‘The school helps in every possible way’

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As part of budget cutting last September by Chicago Public Schools, Pamela Williams lost her job as an aide at Lawndale Community Academy and soon became homeless. Her son, whom she describes as a former “straight-A, honor roll student,” began to slip academically, even with the tutoring provided by the district.

“He’s really going through things,” Williams says, noting that, in addition to losing his home, the boy also lost his father, who died of lung cancer last year. “He’s off track right now. He needs computer support and things of that nature. No educational service is enough.”

Williams has been lucky to receive services from Lawndale. “The school helps me in every possible way they can,” says Williams, who is living with a relative and battling cancer. “When I’m in the hospital, they take charge of my son. They help me with food, with clothing, with mental and physical support, period. Sometimes I am so wiped out from chemo, I sleep all the time. They bring [my son] home after school and help him at the school and everything.”

But a lack of staff and time mean schools usually cannot provide the same level of services to every homeless family. Typically, a social worker, counselor or assistant principal serves as the liaison to families, but social workers and counselors usually work in more than one school and assistant principals have other pressing duties.

Linda Little, parent advocate at Lawndale, sees needs similar to Williams’—minus, in most cases, the severe health problem—throughout the population of 200 or so homeless students at the school. “They have one address for a month, and then they move again,” she says. “They have to leave whatever they have, and take what’s on their back and move on.”