Schools, don't ignore the law! Homeless kids need help, not barriers

While I often can't remember what I did a couple hours earlier, my memory of 30 years ago this August is etched in my head, heart and life. To my dismay, I've learned that what we accomplished - passage of hallmark legislation to strengthen and protect the educational rights of homeless students - has been to a great extent disregarded by Illinois schools according to recent analysis of Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) data. I suspect Illinois is not alone.

Thirty years ago, I was running the second largest emergency homeless shelter in Illinois, a program called PADS (Public Action to Deliver Shelter) at Hesed House, the ecumenical center for ministry in Aurora.

I was immersed in preparing for our seasonal shelter opening when Tyeast Boatwright, the mother of a new family in our transitional program, stopped in and described a situation that infuriated me.

Her three children were denied school stability when they needed it most because they were now staying in our shelter in Aurora, adjacent to their Indian Prairie Unit District 204 schools where they had attended, done well in, and wanted to remain. I whipped out the ISBE brochure, "Lost in the Shuffle," which outlined educational rights of homeless students.

At the time, the federal McKinney Education for Homeless Children and Youth Act tepidly offered school stability. I assured this rightfully outraged mom that if she failed in her attempt to get the district to change their decision, I'd use my "muscle" as president of the Illinois Coalition to End Homelessness to advocate for her.

After a protracted legal fight, we ended up successfully advocating for passage of the first state law to close massive loopholes in the federal law. Even better, our Illinois law became the core of what is now the federal McKinney-Vento Education of Homeless Children and Youth Act.

Tyeast's family moved back to the district, her children stayed in their same schools, and according to their mom, the kids became successful adults.

Little did I know how life changing this fight would be. It is why I've been on the road, living in a van for the past 18 years, chronicling nationwide stories of families and youth experiencing homelessness for my one-woman national Naperville-based nonprofit, HEAR US Inc. I inwardly beam when I hear a parent or student extol the law that has given them school stability and assistance!

The irony is not lost on me that Naperville Central High School students wrote the story that points out the abysmal failure of hundreds of Illinois schools to follow the law that first passed in Illinois 30 years ago. Among their findings:

"At least 87 school districts - from urban districts where free school lunch is the norm to affluent suburbs and rural communities - failed to identify any students experiencing homelessness, despite having significant low-income student populations."

Illinois schools fail to identify an estimated 50,000 homeless students! This creates unnecessary hardships, especially at back-to-school time. Lack of documents, a requirement that by law cannot keep homeless students from enrolling in and attending school, too often does when homelessness is not discerned. The extensive, expensive list of required supplies proves daunting for those with no place to live. The unmet need for transportation is a barrier. Not only do students unnecessarily encounter roadblocks, but they miss out on support that would help them not only succeed in school, but would pave they way for life as a productive adults. Illinois, once a national example of ensuring school stability for homeless students, now hit rock bottom.

Illinois legislators, recognizing the challenges schools face in identifying and assisting homeless students, recently passed a law requiring districts to conduct training on homelessness for all district personnel. This will cover basic information about homelessness and steps needed to assist homeless students. Hopefully this will motivate districts to improve their identification of students, connecting them with appropriate staff so students can succeed in school.

Data available to the intrepid Naperville Central journalists would be useful for ISBE's real-time monitoring of districts' compliance with federal and state laws. These students also have offered to provide information to put on district websites to inform viewers about McKinney-Vento rights.

For those wanting to help on a local level, my organization published "The Charlie Book: 60 Ways to Help Homeless Kids." Information on this and other resources may be found at

Having been part of an impossible challenge - getting a law passed to remove educational barriers for homeless kids - I hold out hope that Illinois will return to a position of leadership on this and related responsibilities. We could even ramp up efforts to address homelessness to reduce the burdens on both schools, students and communities. I'll be all in on that campaign!

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