As the number of houseless students in District 65 increases, local resources struggle to meet demand


Illustration by Ziye Wang

Over 300 students in District 65 live without permanent housing this year.

Skye Garcia and Beatrice Villaflor

More than 300 students in Evanston/Skokie School District 65 are houseless this academic year, according to District 65 social worker Allison Harned.

In the current 2022-23 academic year, the district registered more than 60 additional students as houseless compared to the previous academic year. This was the highest surge since the 2012-2013 school year, according to District 65 data, even though overall enrollment has lowered since then. 

“Our numbers are definitely increasing,” said Harned, who connects families experiencing housing instability with local agencies. “We have people coming in every day.” 

She said a variety of factors contribute to this growth, such as rising housing costs and the lasting effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Research shows a lack of housing disrupts students’ education, mental health and social life. 

A report from the Institute for Children, Poverty & Homelessness found that even after being rehoused for six years, formerly unhoused students continue to struggle academically compared to classmates with permanent housing.

“Many students at Northwestern benefited from having educational stability throughout their life,” said Jen Feuer-Crystal, director of housing and youth programs at Connections for the Homeless. “We want to have those same outcomes for all of our District 65 kids and make sure they get what they need to be amazing students and amazing community members in Evanston.”

The surge in houselessness

Fethiya Idris, chief executive director of Family Promise Chicago North Shore, said the organization’s shelter has seen more families in need this year. The Glencoe-based organization provides housing to families with at least one child under the age of 18.

Idris attributed the surge in houselessness to an increase in housing costs, especially since she said incomes largely remain unchanged. 

“If rent is now $3,000, and your take-home (salary) is still only $2,000, how is that going to work?” she said. 

She added that the cost of raising children makes it harder for parents to meet the rising costs of rents.

Harned said the COVID-19 pandemic and the state of the economy further exacerbate housing insecurity.

“Housing insecurity existed even before the pandemic,” she said. “The increase in rental and housing prices in Evanston, and the increase of taxes, does not help.”

Racism as a barrier in the search for affordable housing

According to the 2021-2022 Opening of Schools Report, the district found that out of the 236 students without stable housing, 79% lived in shared housing during the school year. The rest stayed in emergency and transitional shelters, hotels and motels. Two percent of students were reported unsheltered. This marked an 18% increase from the 2020-2021 school year.

As a result of increased housing costs, some families turn to loved ones for help. Harned said the majority of families she works with are “doubled-up”: They live in shared housing units with family and friends.

Harned works in accordance with the McKinney-Vento Act, which allocates federally funded assistance to students without a “fixed, adequate or regular nighttime residence.”

Sometimes, families have to relocate to other parts of the state, said Harned. The McKinney-Vento Act requires that home school districts subsidize transportation costs so students without permanent housing can stay in the same school district, even if they’re temporarily housed outside the district.

However, Harned said this means some students commute for over an hour to attend school in District 65.

“There’s never a simple solution. To find housing, a person needs a great credit score, plus economic stability, plus money saved up,” Harned said. “That’s a pretty privileged position to be in – there’s not a lot of people that fit all of those criteria.”

When Harned makes inquiries about housing for families in the district, she said she noticed that some landlords treat her — a white woman — and families of color differently. 

Feuer-Crystal has also had similar experiences as a white woman. She said landlords question Black and brown households more intrusively than white households. 

“I get a more positive response from landlords than some of our families who are BIPOC,” Harned said. “It’s really unfortunate, but that’s the reality.” 

In Cook County, a majority of the residents without housing are people of color. 

Katie Eighan, the continuum of care director for the Alliance to End Homelessness in Suburban Cook County, estimated that 70% of the people her organization serves are people of color. 

“A larger portion of people we serve are Black and brown families,” Feuer-Crystal said. “And it’s because of institutionalized racism.”

This trend is mirrored in District 65: Harned said a large proportion of the students she assists are from Black and Latine families. 

Finding solutions for students

But finding long-term solutions depends on money, bureaucracy and other challenges. Although McKinney-Vento provides District 65 with federal assistance, funding is limited. 

“There’s an impending crisis,” Harned said. “(Partner organizations) predict that funds are going to dry up by March.”

She said she expects more financial assistance to arrive in July, but she is unsure of how much. Families in crisis cannot wait for more money to come in and grant applications to be approved, she added.

Harned said she hopes Evanston residents will assist families by donating and volunteering. She asks residents to join the Facebook group Back On Their Feet, an organization raising awareness of homeless, transitional and crisis resources in Evanston. But grassroots efforts like Back On Their Feet are struggling to meet high demand.

Eighan said she encourages residents to demand change from officials.

“The solution to all of this is more affordable housing,” she said. “To make those changes, that means speaking to our local decision makers.” 

Eighan added that more attention is being given to the issue of affordable housing, attributing this to advocacy efforts. 

Feuer-Crystal said she is optimistic about the future of housing in Evanston. 

The simplest of actions, like organizing donated clothing or making sandwiches, have an enormous impact on the community, she said.

“We are super hopeful about our work. We believe we can end homelessness. That’s why we do this,” Feuer-Crystal said. “We hope we’re out of work one day.” 

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @SkyeAGarcia 

Email: [email protected] 

Twitter: @beatricedvilla

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