DeKALB – Like many 11-year-old children, Aidan Birk takes the bus to school, eats breakfast and lunch there, and comes back after to do homework.
Unlike most, he shares a queen-size bed with his mother, Jessica Birk, 39, in a shared family dormitory at Hope Haven homeless shelter, 1145 Rushmoore Drive in DeKalb, because he’s been in transitional living since May.
“It’s been very difficult on Aidan,” said Jessica Birk, sitting in the community room at Hope Haven, where she and her son often watch Netflix and Marvel movies together. Aidan has a variety of special needs and gets anxious and overwhelmed easily.
Aidan is one of more than 1 million schoolchildren in the U.S. in similar circumstances.
According to a recently released report by the National Center for Homeless Education, a troubling phenomenon is on the rise across public schools in the U.S.
The most recent data available showed that about 1.5 million students were homeless at some point during the 2017-18 school year, a 15% increase from 2015.
During its 2017-18 academic year, Illinois reported having 52,978 students homeless public-school students, a 4% rise from 2015.
The Birks were evicted from their apartment in Sandwich in May. Hope Haven didn’t have an available room for them until Aug. 15.
Instead, the two bunked where they could for three months, living in Jessica’s 2016 Chevrolet Trax and couch surfing with family in St. Charles and Yorkville. Aidan was allowed to shower and wash his clothes at school.
McKinney-Vento in DeKalb County
Public schools nationwide receive federal funding through the McKinney-Vento Act, which dictates a per-pupil average in funds for schools to help provide resources to students and families who lack fixed, regular or adequate nighttime housing. The act defines several qualifying terms: “sheltered” refers to living in homeless shelters, hotels or motels, and transitional living programs; “unsheltered” means living in cars, abandoned buildings or other places not meant to be slept in; “doubled-up” means sharing houses with others after the loss of a home, economic hardship, etc.; and “unaccompanied youth” refers to children not living with a parent or guardian.
Illinois received $3.3 million in McKinney-Vento grant funding for the 2017-18 school year, behind only California, Florida, New York and Texas, the report shows. On average, states received $76.50 for each student who identified as homeless that year.
The majority of homeless students in America (74%), doubled-up for the 2017-18 school year, the report shows.
In DeKalb, there are currently 193 students who qualify as homeless, with 114 of them at the elementary level, according to district records. In total, 112 of them double-up with friends or family, 35 live in shelters, 30 lost their homes because of a fire or other natural disaster, eight couch surf, three live in their car and five in a hotel.
In Sycamore School District 427, 34 students are homeless, and 21 of those are because of the St. Albans Greens fire that destroyed the building and displaced 120 people July 27.
Cristy Meyer, director of student services and McKinney-Vento liaison for DeKalb School District 428, said she’s witnessed the increase in homeless students. The district prefers to use the term “transitional.”
“Our role is to ensure students are safe, eating and getting their education,” Meyer said.
When students register for classes in District 428, they need to provide a lease or proof of mortgage. If they can’t provide one, Meyer said they’ll often explain it’s because they’re homeless.
“So that triggers additional questions to determine if they’re living with somebody else, doubling up because of eviction or economic reasons,” Meyer said. “And if so, that does qualify under McKinney-Vento.”
If a family becomes homeless while the school year’s already in session, they’ll often notify a building principal who will then connect the family with resources available to them, including school supplies, materials for extracurriculars they may be taking and bus schedule changes.
Aidan’s special needs require him to attend school at Core Academy in Aurora. He began going to special education school when he was in first grade in 2014, and last year he transitioned from Camelot Northwest Center for Autism in Genoa to Core.
“At Camelot, I had a lot of friends,” Aidan Birk said. “Almost everybody at my school talked to me, they called me like the best kid.”
When asked if he had a lot of new friends at Core, he said “not really.”
While Aidan goes to school, Jessica chats with her social worker at the Family Service Agency of DeKalb County to try to find a permanent place to live. She’s obtained a housing voucher through the DeKalb County Housing Authority, but with no available apartments in the county, it’s already expired once, and will expire again Sunday. They will likely have to start over with the voucher process as they head into month seven at the shelter.
“I don’t want to stay here that long,” Jessica Birk said, adding that she’s fond of the staff, but it comes with a price. “It’s hard.”
Source: The Daily Chronicle