“I’m homeless, but I dress myself in a way to where I don’t look that way,” Honorable says. “You don’t let your weaknesses define you.”
She currently lives in a Springfield apartment with a few other people, but she only has half of her clothes. The rest are stored elsewhere just in case her new roommates don’t work out.
“You don’t know how people are, so I’m still on my tippy toes right now. When you’re out there by yourself, you find that people just use you a lot.”
A previous roommate took in Honorable when she didn’t have a job, but as soon as she started earning a $100 paycheck every two weeks as a home health aide, the roommate wanted half of Honorable’s check and her public aid card that helps buy groceries. That left about $50. “I may not have had any money to pay for bills, but at least everybody was eating.”
Honorable is considered one of at least 25,000 “unaccompanied youth” in Illinois, according to the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless. That means she is younger than 24 and lives without a parent or guardian and lacks a stable living environment. Under state and federal law, she has legal rights to attend her school of choice, in this case, Springfield High School. She also has a so-called homeless liaison, Darla Haley, who is a full-time district employee focused on connecting homeless students within Springfield Public School District 186 to services.
Haley also helps ensure that students know they qualify for waived school fees, school supplies and public transportation. The waivers were established by federal law, the McKinney-Vento Homelessness Assistance Act of 1987.
That law, as well as a 1994 state law, have improved awareness, contributing to the number of students identified as homeless. But service providers and school officials throughout Illinois also say the economic recession has displaced more students from their homes. Programs — from housing to job training — already are at full capacity and under-funded, even without widespread economic crisis. Service providers and state officials anticipate having to turn more youth away.
Even without a depressed economy, the number of beds designated for homeless youth falls far short of the demand. In 2007, the Illinois Department of Human Services funded about 318 beds specifically for homeless youth throughout the state, according to the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless.
The Illinois Department of Human Services is seeing an increase in homeless youth cases, says Karrie Rueter, bureau chief for Youth Services and Delinquency Prevention. But it’s difficult to determine because the limited number of programs the agency operates are always full.
“So we don’t necessarily see that we are serving more kids because we have a number of sites that are constantly having to turn kids away because there’s not space.”
Mary O’Brien, homeless youth program coordinator for the agency’s Division of Community Health Prevention, says in fiscal year 2008, which ended last June 30, the state agency enrolled 583 new children into different kinds of homeless programs. They include emergency shelters, where kids spend up to a couple of weeks, and transitional housing for women, who typically can spend up to two years in the programs. But those numbers only reflect new enrollments, not youths already in the system.
Last fiscal year, O’Brien says, state services turned away about 200 boys and about 1,300 girls.
Other nonprofit and private organizations also provide shelters for youth and families with children, but a 2007 report by the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless pegs the number of youth turned away from a variety of services at more than 3,000.
Daria Mueller, senior policy analyst for the coalition, doesn’t mince words about total capacity. “Services are completely incapable of keeping up with the demand.”
The students who do make it into programs, whether state-subsidized or privately funded, often are introduced to a whole new set of support services.
Rueter says that’s why the department funds outreach and not just the other programs because when children end up in the streets,“that doesn’t mean they know what to do.”
Some children run away from home, while others are abandoned or neglected. Many have been affected by physical abuse, substance abuse or mental illness, if not all three. Pregnant and parenting teens and youth with disabilities are the most likely to be underserved, according to the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless.
One place the federal law tries to remove such barriers is in school. Yet, some school officials still have a hard time fighting the impulse to tell students they can’t enroll in their school because they live outside the boundaries. Sleeping on a friend’s or relative’s couch, regardless of the address, is considered homeless and, therefore, makes students eligible to enroll at the school they originally attended.
Homeless liaisons train teachers, administrators and even janitors to look for signs of homelessness. And secretaries who enroll students are trained to register first, ask questions later, says Larry McVey, managing principal of programs funded by federal funds for Springfield Public School District 186.
“Are we perfect at it? No, but I think we’re really getting a lot better at it,” he says.
Chicago Public Schools now has a homeless liaison in every school. The district anticipates having 12,000 homeless students enrolled by the end of the year. That’s 2,000 more than last year.
Detecting them can be difficult.
“Some people may not realize they’re seen as homeless, and other people may not just want to be sort of ‘outed’ as being homeless in the school because there are incidents of discrimination against the children,” says Kari Mills, shelter coordinator for Chicago Public Schools’ Homeless Education Program.
“If you’re not enrolled in the program, we can’t get funding for you.”
Mills works one-on-one with children in numerous homeless shelters, which is rare but highly recommended by researchers.
With most programming dedicated to helping parents get jobs or find housing, Mills says children are left to their own devices. “And the problem with that is that studies show time and time again that the children that go into homeless shelters, the academic level drops drastically.”
A 2008 study conducted by Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago, for instance, focused on Chicago Public Schools and monitored students enrolled in one of the city’s largest service providers, Inner Voice. Sixty percent of the children identified in the survey were diagnosed with a learning disability or an emotional or behavioral disorder. Fourteen percent of the 223 children enrolled in Chicago’s public high schools as of June 2007 dropped out.
Mills, who works with Great Hope in Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood, provides after-school tutoring programs in seven shelters about two days a week, focusing on reading, math and arts or other forms of enrichment. Mills says it’s a way to make youths feel safe and to bring one-on-one attention to the children’s home, however temporary that might be.
