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Local homeless students can easily fall through cracks

CHAMPAIGN -- Mason Hurtado is an athletic boy with an enormous smile and neatly trimmed hair. He is a sixth-grader at Franklin Middle School in Champaign, where he takes college preparatory classes and participates in chess club, basketball and, come January, wrestling.

Inside the classroom, he looks just like any of his peers. But when he leaves school at the end of the day, Mason heads home to a two-room apartment filled to the ceiling with clothes, toys and other pieces of his family’s life from before they were homeless.

Since December 2008, he has lived with his mother, Debra Vaughn, her three daughters and year-old granddaughter at Restoration Urban Ministries in Champaign. The family moved into the shelter shortly after Vaughn lost her job, and Danville home, the previous fall. She works full-time as a housekeeper at the Holiday Inn in Urbana to support her children. She receives no financial assistance. Times are tough, but she says she’s happy with the education her children receive.

“I like the schools out here,” Vaughn said. “They have a lot to offer.”

Mason said he has never been discriminated against because of his living situation. Still, for the more than 300 homeless students in Champaign County and neighboring Ford County, the challenges are many.

As the jobless rate in Illinois pushes past 11 percent for the first time since 1983, many families are finding themselves on the streets, in shelters or bunking with relatives and friends. The children of these families often face trying domestic lives in addition to school experiences riddled with low self-esteem and feelings of shame or even guilt.

“When you’re a young kid and you don’t have a home, you have a lot of fears, a lot of anxieties, and just sleeping is hard,” said Barbara Daly, assistant superintendent at the Regional Office of Education in Rantoul. “You cannot learn when you’re so terribly distracted.”

Federal law defines homeless students as those who lack a regular, fixed nighttime residence in addition to those who are staying in shelters, motels, hotels, trailer parks, campgrounds, or sharing housing with others. Homeless children may also have been abandoned in hospitals or awaiting foster care placement. Also included are unaccompanied minors, children living in cars, parks, public spaces, abandoned buildings, bus or train stations or similar settings.

The number of homeless students in Champaign County and Ford County has risen steadily over the past two years. While data for the current academic year is not yet complete, school officials say some local districts are enrolling unprecedented numbers of homeless students.

In the 2008 fiscal year, 298 students were reported homeless in the two counties. The following year, that number jumped nearly 20 percent to 355. As of Nov. 23, just shy of five months into the current fiscal year, 301 students have already been reported.

The Champaign school district enrolls the most homeless students, followed by Urbana and Rantoul respectively.

Still, Champaign County has been hit less severely than some Illinois areas. In McHenry County, northwest of Chicago, homeless enrollment increased by 125 percent from the 2007-08 school year to the 2008-09 school year, according to estimates by the McHenry County Regional Office of Education.

But homelessness among students is “an invisible problem,” according to Daly, who said many people are unaware how many children and teens are affected. At the Regional Office of Education, administrators are working to ensure that homeless students maintain safe, stable lives at school.

Each school district in Champaign and Ford counties employs a liaison to ensure that homeless students are given the resources they need to succeed academically. Their responsibilities range from supplying backpacks and pencils to arranging transportation to and from school.

“Homeless students are ones that can very easily fall through the cracks,” said Don Owen, homeless liaison for the Urbana school district. “We want to make sure theyUre getting the education they need.”

Homeless students often struggle academically, lacking the time and space to complete schoolwork. Others are without computers or Internet access.

“They’re not going to be the ones that are raising their hands and turning in their homework every day,” said Sandra Duckworth, homeless liaison for Champaign’s Unit 4.

The liaisons, who usually have other duties as well, are trained by the regional office.

Daly, who helps oversee liaisons in all 16 public school districts across Champaign and Ford counties in addition to University Laboratory High School in Urbana, said many of the new cases her office receives are a result of the slumping economy.

“It’s pretty directly related to joblessness,” Daly said. “It’s a devastating thing for families to go through.”

In Champaign, the number of homeless students dropped from 134 in 2008 to 114 in the 2009 fiscal year, but Duckworth believes the numbers are misleading. She says more students are homeless but fewer are admitting it. Some families are reluctant to register their children as homeless out of fear that the Department of Child and Family Services will take them away, she said.

That fear, however, is largely ungrounded.

“As long as kids are not being abused, they’re not being neglected, there’s no reason for (DCFS) to investigate,” said Vanessa Elam, Champaign’s homeless outreach liaison.

Elam works as an activist for homeless families, who she says are often unaware of their rights. In addition to planning monthly social events, she meets with them to discuss academic progress and help them get the most out of parent-teacher conferences and other meetings with teachers and school administrators.

“She will attend those different meetings so the parent definitely understands their rights and what the school is talking about,” Duckworth said. “(Parents) just feel a little bit more comfortable when they’ve got someone there who’s on their side, so to speak.”

Champaign is the only district in Champaign County to employ an outreach specialist like Elam. It is able to do so, in part, because of grant money from the federal stimulus bill that passed through Congress in February.

In her work with families across the district, Elam has gotten to know homeless students of different ages and backgrounds. While their situations are unique, many of the challenges they face are shared.

“First graders know that they’re homeless like an 11th grader would know that they’re homeless,” she said.

Younger children who are less able to verbalize their frustration and anxieties are more likely to act out or withdraw from group activities, she said. Older students can more easily understand the reasons behind their situation but are often no less angry or embarrassed.

Thanks to the services offered by the Restoration Urban Ministries, Vaughn’s 9-year-old daughter Victoria only feels “kind of” homeless. The bright-eyed girl who helps take care of her baby niece dreams of one day attending college and becoming a veterinarian.

For her part, Vaughn spends her days working and trying to balance her hectic schedule with the academic needs of her children.

“I just pray a lot and ask the Lord to help me because it’s real hard,” she said.

With a little bit of luck, she will have moved out of the shelter and into a low-income apartment of her own by the time her children head back to school next semester.

Regardless, she worries about other families who are struggling to get by.

“Some of these kids’ parents don’t have jobs and they don’t know how they’re going to make it,” she said.

By Paolo Cisneros/ For The News-Gazette

¨ Copyright 2011 CU-CitizenAccess.