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Homeless Youth Could Benefit from Bill

When the final bell rings, high school students rush to the nearest door, excited to head home, hang out with friends, watch television and eat a home-cooked meal with their families. But 19-year-old Niaesha Shivers isn’t one of them. She is one of nearly 13,000 Chicago Public School students who is homeless.

For the past three years, Shivers has spent her nights bouncing from one homeless shelter to the next. On the “really bad nights,” she scrounged up $2.25 for a CTA pass to ride up and down the Red Line.

Shivers is just one of 12,685 students  who have been identified as homeless in Chicago Public Schools. That number has jumped 30 percent in just two years, said CPS spokesman Malon Edwards.

It’s these numbers that pushed the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless to reach out to Rep. Cynthia Soto (D-Chicago) to re-introduce House Bill 4755, which would budget grant money for homeless youth education programs in Illinois.

Soto introduced a similar bill two years ago, but after it passed both the House and Senate, then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich vetoed the bill.

“This bill would create a grant for the schools to ensure that we have the funding to identify and care for each of the homeless students in Illinois,” Soto said.

In 2008, for the first time, the state Board of Education allocated $3 million toward educating homeless students. But this year, the board eliminated the funds, saying districts should use federal money instead.

Mary Fergus, spokeswoman for the Illinois State Board of Education, said the budget was cut by more than $500 million and the board has had to make some very difficult decisions.

“We hear the outcry of needs from all across the state and each of these needs is compelling and important, but the funding is not there,” she said.

Shivers is a story that is all too familiar to Rene Heybach, director of the Law Project of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless. There has been a huge spike in homeless youth in Illinois and not enough is being done, she said.

“More needs to be done for these kids that are in horrible and traumatic situations. We can’t let them slip through the system,” she said.

Fergus said there is federal money available through the McKinney-Vento law, enacted in 2002, which requires districts to waive all student fees for homeless children and provide transportation.

Shivers, who is attending Prologue Early College High School in West Town and is set to graduate in June, choked up when she recalled the years she spent on the streets.

“It is a real dark, lonely feeling,” she said. “When you ride the train all night, nobody knows what you are doing until you see the person next to you doing the same thing and you realize you are not the only one.”

More than a year ago, a six-month-pregnant Shivers was standing near the Red Line on a cold, rainy night, when a member of the Night Ministry’s Youth Outreach Program approached. The volunteer offered her a bed that night. Shivers said this was the moment that changed her life.

Now the mother of 5-month-old Naveah, Shivers is a part of the Transitional Living Program at the Open Door Shelter in West Town, a two-year program for youth ages 16 to 20.

“I don’t know where I would be today. It actually scares me and my heart dropped when you asked that,” she said.

Shivers said having a constant living situation at the shelter and somewhere to go at the end of the day makes everything, including school, a lot easier. But she said at the end of the day, it is about not giving up.

“You can’t give up, just don’t give up because it’s your life and you only have once chance at living it,” she said. “My goal is to walk across the stage at graduation with my daughter and give her a better life than I had.”

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