Student homelessness on rise across Illinois, Champaign-Urbana

By Alissa Groeninger

The Illinois State Board of Education has reported that 60,000 homeless students live in the state of Illinois, which is significantly more than previously predicted.

The board recently began analyzing data that count the students who receive free lunches to better predict how many students are homeless across the state, said Peggy Dunn, Illinois state coordinator for homeless education. Dunn said this new, more accurate measuring system, coupled with a lagging economy, has caused a substantial rise in the number of reported homeless children.

In 2006, 18,624 students were reported to be homeless in Illinois. In 2007, this number had increased to 22,321. The Champaign-Urbana area had 192 homeless students last year, an increase from 188 homeless students reported in 2006 and 59 in 2005.

“When we look at the economic conditions, … all those things have an impact on homeless families,” Dunn said. She said the current mortgage bank rates and housing costs have led to an increase in homeless families.

These numbers reflect the number of homeless students accounted for, but not necessarily every homeless student.

Even with the new means to identify homeless children, it is difficult to find every single child, Dunn said. “I’ve never seen anybody able to define the total percent of homelessness.”

In order to help homeless children, 855 homeless liaisons exist in school districts across the state.

Champaign Central High School liaison Tiffany Johnson said the school works to provide homeless students with supplies for school, athletics and graduation.

“We just try to make school as easy as possible,” Johnson said.

Teachers at Central participate in in-service training that is geared toward identifying and helping homeless children in the classroom, Johnson said.

In addition to the liaisons, there is also a small federal grant that provides tutoring, emergency transportation, emergency clothing, school supplies and immunizations.

“(These programs) are much more intensified because of the number of homeless children,” Dunn said.

Dunn said school districts should first recognize which students are homeless and then be very supportive and understanding when dealing with their families.

“(Parents) feel that they have failed somehow, when they haven’t,” she said.

It is important for children to continue to attend school when their families are going through a crisis, Dunn said. She added that the focus needs to be on what is in the children’s best interest and to provide them with support.

Patty Pearson, homeless liason for Westview Elementary School in Champaign, said teachers need to understand that homeless students may have a more difficult time completing assignments because they have more troubling concerns in their lives.

“When there’s homelessness, there’s more stress in their life,” Pearson said.

Pearson said she tells teachers what signs point to homelessness and what services they can recommend for children.

“Homelessness changes children into adults very, very quickly,” Dunn said.