News Local/State

Schools Can Help Homeless Kids — But Only If They Find Them

Four young people sitting down in a conference room to talk about their experience as homeless unaccompanied youth.

Melissa Esparza (second from right) sits among a group of formerly homeless students from Kane County during a professional development day for educators and school staff members hosted in Elgin, Ill. on March 1, 2019 Lee V. Gaines / Illinois Newsroom

Melissa Esparza fled her home in west suburban Chicago two years ago. Then 16, she said her parents became physically violent after years of verbal abuse.

“One day, my mom and I were having an argument, and it turned into the day that she ended up hitting me, pulling some of my hair out. She punched me, scratched me and I had scratches all over me,” Esparza said.

She said she was initially forced to return home after her parents reported her missing, and the abuse began again. She fled a second time to her boyfriend’s family’s home, and Esparza said she’s had no contact with her parents since.  

What schools can do

Esparza is one of about 700,000 teens — or one in 30 high schoolers aged 13 to 17 — who experience unaccompanied homelessness in a given year, according to data from Chapin Hall, a policy and research center based at the University of Chicago. The center also estimates that one in 30 kids between 13 and 17 experience unaccompanied homelessness — meaning they lack both a stable residence and a parent or guardian.

Schools can’t control what happens in students’ homes, but Chapin Hall policy analyst Beth Horwitz said they should be doing more to help homeless youth.

A lack of housing can contribute to poor outcomes for students, according to research by America’s Promise Alliance. For example, they found homeless students are nearly 90 percent more likely to drop out of high school than students with homes, and those who drop out are much more likely to experience homelessness as adults.

“Schools have the ability to perhaps find young people sooner. I think it's really amazing what happens for young people who are found by their (homelessness school) liaisons,” Horwitz said.

That’s exactly what happened to Esparza. After she fled her parents home, Esparza told her school guidance counselor what happened. Her counselor then connected Esparza with Deb Dempsey, the homelessness liaison for schools in Kane County.

Once identified, homeless students are entitled to certain types of assistance under federal law, and in her role as a homelessness liaison, it’s Dempsey’s job to make sure they get what they need.

“(Dempsey) ended up helping me get gas for my boyfriend's car because he would end up driving me to school every day,” Esparza said. She added that Dempsey also helped her get health insurance, food assistance and “was just a person to talk to as well when stuff was going wrong.”

But Dempsey said she can only provide that assistance when students like Esparza are identified by schools. That’s why she hosted a recent professional development day in Elgin to educate teachers and other school staff members about why identification of homeless kids is so important. Esparza was one of five formerly homeless students who shared their stories with the group.

“We’re trying to bring it to school personnel’s attention that there are reasons kids aren’t living with their families, and they still have the right to go to school, and they should have an adult working with them,” Dempsey said.

Esparza said teacher support played a crucial role in her graduating on time.

“I was in almost all AP classes, and my AP calculus teacher noticed something was wrong. I wasn’t talking anymore in class, and that’s when he said, ‘don’t do the homework, we will stay with you after school to help you do it.’ He was a key supporter,” Esparza said.

While her grades dropped initially, Esparza said she was able to get them back up with that kind of support.  

‘We are missing them’

“I mean, imagine what would have happened if she hadn't asked for help, if she hadn't said something,” Horwitz said, referring to Esparza’s story.

The research conducted by Chapin Hall suggests Esparza may be an exception and not the rule when it comes to identifying homeless students.

“We think that our national estimate helps with starting to understand perhaps how big of a gap that is,” Horwitz said. “Because if you look at (state and federal) education data, it would not suggest that one in 30 youth are experiencing homelessness. So we are missing them.”

Horwitz points to a program in Australia, called the Geelong Project, as a potential model for what schools in the U.S. should be doing to help prevent and mitigate youth homelessness. The program uses a survey given to every student to help identify kids who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless. Using that model, pilot schools found many more students who were at risk or already homeless, and then they were able to target services and resources to those populations. As a result, the number of high school dropouts and homeless students has decreased.

Horwitz said Chapin Hall is planning its own pilot program in the U.S. because the risks of not doing anything to identify homeless youth are steep.

“Every day that we don't intervene with young people is another day where their development is interrupted and where they're unable to transition to stable adulthood,” Horwitz said. “And that's a problem. And it's something that we as a country should be focused on.”

Esparza said she thinks it’s something schools should be focused on, too. With help, she overcame homelessness. Esparza said she wants more students to get the help she received, and that’s why she agreed to tell her story in a room full of educators.

Her story has a happy ending; Esparza recently purchased a condo with her boyfriend in Carpentersville. She also plans to pursue a degree in early childhood education.

“I look back and I think about all the teachers that’s been there for me throughout this whole thing,” she said. “And then how one teacher can actually change your world and how someone can help people like that. And I think that's just what I want to do.”