Many communities around the country host back to school events to celebrate an optimistic start to a new academic year. For the past 88 years, Southside Chicago has celebrated the start of the school year with its Bud Billiken parade. Last year, Chance the Rapper was the Grand Marshal.
For many students experiencing homelessness and unstable living situations, the return to school isn’t so easy or celebrated. Too often, they are not welcomed, or they are pushed out of school.
Homeless students, along with students of color, students with disabilities, LBGTQ students, and students in temporary living situations are the students most likely to be suspended, expelled or arrested. Many of these youth are pushed out of school and into poverty, unemployment, and prison.
The federal government considers a student to be homeless if he or she lacks a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence. This includes students who are “sharing the housing of other persons due to loss of housing, economic hardship, or a similar reason,” which is sometimes known as “doubling up.”
The government estimates that 1.3 million students, or 2.5 percent of all public school students, were homeless during the 2014-15 school year. In addition, 17 percent of public school students who identified as homeless are students with disabilities, and 14 percent are English Language Learners.
Youth can become homeless for a variety of complex reasons: physical, sexual or emotional abuse at home; a mental health disorder; the death of a family member; homophobia; transphobia; poverty; immigration issues; teen pregnancy; the incarceration of a parent; or natural disasters. For example, more than 22,000 Houston students were displaced by Hurricane Harvey.
Of students experiencing homelessness, 76 percent reported to the US Department of Education that they were doubled up with another family, 14 percent were living in shelters, transitional housing, or awaiting foster care placement, 7 percent resided in hotels or motels, and 3 percent were on the streets.
Voices of Chicago Youth
In an effort to understand how systems can better serve these young people, the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless (CCH), with the support of the Dignity in Schools Campaign, surveyed high school youth experiencing homelessness in Chicago. CCH surveyed 38 youth ages 18-22 who were homeless at some point during their time in high school and attended at least one Chicago public high school within the past three years. Chicago has more than 18,000 homeless students.
Of the youth surveyed, 55 percent had dropped out of high school before graduating; 60 percent had attended more than one high school; 64 percent said that their school attendance dropped after becoming homeless; and 58 percent reported serving an out-of-school suspension. Not surprisingly, these young people reported that their living situations made attending schools regularly a challenge. Often missing school led to disciplinary action by school officials. One young person explained the challenge of dealing with school administrators: “I was suspended and needed a guardian to reinstate me, but I didn’t have one. That’s why I missed so many days.”
While none of the youth in the survey were formally expelled from school, 26 percent were “counseled out” or dropped out due to discipline issues or poor attendance.
The clear majority of the youth surveyed (85 percent) reported having struggles getting to school every day, including having to take care of themselves, having nowhere to sleep at night, hygiene issues, and trouble focusing on academics, among others.
Youth dropped out of school for a range of reasons. One participant stated, “Because I was in and out of my parent’s house and it was too much for me. I didn’t like going to school while homeless and figuring out where to go at night. I was also a troublemaker, getting into a lot of trouble.”
Making Schools Welcoming
Survey participants were asked what would have helped them stay in school. In addition to providing basics (such as transportation, fee waivers, basic needs), they said that school staff needs to be more aware and ask students who are struggling if help is needed. One participant shared, “My grades went from Bs and Cs to failing. Teachers said I needed to apply myself, but they just thought I was not trying. They didn’t ask me about my personal life.” Several suggested that holding school meetings or assemblies about resources for homeless youth would help connect youth to resources.
The federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act of 2009 requires states and school districts to ensure that homeless youth are identified and take steps to facilitate enrollment and successful participation in school. Under the Act, each school district is required to have a Students in Temporary Living Situations liaison to assist students with achieving stability. Liaisons are supposed to ensure students and their families receive all the assistance they are rightfully due, such as low-cost or free medical referrals, free transportation, as well as fee waivers for uniforms, books, meals, counseling and more. Some students cannot move forward in school or graduate when a fee is not waived.
Although there is a liaison in every Chicago school, 61 percent of the youth in the CCH survey did not know their homeless liaison. 53 percent said that no one on the school staff knew they were homeless. Only 20 percent received information about homeless youth resources from school. But those students who knew the school’s homeless liaison reported receiving bus cards, referrals, fee waivers, and encouragement and academic support.
The main conclusion of this survey is that school staff should be pro-active in identifying and addressing the needs of homeless youth to ensure that they get educated and attain stability.
Monica Mahan is a Social Worker at the Law Project of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless.