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Homeless Students - A Week With Chicago's Homeless

When I was in high school, my parents told me that my number one responsibility was to focus on my education. They discouraged me from getting a part time job, and wanted me to spend time in extracurricular activities that would boost my chances of getting into a good college, which would boost my chances of getting a good paying job a few years later.


It’s an experience that we suspect would be familiar to a lot of Lincoln Park area families. With an average household income of $149,897 and 76% of residents holding at least one college degree, the neighborhood is home to many of the wealthiest Chicagoans.


At the same time, the 2019 Illinois Report Card found that nearly half of Lincoln Park High School students are from families that receive public aid, live in substitute care, or are eligible to receive free or reduced price lunches.


We can explain this contradiction in part by the fact that the school’s top academic performance makes it a desirable school for parents across the city to send their kids to. This drive to use the school to create a better life for a family’s kids is perhaps no more visible than in the stories of the families we know who are homeless and living in their cars – but parking them near the school so that it’s easier for their kids to attend LPHS.


And while a high-striving student is not what we typically think about when we talk about the 86,000 Chicagoans who are experiencing homelessness, they’re nevertheless a key part of the population - more than 16,450 Chicago Public Schools students didn’t have a permanent home during the 2018-19 school year.


Homeless students face a number of challenges that directly impact their ability to succeed.


Lack of Nutrition


There’s been a long history of research that shows that food insecurity has devastating educational outcomes – students who do not get sufficient nutrition are more likely to repeat a grade while access to school assisted meal programs are directly tied to improve mathand literacyscores. It’s hard to stay focused in class or excel on a test when your stomach is growling and you’re wondering where your next meal might come from.


Lack of Restful Sleep


Johnny Rivers - a graduate of Jones College Prep who was the first of his Englewood family to attend college - explainsthat his time of homelessness “had a lot to do with just anxiety – and more of that was a fear of I don’t know what’s going to happen the next day. It mostly had to do with not having a place to call home.”


Parents have long encouraged their students to “get a good night’s sleep” before a big test or important day at school, and the research bears this out – the amount of sleep a student receives during his or her school years ultimately influences the outcome of each student’s academic performance.


Students worried about where they are going to stay the next night – or how safe they are wherever they are at the moment – aren’t getting the restful sleep needed by all growing adolescents.


Health


Beyond sleep issues, students from families experiencing homelessness also often have limited access to healthcare – and so when they experience injury or become sick, they’re more likely to have serious complications that will keep them out of school for longer than they might otherwise. Fewer days in school leads to less learning, and the start of a downward spiral.


Safe Places to Study


Homeless students often address their lack of housing by “couch surfing,” or doubling up with family friends. Yet these arrangements are inconsistent – a homeless student’s welcome is often limited, and doesn’t come with the guarantee of having the same place to stay every night.


Niya Kelly, the state legislative director for the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless explainsthat these homeless youth respond by trying to make themselves “as small as possible, or not eat as much food, or be as hospitable as possible to keep the peace” in order to increase their chances of being able to extend their stay for as long as possible.


Yet Kelly continues that “you don’t know what a person has to do in order to stay in a house that night… some youths have to turn over their SNAP benefits to the homeowner. Some girls get sex trafficked.” Certainly, these situations are not conducive to creating a healthy or productive environment for students to study and prep for school.


What We Are Doing


At Care For Friends, we connect Chicago’s most vulnerable with the resources they need to achieve a better quality of life. With 15,000 homeless contact per year, we create a community that doesn’t just connect Chicago homeless with basic needs like food and hygiene, but also connection to life-improving resources like job training, housing, and better mental and physical health.


When we learned about the plight of homeless youth, we launched an after-school program that provides a place for students to gather, study, receive tutoring, prepare for college exams, prepare and eat a meal, and just be in community in a safe space.


Within weeks of launching the program, we learned of nearly 300 students who were walking distance of our building who would benefit from participating. Partnering with DePaul University, we have a goal of getting at least three of them enrolled in college next Fall.


To support these initiatives, we will be hosting our annual “Sleepout For Homelessness” where we plan on having 200 individuals spend one night with us to fund a year’s worth of programming. Learn more about the event (and sign up as a sleeper, supporter, or volunteer) at www.CFFSleeps.com.


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