invisible homeless kids

Hard to imagine that in this country way over 3 MILLION kids are without homes. H-O-M-E-L-E-S-S Kids. I don't get it. Are we willing to discard these kids? Not me. So this blog will relentlessly focus on this issue, hoping to light a spark to fuel a compassion epidemic. Chime in, argue, but do something....

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Back to School with Red Flags

Few people would be able to answer the question: Where were you or what were you doing 15 years ago?

Back in `93 I was up to my ears in a legal conflict involving a family staying at our shelter and a nearby affluent suburban school district.

The short version of a long, fascinating story is that the school district didn't want the family to return since they moved out of district because of homelessness. The mom, very understandably, wanted her kids to have the stability of the school setting where her kids had spent the past few years.
The family lost the Intense court battle, but good eventually evolved....

We created and lobbied for the Illinois Education for Homeless Children Act, a.k.a. Charlie's Bill, passed in 1994, paving the way for landmark legislation that now helps homeless kids across the country by removing common barriers and providing essential assistance so homeless kids can grow up as productive adults.

Now, if you knew Aurora, IL was the birthplace of this amazing legislation, you might be silly enough to think that they would be on the forefront of compliance with it--you know, kind of a local pride. Nah!

In a news story last week, the Beacon News reporter described a case where a student was being kept out of school by the school district because of concerns about residency.

Now, I'll be the first to issue a disclaimer--all I know about the story is what I read...well, and also what I have repeatedly come across in years advocating for homeless kids to be enrolled in school. So, I'm going to dissect this story (Red--or for some reason green-- copy are excerpts from the Beacon News) like I was a 12-year-old classmate of Nathan. Maybe someone will be able to follow my logic.

Nathan's residency on the West Side is in question by district officials, prohibiting him from enrolling for the year. What's more, mom Renee Cavada has been hit with a $7,000 tuition bill for his sixth-grade year at Jefferson Middle School.
12-year-old: Could it be the money? Schools are always complaining about money, though it seems a lot of school administrators drive nice cars and wear expensive clothes....
Cavada and her two children have been living with her parents at their home on May Street on the West Side since last summer. Amid marital problems, Cavada moved with the children out of the East Side home she and her husband had shared. When school began last year, Cavada enrolled Nathan at West Aurora's Jefferson Middle with no problem.
(OK, this is where thinking like a 12-year-old can be handy...pointing out the obvious: LIVING WITH HER PARENTS AT THEIR HOME SINCE LAST SUMMER. AMID MARITAL PROBLEMS...moved with the children...)

12-year-old: What is it like to live with your grandparents? I imagine things were pretty tense at your house before you and your mom moved into their house. Your parents were arguing all the time, and you said you never had any money because your family was going through hard times. And you never could have friends come over because it was too crowded... (clue--HARDSHIP).

Now, the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Education Assistance law, which governs all public schools, talks about loss of housing due to hardship as being a condition of homelessness.

Any parent who has gone through marital problems would probably agree that this is a time of hardship. When things deteriorate--and we don't know if any physical, sexual, or emotional abuse was involved--but when things get so bad the parent moves out of their home and into the parent's home, I'd suspect that it's not just because Mom makes good lasagna.

Think of the last time you lived, or stayed, with a family member. Even vacations can count. Did there come a time when it ceased to be fun any more? Overcrowding, too many people for too few bathrooms? People eating your specially purchased food? TV up too loud? Kids getting on the adults' nerves? Unless your parents are some kind of special people and their house is large enough for 2 families to live together without crossing into each others' space, then it is not fun to double-up with family (or friends).

It gets worse...
...her home on the East Side has gone into foreclosure and is up for auction in September. Moving back to East Aurora schools, Cavada said, is not an option.

FORECLOSURE...does that perhaps qualify as hardship? Think about it...

The clue, in case you need one, is in the following:

While West officials said they could not comment on situations with individual students, they did confirm that the district has been more aggressive recently in identifying non-resident students.

When enrollment information is sent out in the spring, any mail that comes back returned throws up a red flag, prompting a residency check, said Greg Scalia, the principal at Jewel Middle School and the district's residency liaison.

Residents must show two bills dated within 60 days of each other with a current home address. If West still suspects a student is living outside district boundaries, officials may perform home visits or use other investigative tactics.

Returned mail = red flag = residency check. Now, if the residency check includes the checker being aware that a family may not want to be forthcoming about marital problems, financial crises, or other personal business with a residency checker, then I'd say the district was on the right track. And I'd like to give them the benefit of the doubt. But...I've seen too many cases where the family is guilty until proven that time the residency hearing has been held and it's too late.

Another red flag that indicates the district may be afoul of the law is the guardianship requirements.
Scalia said, students living with other family members must either also be living with their legal guardian or have the other family member take legal guardianship.
If a family (or unaccompanied youth) becomes homeless--loses their housing due to hardship--they do not need to appoint a legal guardian for purposes of school enrollment.

