By Ola Stepien, Brian Chan and Nadia Khan
Daniel Jin, a bio pre-med student at UIC, remembers what it was like for him as a middle-school student who was struggling with homelessness.
“[Not having a house] definitely took a toll on my academics for a little bit, to the point where [the school] had to call up my family, like my mom literally had to go to meetings like once every two weeks because of how bad I was doing,” he said. “My father is a pastor and it’s not something you get into for the money, but honestly, when they told us, I guess I was a little too young to understand what it was to lose a house and all that or really why it was happening.
“It was a struggle keeping up with my studies, especially when I was living in the car there’s like no tables, no light and my family had this thing where we [kids] weren’t supposed to have phones until like eighth grade or high school so I didn’t have a phone. So when they were sleeping, I would have to try to find some type of light to do some schoolwork.”
According to the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, Chicago Public Schools (CPS) reported serving nearly 18,000 homeless students during the 2021-22 school year, a 60 percent increase from the 2020-21 school year. The organization notes that this increase stems from the consequences of the pandemic.
During 2020, USAFacts identified that around 1 million kids were homeless in local educational agencies – public and charter schools. However, this number is inaccurate and likely underreported as schools across the entire country struggled to identify homeless students during the pandemic.
And because of the underreporting, not all students got the benefits they’re obligated to receive.
Andrew Brake is a professor of social work at Northeastern Illinois University, and a teacher and program coordinator for a youth and leadership program at a CPS high school.
He said that school becomes crucial for students with difficult situations at home. Brake conducts a survey at the beginning of every school year at the high school to see students’ social and emotional well-being. Through this survey, Brake said, students are more likely to be honest than if educators and staff were to ask students in person about their feelings due to it being confidential.
However, even if students report that they’re constantly fatigued or have low social and emotional well-being, there aren’t many things educators and staff can do. The most they can do is give the student extra support by offering more office hours and check-ins unless the student verbally seeks help.
“But it’s really tricky because sometimes, you know, they’re stubborn and prideful, and like ‘no, no, I can handle it’ meanwhile, you’re failing all your classes,” he said. “And say you don’t want help, and you answer all these questions and suggest that you need help. But it’s hard to break through that sometimes.”
Brake added that while some students are open to discussing their living situations, not all students are comfortable doing so.
“It’s very stigmatizing,” he said. “People don’t like, brag about that. It’s often very painful, and other people don’t know.”
For Jin, it was often difficult to focus because of the physical toll his living situation took on his body as well.
“And then I would just get so tired because sleeping in a car for a week,” he said. “Your neck is [messed] up, your back is [messed] up, it’s like your whole body’s [messed] up. So, like, I just didn’t have that drive for school.”
Jin attributed the lack of drive to not only the physical factors, but to the stresses of trying to mentally adapt to his situation at a young age.
“There were some days where I was like, ‘I’m for real in the mud right now, like for real’,” he said. “But I wouldn’t cry or nag or whine because I felt like that would affect my parents a little more, so as the first son I kinda wanted to uplift my family the best I could.”
Jin’s optimism did not mean that he did not feel the weight of his situation. In fact, his problems were only compounded when considering the difficulty of navigating adolescent social circles and the pressure that can be felt to fit in with one’s peers.
“It was kind of tough because every day when I went to school I had to act like everything was good, you know like I was chilling, all that, but in reality like if I wanted to shower I would have to go to the YMCA.
“I just felt, how do I say it, not embarrassed but more so ashamed that I have to live in some of these houses because their children were my friends, like my family friends, so the fact that they knew that I knew I was going through that was kind of a weird vulnerable state for me and I didnt know how to cope with that.”
The UChicago Inclusive Economic Lab released a report in July 2021 based on new evidence conducted through students experiencing homelessness. Brake and the UChicago lab agree on a crucial strategy to aid students’ success while grappling with homelessness: having school as a safe space.
UIC also assists students in need of housing through the office of the Dean of Students. Front desk aid Areli Medina said that help is always available.
“There will always be somebody in the office that will be able to answer questions,” she said. “Students can reach out via the form that we have online… That form goes immediately into a system that notifies the whole care team regarding the situation.”
Cynthia Rodriguez is the head of housing insecurities at the Dean of Students office at UIC. Rodriguez overlooks all the cases and is the best person to contact.
Medina said UIC is aware of the seriousness of the problem despite the requirement for involvement from many different departments. However, students can anticipate quick support, which may include temporary accommodation for three days, once their case has been reviewed.
“Housing tends to be very responsive about it when they know it’s an emergency,” she said.
Medina said UIC doesn’t stop there; the university recognizes that students in these circumstances face issues beyond housing instability and want to take into account all potential ramifications.
“Although we do provide housing, we also provide other resources with it, that usually would be like counseling, or if they have any other need like that, it’s not only a one deal thing, it’s like a package,” she said.
Medina said students at UIC ought to be aware of these options and understand that the institution offers assistance, but it is up to the individual student to seek it out.
“There are times people don’t know how to reach out but it is best that you always have someone that is going to speak up for you even if you don’t seek help yourself, ” she said.
Back in 2019, the Chicago Teacher’s Union (CTU) went on its longest strike- one demand was for CPS to receive more staff, such as nurses and social workers. The demands of the CTU focused on aiding students who experienced poverty and housing insecurity, so they could get the attention they deserved from their schools.
Currently, CPS has the Students in Temporary Living Situations (STLS) program that aids students who face housing insecurity with staying on track while providing them support for certain restrictions such as free school meals, school supplies, transportation, and more. Every CPS school has an STLS contact, and every student in STLS can enroll in school immediately.
In addition, CPS created a grant through the city’s Coronavirus Relief Fund: The Chicago Families Forward Fund. The fund is eligible for students in the STLS program- students receive a check for $500 to help them with back-to-school essentials and household expenses.
However, housing insecurity remains an issue in Chicago, one the city, not CPS, must solve.
“This is a civic problem of like work that needs to be done at the city level to provide more affordable housing in Chicago,” Brake said. “If there’s not enough affordable housing, that directly affects our students.”
Homelessness is a multifaceted issue with several factors in place, such as the aftermath of natural disasters, domestic violence, and- in Chicago, a lack of affordable housing.
The Chicago Reader reported that during the summer of 2020, the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) did not fill up to 1,250 units, leaving people on the streets. The city has been dealing with issues with providing affordable housing to residents since the pandemic.