A 10-year-old boy recently walked past rows of boarded-up houses, dilapidated storefronts and abandoned lots on his way home from Nathaniel Pope Elementary School on Chicago's West Side. He took a detour to make sure the students walking behind him didn't see that he lived in a homeless shelter a half-mile away.
Located in Lawndale, one of the poorest neighborhoods in the city, Pope Elementary is the boy's fourth school in the last 18 months. He started there in November after moving into the nearby shelter with his mom and younger sister. Hoping to avoid the endless taunting he endured at his previous three schools, the boy asked that his name not be published.
"It's hard being at school when I'm in a shelter," he said, adding that he dreams of moving into a house and "never seeing shelter life again."
His school's principal, Beverly Jordan, said Pope Elementary struggles on a small budget to provide its most disadvantaged students the resources they need. About 98 percent of its students are from low-income households; 1 in 7 are homeless. The $3,000 it allocated this year for homeless students helped pay for their uniforms, school supplies and field trips, but little else.
"It's difficult based on what we have to work with," Jordan said. "But we're used to not working with much."
Schools across Illinois have experienced a double whammy in recent years. As the number of homeless students continues to rise -- 22 percent during the past two years -- state and federal funding for homeless education has fallen 64 percent since peaking in 2009. With government support flat-lining, experts worry that cash-strapped schools won't have enough resources to meet the demands of the growing population.
The number of homeless students in Illinois rose from 29,264 in November 2010 to 35,718 in November 2012, according to the Illinois State Board of Education. Chicago Public Schools reported 12,048 homeless students last month, a 13 percent increase from two years ago. The combined total in eight suburban counties grew 32 percent, from 6,841 to 9,033.
The federal McKinney-Vento law requires school districts to identify and provide assistance to homeless students -- but doesn't come with guaranteed funding to pay for those services. Experts say the mandated services, such as free transportation and student fee waivers, add up quickly for districts already struggling to meet students' basic needs.
"Districts are struggling across the board," said Vanessa Kinder, executive director of the regional education office for southern Cook County. "It's one more piece of the puzzle that puts pressure on schools."
In 2009, Illinois had more than $8.1 million available for homeless education. The state allocated $3 million from its general fund and received $2.5 million in federal grants. It was awarded an additional $2.6 million from the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act.
Having faced $861 million in cuts since 2009, the state board did not make another appeal for homeless education funding until earlier this year. And then, with spending still tight, the General Assembly dropped the board's $1 million request from the state budget for the 2013 fiscal year.
That leaves $2.9 million in federal grants as the only statewide funding available for homeless education in Illinois this school year.
Mary Fergus, a spokeswoman for the state board, said it allocated 75 percent of that money to regional liaisons who distributed grants to school districts. The board uses the rest to pay for administrative costs connected to the McKinney-Vento law, including salaries, travel expenses and conference fees.
School officials say they're doing the best they can to cover the additional costs mandated by the federal law. CPS allocated $7.7 million -- all but $800,000 from local funds -- for its Students in Temporary Living Situations Program this year, a 20 percent increase from last. It hired an additional coordinator to help students connect with services and to develop an STLS training program for school officials. The district also is doing more developmental screenings at shelters.
"We're doing everything in our power with the resources that we have to make sure we're meeting the needs of the homeless youth," said Molly Burke, director of the STLS program.
While homeless advocates praise such efforts, many doubt they're enough. Rene Heybach, director of the Law Project of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, said the lack of government support could cause districts to fall short of their responsibilities. She contends that some already have.
An investigation this summer found that a school district in suburban Cook County failed to fully implement the McKinney-Vento law, according to internal documents the Tribune obtained from the state board. Because the investigation was part of a legal dispute over a student's eligibility for homeless services, the board cited student privacy laws for redacting the name of the district.
As the ombudsman for the McKinney-Vento law in the region, Michael Pietrzak conducted the investigation. In his report, he wrote that the district's efforts to provide outreach to homeless families were inadequate. That, he said, was not unusual. And if the trend continues -- a rising homeless population combined with static funding -- he predicts more districts will follow suit.
"Most people don't want to intentionally disregard this," Pietrzak said. But without more money, he added, schools "won't have the time or the resources to implement the law as it's intended in its entirety."
Even with additional support from districts, homeless students face many risks. Some live in shelters or motels; others double up with friends or relatives. They fall behind in school while struggling to patch together some semblance of a normal life.
Homeless children are four times more likely to show delayed development and twice as likely to have learning disabilities as children who are not homeless, according to the National Center on Family Homelessness. They also have three times the rate of emotional and behavioral problems.
Pat Rivera, founder of an after-school tutoring program for homeless students in Chicago, said most are the victims of an economy still reeling from the recession and persistent mortgage crisis. School officials added that growing awareness of their obligations under the federal law contributed to the rising numbers.
Before retiring from her job as STLS director two years ago, Rivera launched Chicago Hopes in 2006. The program offered tutoring at 27 shelters during the 2009-10 school year, when state money for homeless education was still available. This fall it operates at three.
Chicago Hopes wasn't the only program that benefited from the brief funding boost. The state's allocation of $3 million in 2009 went to 36 school districts across Illinois, according to the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless. They used that money to help cover the costs of transportation, counseling and other academic services for homeless students.
As districts continue to tighten their budgets, Heybach warns that the consequences could be severe for homeless education programs and the students who need them -- especially at places like Pope Elementary.
"Schools that have high concentrations of poverty lack services to begin with," she said. "This is just another thing they're going to lack."
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