Here's the segment from 100 Frequently Asked Questions about McKinney-Vento that talks about guardianship requirements:

54. Can a school require a caregiver to get legal guardianship to enroll a student in school? A: No. The McKinney-Vento Act requires states to address the problem of guardianship issues in school enrollment and requires school districts to enroll youth in school immediately, even if they lack typically required enrollment documents. 42 U.S.C. §§11432(g)(3)(C), (g)(1)(H)(iv), (g)(1)(F)(ii). The decision to seek legal guardianship is a serious decision that significantly affects the legal rights of the parent and caregiver well beyond the school arena. While that step will be appropriate in some cases, it will not be in others.

I am surmising that some of the other families in the story might also qualify to attend District 129's schools because of homelessness.

Seems to me that this is a classic example of shooting one's self in the foot. A community fighting gang problems probably would be well-advised to make sure kids are getting an education. Perhaps someone--the Mayor, the IL State Board of Education, or SOMEONE should be looking into this situation before the school district ends up sued. That would cost a whole lot more than the price of tuition....

Monday, August 18, 2008

Heading Deep Into Homelessness Land--Behind Bars

I'm not a rocket scientist, not even a social worker.

But I've made some amazing (to some people) observations. And tomorrow we're going to take the first big step to shine a light on one of those
observations. My observation: homelessness is often caused by incarceration--done rightly or wrongly.

Tomorrow Andrew, a grad student from Northern Illinois University, LeeAnn Trotter, a reporter from Channel 5, NBC-Chicago, and I are going to jail: Cook County Jail, one of the largest--imagine an inmate population of about 10,000 on any given day--institution of its kind in the country. We're filming a training film to help moms (and dads, eventually) secure education for their kids despite the moms' incarceration.

You see, when someone is arrested and locked up, they usually don't make arrangements for childcare, much less getting their kids to school. They probably hope they won't get arrested if they go out with the intention of doing something unlawful. But in some/many cases, they may get a
rrested in error--an error that turns their lives, and the lives of their families, upside down, to say the least. Regardless of their guilt/innocence, they're locked up for an unspecified period of time.

When the head of household, living in a fragile situation as many impoverished families do, gets removed unexpectedly from her (mostly her) household responsibilities--including getting her kids to school--the kids often suffer. Families get evicted when the adult isn't there to pay rent. Child welfare services may become involved. Kids don't know who's going to take care of them or when mom will be home. Ideally, family or friends will take care of the kids while the scales of justice weigh a decision as to freedom or time behind bars.

When kids lose their homes due to hardship (and who would deny the unexpected incarceration of mom as hardship?) they often become "homeless" according to the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Education Assistance Act because they lack a fixed, regular and adequate place to live. As bad as things may be, the little ray of sunshine in their otherwise bleak world is that homeless kids have strong, clear rights about their education. But the cloud--few people know this.

Boiled down to the most important points, kids who are in a homeless situation get a choice of:
1) going to the school they last attended or the school they last attended when they were permanently housed, whatever is in their best interest, or
2) going to the local school where non-homeless kids go if that is in their best interest.

Other important points are included in this federal law that applies nationwide.

Our effort will be to help women (and men) who are incarcerated know these rights. We'll create a short "how-to" film and other materials to guide inmates and staff on these important rights. Advocates stand ready to work with families to enforce the law. Imagine, after being on the "wrong" side of the law (either truly deserving punishment, or being locked up in error) and getting empowered to help enforce a law for your child.

Seems to me that hearing the heavy clank of the steel door close behind us as we enter this other world is a fair price for what is hopefully going to be a glimpse of sunshine in the often dark lives of destitution.

PHOTOS 1 and 3 by Pat Van Doren; 2 by Diane Nilan

Monday, August 11, 2008

Change of Pace--A Happy Story

Yikes! Even I think this topic of homeless children and youth can get downright depressing, especially after last week's definition saga. So, because it's a beautiful day and because I want to tell people an upbeat story, read on to be happy!

A few months ago I decided that applying for membership in the Professional Disc Golf Association was a good thing, so I sent off my $40 and viola! I can now put the membership on my resume! I also applied for a small grant, $500, for HEAR US to share this awesome s
port of disc golf with kids who are/were homeless.

Fast forward to last Wednesday. A g
roup of excited kids and moms gathered at Castaldo Park in Woodridge, IL to learn the ins-and-outs of disc golf. The weather was spectacular for early August in IL. My good friends Helen and Karen came along to assist--Helen with DG, Karen with kid happiness--and our new DG friends, Cathy, Mike and Johnny D rounded out our team.

Barb T, the Bridge Communities education maven, had spread the word among the Bridge Communities' 70+ families (yes, over 70 families in DuPage County are homeless--way over 70!) and her word worked. We had a bunch of kids--I never did count. And moms got to watch or play, their choice.

The laughter and excitement that poured from these little kids--many under 10, a few wizened teens--was infectious!

To get everyone fueled up and rarin' to go, Nancy's Pizza donated 6 super-size pizzas which amply fed the group.

