'Oh my God, where are these kids?': How COVID-19 obscured true picture of homeless suburban students

Months into the pandemic, school districts across Illinois braced for a rise in the number of students without stable housing.

The COVID-19 crisis had unleashed widespread job loss and health complications, leaving “many more families and children homeless or at risk of homelessness,” the Illinois State Board of Education warned in July 2020.

When the numbers came in, however, it was “quite a shock,” said Deb Dempsey, an advocate for homeless students with the Kane County Regional Office of Education. Schools identified thousands fewer homeless students in 2020-21 than in the year before.

“It was like, 'Oh my God, where are these kids?'” Dempsey said.

But what appears to be a significant decline is not only misleading. It's cause for concern. Educators say there isn't a reduction in homelessness.

“It's just that we've lost track of them, which is the worst thing that can happen because then they're kind of falling through the cracks and not getting the services that they need,” said Tom Bookler, a regional homeless liaison in the North Cook Intermediate Service Center.

Experts say the official figures do not reflect the true scope of student homelessness, for reasons both complex and confounding. Bookler's office serves 39 school districts from Evanston to Palatine. The number of homeless students in those districts fell by 263 from 2018-19 to the last school year.

“With e-learning, we just have lost the whereabouts of many of our families that were mobile and moving around quite a bit, which has been a concern,” Bookler said.

Outside Chicago, 11,761 students were counted as “homeless” in a state-designated area spanning eight counties last school year. That's roughly a 21% decrease from 2018-19, when 14,912 homeless students attended schools in suburban Cook, DuPage, Grundy, Kane, Kendall, Lake, McHenry and Will counties.

“Those students are just not being identified by the school,” said Alyssa Phillips, an education attorney with the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless.

“Because of the mobility with COVID and with the students being out of school,” Bookler said, “we've had a lot that have not re-registered or come back into the schools, so we're not sure where they went.”

Defining 'homeless'

Contrary to public perceptions, most “homeless” students in some of the largest suburban school districts aren't living in shelters or on the streets.

A Schaumburg High School senior who asked to remain anonymous has a place to sleep right now and a roof over his head, but it's not permanent.

The senior is staying with his siblings and his mom, who works as a bus driver, in a hotel because they can't afford rent at local apartments. Their living situation qualifies them as homeless under federal education law. But the student is uncomfortable with the label.

“Technically, yeah, we're homeless,” he admits. “I don't like the term that much.”

His situation is one of many in Palatine-Schaumburg High School District 211. The vast majority of “homeless” families in District 211 are “doubled up” with other relatives or friends, said Matt Hildebrand, director of administrative services and a liaison at the district level.

Families living doubled up are not considered homeless by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. But the federal McKinney-Vento Act defines the homeless to include students sharing housing with others “due to loss of housing, economic hardship, or a similar reason.”

Before the pandemic, federal data showed 77% of the 1.38 million children identified as homeless during the 2018-19 school year shared housing with others.

That living situation comes with its own challenges: kids sleeping on the floor, no place to study, worry about where they'll wind up next.

“Many of the families are kind of walking on eggshells where they're staying because they don't want to be kicked out, but at the same time, they need to have a place to stay,” Bookler said. “Some will move to several different places within a week, just so that they don't wear out their welcome anywhere.”

Some don't realize they qualify as homeless.

“They think, 'Well, I'm staying with somebody, I'm not homeless,' but under McKinney-Vento they are, and they don't necessarily know their rights,” Bookler said.

Knowing their rights

Districts across the nation are legally obligated to designate liaisons for homeless students. That liaison is a point person, trained to identify which students are homeless so they receive the additional resources they're entitled to under federal education law.

By law, homeless students are allowed to enroll in school without the paperwork typically required at registration. McKinney-Vento students are eligible for free school meals and transportation to their “school of origin,” even if their families move out of district boundaries.

“All those things are really pivotal to a student succeeding academically, because if you don't have that consistent transportation, you have more days that a student might be absent,” Phillips said.

In a national survey of liaisons in fall of 2020, most attributed the drop in their homeless student counts to virtual learning, according to SchoolHouse Connection, a nonprofit group. Other liaisons said homeless families moved frequently, making it difficult for them to stay in contact while schools were closed.

In District 211, 192 students qualified as homeless this school year. The district typically averages around 230.

Though schools have reopened, the district has continued waiving student fees, and officials say that may be contributing to the drop in numbers.

“The absence of requiring fees I think has kind of lessened the need for students or families to come forward,” said 211's Hildebrand.

Some families may not self-report their living situations because of the stigma attached to homelessness. Others are unaware that they're eligible for services.

Kane County's Dempsey points to what research shows: “Every time a child moves from one school to another, they lose four to six months in academic progress.”

Identifying students

The signs of housing insecurity aren't always obvious.

It might be a student arriving late to school or sleeping in class. A family might ask schools to send mail to a P.O. box. Or they might enroll in the middle of the school year.

“Training teachers and people who work in the front offices of schools and even bus drivers is really critical, because those are often the people who see the students first,” Phillips said.

But school closures during the pandemic eliminated that face-to-face contact, forcing liaisons to rethink efforts to identify students in need.

“A lot of us went out trying to find them, knocking on doors and trying to call,” Dempsey said.

Bookler's office in North Cook created a new, grant-funded position, an academic coordinator who tries to contact families to see where they've settled and what they may need to “get back on their feet or back in school.”

If they re-enrolled elsewhere in the Illinois, officials should be able to track them down through ID numbers assigned to students.

“It's kind of like detective work,” Bookler said.

Accessing resources

Elgin Area School District U-46 uses Title I funds to employ two homeless liaisons who run Project Access. Dempsey was instrumental in starting the program back in 1995.

The district is the second-largest in Illinois. It serves families from 11 suburban communities across a sprawling 90 square miles.

When Maggie Schroeder became a Project Access coordinator in 2005, the district was identifying nearly 100 homeless students. At the end of 2018-19, the district tallied 916.

Dempsey, Schroeder and her colleague Patty Briones credit the increase to awareness-building and relationships formed with social service groups in Elgin. “Staff members were identifying students more often, realizing what a difference it was making, how much of a difference it helps the students to be able to stay stable in school,” Schroeder said.

Then COVID-19 struck, and the recorded number of homeless students fell to 795 at the end of 2019-20. This school year, the district has identified more than 530. It's too early to say how the end of eviction moratoriums will affect the numbers.

Schroeder and Briones are doing more than just identifying those students, Dempsey said.

“They are removing barriers and meeting their needs so that they have a level playing field in the classroom,” she said.

Project Access helps families secure gas cards for transportation as well as clothing and personal care items in a closet area in the district's new Welcome Center near Elgin High School. Briones delivered meals “like crazy” during COVID-19, Dempsey said.

Beyond those basic needs, Schroeder and Briones, who is bilingual, arrange for students to meet with teachers in an after-school tutoring program. They also help students apply for scholarships and financial aid for college.

“We've seen a lot of kids succeed, a lot of students graduate,” Briones said. “And a lot of families do eventually graduate from our program, and they get back on their feet.”

  Maggie Schroeder, left, and Patty Briones lead the Project Access program for homeless students in Elgin Area School District U-46. Rick West/
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