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As the number of homeless kids in Chicago grows, CPS does more to help

One of the best provisions in the new Chicago Teachers Union contract is a requirement that the public schools hire additional staff in the 15 schools which have the largest numbers of homeless students.

Students return to class at Roswell B. Mason Elementary School on the South Side after the 11-day teachers’ strike.
Students return to class at Roswell B. Mason Elementary School on the West Side after the 11-day teachers strike.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

Say you’re a smart, eager student who has always done your homework on time — until recently, when your family was evicted from their home.

You and your folks have bounced around among relatives. You have moved from apartment to apartment, living with other families, and you haven’t always been able to find a quiet place to study.

You have begun to miss assignments. You have been unable to prepare for tests.

Plus, you’re tired a lot now. Sleeping on a couch in somebody else’s living room, with people coming and going, is tough.

It’s hard just to stay awake in class.

To make matters worse, you now have to get up extra early to catch three buses to get across town to your school. You could transfer to a closer school, but you would lose the supportive teachers, familiar classmates and Advanced Placement classes that might put you a few credits ahead in college.

Besides, your folks can’t say for sure where you’ll be living next. You could be moving again in a couple of weeks. Switching schools solves nothing.

Nobody should be surprised, then, when you screw up on a test. Nobody should be shocked when you fail a class — or drop out.

Homelessness has a significant negative impact on achievement, as we all intuitively know and as studies confirm. Only 30% of homeless students nationwide scored at or above their state’s reading standards in 2017, according to a 2019 study by the National Center for Homeless Education at the University of North Carolina, and only 25% scored at that level in math.

What kid deserves a deal like that?

For our money, then — or, rather, for your tax dollars — one of the best provisions in the new Chicago Teachers Union contract is a requirement that the Chicago Public Schools hire more staff to work in the 15 schools — most on the South or West sides — that have the largest numbers of homeless students.

“The impact of their instability has a significant impact on their attendance and ability to concentrate in the classroom,” Molly Burke of CPS’ Student Support and Engagement Department told the Sun-Times. “So these new resources that are dedicated to . . . addressing their trauma, I think, are going to have a significant impact on their success.”

These “new resources” are long overdue. Homelessness in CPS has increased in recent years, even as enrollment has taken a nosedive.

CPS had 12,512 homeless students in 2012, 3% of 404,000 students districtwide.

CPS now has 16,500 homeless students, 5% of 355,000 students.

Nationwide, more than 1.35 million students are homeless, federal data show, including almost 52,000 in Illinois. As in Chicago, most of these students are living “doubled up” with relative or friends, not in shelters or on the street.

CPS school-community reps will, among other tasks, make sure families and students know their legal rights, such as the right to enroll in any public school without having to provide proof of residence and to remain in their home school even if they have to move.

“The purpose [of the law] is to prevent days or weeks while a child isn’t enrolled in school anywhere,” Patricia Nix-Hodes of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless told us.

During the teachers’ strike, the CTU seized on the problem of student homelessness in an effort to force the city to commit to create more affordable housing. Chicago has a well-documented shortage of affordable housing.

And the failings of family and society that lead to homelessness among children, of course, run deeper still.

“Homelessness is much more than a problem of affordable housing. There are often problems with addiction, domestic violence, other issues,” Barbara Duffield of Schoolhouse Connection, a national advocacy group, told us. “It’s a symptom of many systems failing, and just one of them is housing.”

Tonight in Chicago, some 16,500 schoolchildren again will sleep someplace that is not home.

What’s that say about this town?

Send letters to letters@suntimes.com.