The economics of homelessness

The news: Chicago Public Schools identified 10,660 homeless students from the start of the school year through Sept. 30, an increase of about 1,500 from last school year.

Behind the news: Of the homeless students—more than 98 percent of whom were children of color—1,778 were “unaccompanied youth,” a seven-fold increase from last year.

Julie Dworkin, director of policy for the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, believes the increase is due to improved training on identifying homelessness and the different school year calendar—not an actual spike in the number of unaccompanied homeless youth.

Despite the increase, Anna Vargas, a CPS spokeswoman, said underreporting is still likely, as tracking homeless students depends heavily on students’ self-identification of their situation.

According to Dworkin, only 209 beds in Chicago are available to unaccompanied youth, making odds against securing a place to sleep nearly 12-to-1.

“The need is critical for more youth shelters in order for young people to succeed,” said Tedd Peso, government relations manager at The Night Ministry, an organization that provides 52 beds for unaccompanied homeless youth in Chicago.

“If we don’t provide youth today with shelter, then we are really looking at the next generation of homeless adults,” he said.

The challenge of securing shelter may get harder with the 52 percent cut in funding for homeless shelters, emergency housing and transportation approved in Gov. Pat Quinn’s 2012 budget, which also reduces homeless youth services by 14 percent.

But Dworkin sees a silver lining. “There is one bright spot,” she said, pointing out that the City of Chicago’s budget has allocated $250,000 for opening a night drop-in center for unaccompanied homeless youth who simply need a place to spend the night.

“It will be the second shelter of its kind in the city, but it’s still just a drop in the bucket,” she said.

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