Illinois Issues: No Place to Call Home (National Public Radio)

By Maureen Foertsch McKinney

Tristian Ellis’ test scores in reading and math dropped dramatically this fall from last. The difference: the Ellis family had its own apartment last year. Now, the family of four stays in a shelter on Chicago’s far north side.

For the 8-year-old student, who attends LEARN Excel Charter on the city’s northwest side, distractions abound. His mother, Latoya Ellis, lost her job in August and moved into the shelter a month later. She describes being homeless as “a very devastating experience,’’ which is particularly hard on Tristian, her youngest child.

Of the shelter, she says: “It’s a big open space, and there’s always things going on. There’s nowhere private or quiet for the children to focus on their studies, especially with my son because he’s still very young. If he sees five other kids running around and playing, he’s very distracted. He wants to run around and play as well.”

Add to that a list of problems that includes poor sleep, unbalanced meals and an hour-plus commute from the shelter to school on a train and a bus. 

Recognizing the effect lack of permanent housing has on academic performance, those who work with the homeless in Chicago are making the case that the most important thing students need to succeed at school is a place to call home. They have called on the city to expand housing vouchers for 500 families.

An estimated 13,054 Chicago families experienced homelessness during the 2014-15 school year, according to the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, which reports that fewer than 125 of those families find permanent affordable housing each year. There are about 22,000 homeless students in the district, which has 400,000 students in 600 schools. 

The coalition issued a report yesterday calling for the creation of programs to help Chicago Public Schools students and their families find housing. “There’s a lot of research already out there about the negative impact of residential mobility on education. …  It has a big impact on kids and their ability to learn,’’ says Julie Dworkin, director of advocacy for the coalition. “There’s also research about the opposite of that — that kids in stable housing, affordable housing, do better, and there’s lots of models around the country where the housing programs were really partnering with schools to identify families that need to be stabilized. It also helps the schools. The kids moving around is very disruptive to the school.’”

That report also calls for greater emphasis on homeless families — like the attention given to homeless veterans by the city of Chicago — and more funding being directed toward finding families housing.

In addition to the calls for new programs, the coalition also surveyed 118 families without homes. From that survey, the group collected information about the consequences of homelessness on students’ school behavior, which included sleeping in class, being withdrawn, being disruptive in class, getting into fights and receiving more discipline, including suspensions.

“How do you concentrate on your school work when you don’t know where you’re going to get off the school bus that night?’’ asks Spencer Cowan, senior vice president of research for the Chicago-based Woodstock Institute.

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