“It’s a shock from being in a home, being housed, having friends, having their own rooms, and then having a situation where there’s not much privacy,” Mills says. “You’re sort of bunked up with 15, 30 other families.”
The goal is to expand the program from seven shelters to about 40, provided she has enough staff and funding.
The increase in homeless youth isn’t restricted to Chicago or other urban areas.
“It’s not just that we can’t meet the demand in the places where we have programs,” says Rueter of the Illinois Department of Human Services. “We have a large portion of the state of Illinois that does not have programs and services for kids outside of what’s now available through the school system, which is only limited.”
The department funds three transitional housing shelters and one emergency shelter in central Illinois. Between Springfield and the southern tip of the state, the agency funds only one transitional living center, which is in Jackson County. Outreach services are limited to counties surrounding Cook.
In Granite City in western Illinois’ Madison County, the majority of the surrounding area is rural. “So you may not find children living in an abandoned building,” says Lynn Jarman, director of youth and family counseling at Children’s Home + Aid.
She says the decrease in state funding for mental health services and substance abuse programs also contributes to homelessness.
“Caseloads are incredibly high. And people that are more apt to be homeless are more apt to have mental illness or drug and alcohol abuse.”
In Springfield, one shelter had about 30 requests from families in early October. That included a total of nearly 80 children, says Bill Kienzle, executive director of Contact Ministries, which offers emergency shelter to women with children for about 90 to 120 days.
He says nearly two-thirds of the families seek emergency shelter strictly for economic reasons, while about one-fourth of the families are “overflow” from a local shelter for domestic violence victims.
One 15-year-old staying at the shelter is April Byrd, who moved with her mother and sister from St. Louis to Springfield so her mother could recover from an abusive relationship and from substance abuse. Five of her siblings remain out of state.
“I just wanted to live with my mom,” April says after school one day, eating dinner with her mother at Contact Ministries’ emergency shelter. They pray every night, often together. “I pray that my mom gets the house and the car that she wants because she deserves it. She works hard every day.”
Her mother, Veronica Usoroh, is applying for public housing, food stamps and jobs that pay better than her current position at a Hardee’s fast food restaurant.
Kienzle says the shelter focuses on helping children, even if it’s as small as throwing a surprise birthday party. “We have an opportunity to have a profound impact on a child’s life, and through that, our best chance of breaking the chain of homelessness in that family.”
During the past two years, more than 2,600 families who came through the shelter were first-time clients and were often considered “working poor,” Kienzle says. Last year, the agency also handed out about $100,000 in food vouchers for about 5,300 families.
“We’re here to help people in their time of need, but we do need more resources and more financial support to be able to meet the increased demand that comes from these economic times.”
The agency gets about 20 percent of its funding from the state and more than 50 percent from churches and private donors.
State funding for homeless youth services totaled $4.7 million last fiscal year, but some grant amounts are slowly decreasing. State payments to service providers also have been significantly delayed as the backlog of all bills exceeds $4 billion. Gov. Pat Quinn has said timely state payments are a priority this year.
Former Gov. Rod Blagojevich did propose to increase the amount of money dedicated to homeless youth services last spring, but the funding was cut later in the year.
“We have times when it looks really good, like we’re going to get extra money, and it gets to the end and they scratch it right off,” says O’Brien, the Department of Human Services’ homeless youth program coordinator.
The push for extra money by advocates is not just to increase the number of beds available. Rueter says service providers also need more support in offering educational services, job training and transitional jobs.
The No. 1 reason teens seek an extension in homeless programs is because they can’t make enough money or advance at their current jobs, according to O’Brien.
“I think if they had some real serious programs, it would not only help kids stay off the streets and quit being homeless — the revolving door syndrome — but it would actually open other beds for kids who haven’t been in them yet. That would be very helpful.”
In fact, the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless’ 2007 survey found that employment was one of the greatest unmet needs of homeless youth. Mueller, the senior policy analyst for the coalition, says transitional job programs offer on-the-job training for youth, and their wages are subsidized by the government, much like a paid internship. At the end of the internship, participating businesses can decide to hire the youth on unsubsidized wages.
Some nonprofit groups are trying out new models such as housing their own businesses in which homeless youth can work, for instance, making candles.
“There’s all these ready-to-go projects that are really great, and they just need to get funded,” Mueller says.
She adds that funding such programs can help the youths build resumes, confidence and self-sufficient lifestyles. That would decrease the government’s cost for youths who rely on social services, emergency room care or end up in correctional facilities. But policymakers, while sympathetic to the issue, tend not to see their return on investment, Mueller says.
“It’s almost crude to talk about it in that way, in terms of money, but some people need to hear that because otherwise, they’re just not motivated enough to do something about this issue. I mean, this is really about saving lives.”
Bethany Jaeger is Statehouse bureau chief of Illinois Issues magazine. She is responsible for reporting and writing news and analysis on state government and politics. She edits the People section of the magazine. She's news editor of the Web Site and writes the magazine's Statehouse blog. She has been a health reporter for The Herald & Review in Decatur and was managing editor of The Chronicle of Hoopeston. She has a bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a master's degree in public affairs reporting at the University of Illinois at Springfield. She joined the staff January 2006.
Bethany Jaeger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Illinois Issues, March 2009