Alex Fulton will start classes at DePaul University this fall with more than 2,400 other incoming freshmen.
Unlike most of them, a year ago Fulton thought college was beyond his reach. As one of thousands of homeless students in the Chicago suburbs, he was preoccupied with where he would live and what he would eat, rather than planning a future.
Fulton, 18, grew up with his mother in Oak Park, but after years of fighting, she signed over parental rights to his dad in Pingree Grove. Living there wasn't ideal, either, and Fulton started partying too much and breaking the rules.
In January 2013, Fulton entered an outpatient rehab program. Although he got his behavior in line, his relationship with his father wasn't as easily mended.
One night in April 2013, Fulton was out with friends and called to tell his dad he couldn't get a ride home in time to make curfew.
His dad told him not to bother coming back at all.
Still new to Hampshire High School and unsure what to do, Fulton asked an acquaintance if he could stay the night. He wound up staying for good, one of an escalating number of Illinois students who qualified as unaccompanied youth or homeless in recent years.
The numbers are shocking.
In Northwest suburban Cook County, which includes high school districts 207, 211 and 214, there are 55 percent more homeless students than two years ago. In DuPage and Lake counties the numbers have risen by more than 35 percent.
In contrast, the statewide rise in homeless students was 17 percent from 2010 to 2013, according to the State Board of Education. And while Illinois schools average 2 percent homeless, more than 50 schools in the North, Northwest and West suburbs have rates that go as high as 7 percent. One school in the Fox Lake area has a homeless enrollment of 13.8 percent.
"The numbers have increased drastically," said Margaret Ryan, homelessness liaison at Wheeling Township Elementary District 21, where an average of 3.9 percent of students are homeless.
Experts attribute the higher numbers to a slow economic recovery, job loss, divorce, death of a parent or other family dysfunction, but they also say schools are doing a better job identifying homeless kids. Driving that is the McKinney-Vento Act, which requires schools to track their homeless students, provide assistance and connect families to community services.
In 2005, when Maggie Schroeder took over as the homeless liaison at Elgin Area School District U-46, she identified 95 homeless students. Last year the number was closer to 800.
That doesn't mean 700 more students became homeless, she said, but a lot of those kids and parents were not forthcoming about their situation until school officials started digging.
"There's a lot of embarrassment associated with losing housing," said Tom Bookler, homeless liaison with the North Suburban Cook County Regional Office of Education.
"A lot of families are hesitant to let anyone know what's going on, but otherwise they can't get help."
Identifying homeless students also means helping families get over the stigma that comes with that label.
"These kids … are feeling helpless and hopeless, and trying to get through the school day is really hard," Schroeder said. "Our goal is to provide at least one thing that's stable in their lives even while everything else is turning upside down."
The law defines as homeless any student who lacks a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence, which covers people living in cars, shelters, hotels, those who are doubled up with other families or teens bunking with friends, like Fulton.
"It was pretty awkward moving in with a family I didn't know," Fulton said. "But otherwise I would have been on the street or in a shelter. I felt like a burden; I kind of still do."
Ryan knows of two District 21 families who have doubled up, with nine people in a two-bedroom apartment.
"The kids don't have a quiet place to do homework," she said. "It's very stressful. When they are trying to make sure their basic needs are met, like food or clean clothes, school becomes secondary."
Experts say homeless families fall mostly into two categories. Some are in long-term poverty, or are dealing with mental illness, chronic unemployment or family instability.
Others are the "working poor," families where one or both parents are working but still cannot provide adequate housing and food.
But no matter the issue among the parents, it is often the kids who struggle most.
"These kids are dealing with a lot," said Deb Dempsey, homelessness liaison for the Kane County Regional Office of Education. "They live in quarters with too many people, they don't have a space or a room of their own. They don't have help on school projects because Mom and Dad are so busy trying to put a roof over their heads they may not be emotionally or physically available.
"When kids' basic needs aren't met, it's difficult for them to learn," she added.
Bookler said kids often blame themselves. "They think, 'If I wasn't here, my parents would have less to worry about and pay for,'" he said.
"They worry about safety, where they are going to stay the night, how they are going to get their homework done. They're embarrassed because they can't have friends over," Bookler said. "A lot of it is that they just feel inadequate."
Burden on schools
Meanwhile, as the number of homeless kids nationally has soared 72 percent since 2006-07, the federal aid allocation is stuck at $65 million, according to a Chicago Coalition for the Homeless study released in February. Illinois gets $5 million of it, which is given to a few districts and regional offices of education.
State money has been erratic. In 2009, $3 million was allocated in the state budget to help schools implement McKinney-Vento, distributed to 36 districts through a competitive grant process.
After 2009, the money stopped altogether. In the state 2015 budget draft there was an attempt to restore $3 million, which fell to $1.5 million in Gov. Quinn's initial budget proposal and then to a $1 placeholder in the final passed budget.
Either way, "we could use $20 million and still need more," said Rene Heybach, legal director for the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, who is hopeful some money may still be allocated in a supplemental appropriation perhaps in January.
Under McKinney-Vento, each school district must designate a homeless liaison to manage the reporting and services for homeless students. The coalition survey says 56 percent of districts, many in the suburbs, do not have someone dedicated full time.
Many of them are like District 21, where Margaret Ryan works three days each week as a social worker and two days as the homeless liaison. In those two days, she coordinates services with families, arranges transportation, and works with local churches and charities to make sure children have clothes, shoes, school supplies and food.
Teachers and front office workers are also trained what to look for -- like the lack of a permanent address, returned mail or students in distress.
Districts that got the 2009 state funding have done a much better job, Heybach said. With its $34,000 grant, Palatine-Schaumburg High School District 211 named point people in each school and identified twice the number of homeless students as the previous year.
"There are just not enough hands on deck, not enough resources to deal with this as the numbers keep going up," Dempsey said. "If there was more funding we could … find the kids who are slipping through the cracks."
Schools are also required to provide transportation to keep students in their home school if they move while homeless. A lot of kids don't take advantage of that, so homeless kids have higher mobility rates than others. That disrupts their education, too.
"Studies show that children lose two to four months of progress when they transfer schools during the school year, and we have some students moving around every month," Ryan said.
The transportation benefit is helpful for families but difficult on schools, which are often not reimbursed.
Breaking the cycle
During the 2012-13 school year, 45,775 Illinois students qualified as homeless. As schools get better at identifying them, the numbers will increase, experts say.
One of them, at least, has a positive future.
Alex Fulton got on track at Hampshire High School with the help of friends, their families and his high school. He got a job at McDonald's, went to school full time and paid rent to his friend's mom for the basement where he lived.
Toward the end of his senior year, Fulton got into a work program that allowed him to go to class in the morning and work in the afternoon, putting in 40 hours a week at Dunkin' Donuts. He also qualified for food assistance.
He got his grades in line, filled out his college applications on his own and worked with DePaul to get the financial aid he needed.
"I still can't believe I'm going to college, much less DePaul," Fulton said, his eyes filling a little. "I never thought I would have these opportunities. I thought I'd be stuck in a minimum wage job forever."
Unfortunately, Fulton's outcome is unique, experts said. Many students fall behind in school, drop out or don't attend college, confining them to low-wage jobs and continuing the cycle of poverty for another generation.
"It would be so much better if we could have these students educated and working and contributing to our economy," Dempsey said. "This issue is important to everybody. It's our children. It's our next generation, and nothing is more important than that."