Margaret Bingham and her daughter, Mariah, in March 2020, had been among families that are often homeless or living with friends and family. Mariah is enrolled at a CPS school. | James Foster/File photo for the Sun-Times
The payments will be part of the city’s efforts to reengage thousands of children who lost consistent touch with their schools over the past year. Yet that financial assistance should only be a piece of the strategy to support homeless students during the pandemic, advocates have said.
The families of Chicago Public Schools students who are experiencing housing insecurity are now eligible for a one-time $500 check to help with educational and living expenses, the mayor’s office announced Thursday.
The payments will largely come from federal pandemic relief funds and will be part of the city’s efforts to reengage thousands of children who lost consistent touch with their schools over the past year. Yet that financial assistance should only be a piece of the strategy to support homeless students during the pandemic, advocates have said.
“Throughout this pandemic, our students and their families have experienced a number of traumas including the loss of employment, housing and even loved ones,” Mayor Lori Lightfoot said in a statement, adding that this program “will serve as a meaningful next step in our citywide mission of addressing these traumas and further allow us to provide residents of all ages with the resources they need to thrive.”
CPS Interim CEO José Torres said in a statement that homeless students and their families were “disproportionately impacted by the pandemic, and providing them with additional financial assistance will go a long way in helping them access the additional support they need.”
Named the Chicago Families Forward Fund, the program will pull from federal relief funding to provide $9 million in one-time grants to CPS students without permanent housing. Families will need to fill out a registration form confirming their eligibility at cps.edu/familiesforwardfund or pick up a paper copy at their child’s school.
The Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, a housing advocacy group, recommended last month that CPS use federal funding for a comprehensive strategy that would include hiring more staff, expanding transportation services and helping families pay for certain expenses. Other suggestions included creating a parent committee to provide running feedback and developing a widespread outreach campaign to advertise the district’s program that assists homeless students.
CCH said enrollment in that program has fallen 34% since the 2018-19 school year, disproportionate to the district’s overall 4% enrollment drop in that time and not representative of families’ needs.
“This dramatic decrease in not reflective of the actual number of families and students experiencing homelessness,” CCH education attorney Alyssa Phillips wrote in a report. “The COVID-19 pandemic has caused widespread job loss, health complications and unstable housing, leaving many more families and children homeless or at-risk of homelessness.
‘This decrease likely reflects a decreased ability of schools to effectively identify students’ housing status during the pandemic, not a true decrease in the number of students experiencing homelessness and needing services,” Phillips said.
The school system reported 10,836 homeless students last school year, the lowest since 2007-08 and down from 16,663 the year before the pandemic. Advocates have long said CPS undercounts homeless students, with the real number coming closer to 18,000. The $9 million fund announced by the mayor Thursday adds up to $500 for 18,000 students.
Prepandemic, 4.5% of all students were enrolled in the program and half were concentrated in 10 South and West Side wards. Nearly 90% of those homeless students were doubled-up or sharing housing with relatives and friends, often moving from place to place.
The South Side’s 20th Ward had the highest concentration of homeless students, 1,078, followed by the 24th (1,028); 28th (976); 27th (865); 8th (829); 3rd (783); 34th (743); 6th (688); 16th (658) and 21st (602). The downtown’s 42nd Ward had the highest percentage of homeless students in CPS, at 18.6 percent.
CCH said the district should use its federal relief money, some of which was earmarked for supporting homeless students, to identify and reengage those families.
“As CPS prepares to have a full in-person reopening for the 2021-2020 school year, it is more critical than ever that they identify and support students experiencing homelessness,” Phillips said. “With the eviction moratorium ending and families experiencing job loss and health complications during the pandemic, there may be many more families and students becoming newly homeless.”
Ald. Gilbert Villegas (36th) said the mayor’s announcement also raises the question: Why not do the same for a full year for Chicago’s neediest families by earmarking $30 million in federal stimulus funds for a guaranteed income pilot program?
“Whether you want to call it guaranteed basic income or micro-grants, it’s the same concept,” said Villegas, Lightfoot’s former City Council floor leader. “This pandemic has hit Black and Brown families tremendously. I introduced this ordinance back in April. And here we are five months later when we could have been halfway through the pilot helping people.”
“It’s very hypocritical to now talk about, ‘Let’s do these micro-grants’ when we could have been helping 5,000 families. This makes the case. This is something that I’ve been yelling from the rafters on that putting money in the hands of people … allows them to recover from this pandemic. … Yet here we are four months after we received the money and we haven’t spent a dime to help people.”’
Villegas has estimated that the families of more than 90% of CPS students would be eligible for the guaranteed payments, since they already qualify for free lunches.
Two years ago, housing advocates shined the light on the intransigent problems of student homelessness to turn up the heat on Lightfoot to honor her campaign promise to raise Chicago’s real estate transfer tax to create a dedicated revenue stream to reduce homelessness and bankroll affordable housing.
“We hear stories about kids sleeping in apartments with 10 or 15 other people” Julie Dworkin, policy director for the CCH, said then. “They’re sleeping in a living room where people are up all night watching television. They can barely sleep. It’s hard for them to ever get their homework done or concentrate. It’s extremely difficult for kids to learn in that environment.
“They end up having more emotional problems and health problems. A lot of them don’t even have keys to the place where they’re living. They’re just sitting outside waiting for someone to come home.”