The next exciting part was giving them their very own disc, and letting them put their name on it. "I get to keep it???!!" was the typical response, followed by a huge thank you.

Next, after divvying up the groups, Helen and I with the wee-ones, we hit the course. We figured our little buggers would only want to play a little bit, but they avidly went at it, following instructions--don't hit someone in the head or other body parts, wait till we tell you to chase down your disc, and try to throw it toward the target.

Some of the least likely suspects became
primetime players. Little Sara amazed even herself, with a smile eventually breaking out from her stoic countenance. Another kid, in a scooter, found out that this is a game he can play and enjoy. Moms could sit back and watch their kids romp through a beautiful park.

Mike and Cathy from Midwest Disc Golf, along with our DG mentor, Johnny D, shared their copious skills and their love for kids. Mike and Cathy brought a box of gently-used discs that we distributed.

Seems to me that
this couldn't have been a better way to spend a birthday if I tried.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

More on the Mark-Up

It may sound strange, but I watched the entire mark-up hearing where the definition of homelessness was discussed. You can too, by going to this site. To save you the trouble of finding the right spot, just go to the 4:13 point. Watch it all if you have the time. It's interesting to see democracy at work.

But if you don't have time, here are my recommendations for some juicy pa

4:30, Rep. Geoff Davis, R-KY (gotta love those Rs!) rips the “advocates” who dismiss the issue of homeless kids as not really homeless. He knows this issue firsthand. He was a homeless kid who, with his mother, doubled-up with others.

6:20, Rep. Foster, D-IL, my congressman, who RIPS me and my colleagues for our advocacy efforts. The man can’t pronounce “homelessness.” That's just the beginning of his problem on this issue. He better hope that I think better of the idea to park Tillie in front of his office so I can give him a tutorial on this issue. He didn't stick around.

6:28, Rep. Franks, D-MA—committee chair, who I think expresses sincere frustration, “close to anguish,” saying this was the hardest issue facing this committee that he can remember. He's been around a long time. I expect better of him.

6:55, Rep. Davis launches an extemporaneous tirade after sharing his experiences as a child who experienced abuse and homelessness.

Throughout the hearing only a few Representatives--I'd say 3 at the most on either side--actually stay for the hearing. Congresswoman Judy Biggert, R-IL, does and she constantly reminds the committee that kids having no place to call home is a BIG problem--one which needs solving, not surveying. She gets it.

The excuses--we don't have enough money--we don't want to tax the system--don't cut it. The committee voted for a ridiculous definition, one which will give shelter providers headaches and will ignore the real need.
But we're at the beginning of a process. My thoughts on what happened at this meeting the other day....

It was probably the most extensive, passionate debate/discussion about homeless kids that has ever occurred in those marble halls.

I'd like to think the handful of Reps who stayed for the hearing (Rep. Foster didn't stick around after spewing his frustration at the advocates...) really care about the issue of kids who need to count--kids without homes who HUD is fighting to ignore.

My disappointment with Rep. Foster for taking a nasty shot at advocates and then leaving the hearing is immense. I did call his local office and his DC office, in addition to sending faxes on this issue. I also stopped by and talked to his staff in Batavia. I carried on an email discussion with another aide. I eventually spoke with his chief of staff. To say they were "blind-sided" on this issue is bogus.

If Foster or any of the pro-dumb-definition people think that homeless families are taken care of in their districts, well, I have an RV to sell them. Use it and go out and see what's really happening.

Citing opposition from the US Conference of Mayors for expansion of the definition is like
citing some gas company opposed to giving little people a break at the pump. I'd suspect few mayors really understand homelessness from a kid's point of view. And fewer are willing to forsake the piddly dollars that will be strewn among cities with nice mayors and cooperative Continuum of Care groups.

While shelter directors proclaim that their programs are taking care of the need (what HUD needs to hear), a massive gaping hole exists in those communities. Families who don't know about, don't want to go, or can't go to shelters for any number of reasons make do in motels, tents, vans, or with Aunt Shirley. The "making do" often isn't pretty, at least from the kids' standpoint.

In the meantime, HUD's abysmal "chronic homelessness" initiative is being recalibrated because IT'S NOT WORKING! And this administration, proponents of the 10-year-plan, w
ill skip out of office in a few months.

As the beleaguered champion legislators and the ones who are really tired of this issue headed off in the sunset on Friday for time in their districts, they didn't get the job done for the kids who need a future that doesn't include homelessness. I'd suggest that they take their hunger, frustration, tiredness and multiply it by at least 100--that's what families and te e ns are experiencing.

For too long this country has neglected and, in fact, caused homelessness. Read this clearly written, disturbing report if you are curious.

It seems to me that we should be nurturing some outstanding young people for leadership roles. The way things are going, homelessness for families and teens will be around long enough for some astute, experienced new blood to step in and make the policy changes necessary to get families and teens off the streets and into a place of their own. I hope I live long enough for that day to arrive.