid out in a federal statute dubbed the McKinney-Vento Education of Homeless Children and Youth Assistance Act.
That federal law requires school districts to pay for the transportation of homeless students from their temporary residence — whether that’s a hotel, shelter or relative’s house — to the school they attended before they lost their housing. Bookler said he surveyed school districts in his region and discovered that about 20 were collectively paying roughly $800,000 per year to ferry homeless students back and forth between their school and temporary living situation. He said he thought it would be cheaper in certain circumstances if schools could offer temporary financial assistance to keep or get families back into housing.
East Maine District 63 Associate Superintendent Shawn Schleizer said it made more sense for the district to pay about $1,500 so that Chantil’s family could become housed again than to keep paying for taxi cabs for her daughter to get back and forth from the hotel to school. The money from the school district covered most of her first month’s rent.
Saving money isn’t the only reason the school wanted to take advantage of the relatively new law, Schleizer said.
“Having an unstable situation as a child, and specifically around housing, significantly compromises a child’s ability to receive a quality education,” he said. “So (the law) saves the district money and in the end it saves all Illinoisans money. Everyone wins, especially the kids.”
Research shows that homeless children are 87 percent more likely to drop out of school, while those who drop out of high school are four-and-a-half times more likely to become homeless as adults.
‘A lack of affordable housing’
Living four people to a single hotel room with no kitchen put Chantil’s family under both financial and emotional stress. The majority of her earnings went to pay for the room and food from restaurants because they lacked a place to cook, she said. It was also tough on her children. There was no place for the youngest daughter to play, and her 13-year-old also suffered, she said.
“There were times where she would want one of her friends to come over and I’m like look you can’t have anybody here. You know we’re in a hotel,” Chantil said. “I don’t deny my kids anything. So for me to deny her, it was heartbreaking.”
When they first moved into a hotel last summer, Chantil drove her oldest daughter to school. She said she packed their car with all of their belongings because she was never sure where they’d be staying that night. That’s how her daughter’s principal discovered they were homeless.
“He saw all of my things in the car and he just he spazzed out, he never saw me that way before. He was like ‘What’s going on? Talk to me, open up,’” she said.
Chantil had previously been hesitant to share the family’s housing circumstances with school staff out of a fear her children would be taken away. Instead, when she did open up, the school helped pay for her first month’s rent in her new home. School staff also connected her to a social service agency that provided additional support services and connected her family with the local food pantry.
Chantil said her children are much happier now that they have their own bedrooms and a place to play outside.
“They were so ecstatic,” she said. “Their whole attitude changed.”
While thousands of families in Illinois experience homelessness every year, only a fraction of them can benefit from the law that helped Chantil’s family.
Schleizer and Bookler say school districts can only offer temporary financial assistance. That means parents must be employed and in need of only short-term monetary boost to get back on their feet. Schleizer said the district is also only able to help if the cost of transporting the student exceeds the cost of the financial assistance they’d need to become housed. There are other homeless families living within the school district boundaries that won’t receive any assistance under this law, he said.
The bigger problem, Bookler said is, “We just have a lack of affordable housing.”
For Chantil’s family, the law has offered a solution — albeit a tenuous one. She said the rent on her new home — $1,800 per month — is far from affordable.
“I can’t really afford the amount of rent that’s here, but I work hard enough every day,” Chantil said. “And I know that, at any point, if I fall behind, the school told me that they they’re here for me.”
Compounding that issue, Chantil’s family wouldn’t have qualified for housing assistance under the U.S. Housing and Urban Development’s definition of homelessness, said Barbara Duffield, executive director of SchoolHouse Connection, a national nonprofit that works to end homelessness through education. She points to the fact that HUD doesn’t count families living in hotels or living “doubled up” with relatives and friends as homeless.
Duffield said too few resources are targeted at homeless families, largely because they’re not visible to the general public. While the Illinois law may help some families, Duffield said, “This isn’t addressing the root cause, and it’s not a systemic solution.”
Correction: This story was updated 2.28.19 to correct Shawn Schleizer’s title.