Doubled Up: The Homeless Kids Next Door

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During the ongoing Chicago teachers' strike much has been made of the over 16,000 homeless students in the Chicago Public School system. That large number is one of the linchpins in the union's demands for additional support staff and a written commitment from the city government to follow their plan for increasing affordable housing stock within the city.

When your average consumer of news media thinks of "homeless children" they may picture a family or group of runaway children living in a shelter, or perhaps sleeping in a car or a motel. They might even picture that stereotypical family sleeping on benches or in cardboard boxes in the street. Some of you may think back to the stories from last winter of Candice Payne, the real estate agent turned non-profit director who rented hundreds of hotel rooms for homeless people sleeping rough during our run of terribly cold weather.

But this is not the case. The majority of Chicago's homeless schoolchildren (about 88% of them) are living in a situation referred to by the federal government as "doubled up". Yes, that's an officially accepted term. It means that they're crashing with friends or family, sometimes for months, sometimes for years.

Legal Definitions of Homelessness

The nation had no real legislation providing for homelessness prevention until the late 1980s when the McKinney Act, named after Republican Representative Steward McKinney, was signed into law by President Reagan. The original act created a source of federal funding for homelessness prevention and an initial definition of what the country considered to be "homelessness." This definition has gradually changed over time, along with the law itself.

The Illinois state legislature found the McKinney Act to be insufficient in the area of education and protection for homeless students so they created their own law that provided funding and protected the rights of homeless children within the public school system. As part of this Illinois law they created their own definition of homelessness, which included children sharing housing due to economic hardship. The feds thought this was a pretty good idea, so in 2001 they lifted much of the Illinois law and put it into an amendment of the McKinney Act. After the amendment the new resulting federal law is now known as the McKinney-Vento act. So, as far as the U.S. Department of Education is concerned a doubled up student is a homeless student.

Counting Noses

WBEZ's Curious City did an excellent article on the difficulties of counting the city's homeless population. I recommend you skim through the whole thing, but the main takeaway is that nearly all current methods are severely lacking because they only count the people who seek assistance from public sources of aid within a given timeframe each year. Doubled up families are the least likely to ask for help, which means an undercount is pretty much guaranteed.

But this doesn't mean that the 16,000 figure quoted by the CTU is inaccurate. Because the DOE specifically counts doubled up students as homeless, schools can enroll those kids in their federally funded programs created by the McKinney-Vento Act. This means that the teachers may well be the only source of an accurate count, at least for the kids who are attending public schools.

Rock vs. Hard Place

Some of you reading this may think that doubling up should not be considered "homelessness." After all, the kids have a roof over their heads and heat. But while doubling up isn't potentially fatal like going without shelter altogether might be, it's still quite harmful. It is a very uncertain living situation. Chances are that the host family member or friend could get evicted if the landlord finds out. Many of the hosts are Section 8 voucher holders themselves and waited years to get accepted into the program. An eviction would mean their subsidy is terminated.

Many of the hosts are less than willing participants in the arrangement. They may be the current boyfriend or girlfriend of the parent. They could be a relative with whom the parent has a conflicted relationship. They could be a friend with kids of their own. Chances are that they aren't wealthy. They may or may not give keys to the doubled up parent or their kids. They may or may not continue to live their adult lives with the kids sleeping in the living room.

Chicago doesn't have a lot of large apartments suited to families. These doubled up arrangements might be in a 3 bed or 4 bed if they're lucky, but it's more likely that it's a family with multiple children crashing in a 1 bedroom or 2 bedroom apartment with little privacy, one bathroom and a very limited food budget.

It is little wonder that families living in doubled up arrangements often jump at the chance to move into homeless shelters if the opportunity arises.

The Vicious Cycle

Landlords generally dislike having children in their buildings. Familial status is a protected class for a very good reason, and discrimination based on the presence of kids is one of the more frequent causes of fair housing lawsuits nationwide. The two main reasons cited are the noise and the potential for damage to the property that can occur when kids are left unsupervised. (I would personally like to point out here that far more damage was caused to our properties by renters with substance abuse problems than by any family, but that's just one person's experience across a thousand apartments, what do I know.)

Landlords are also reluctant to get involved with the Section 8 voucher program because they are worried that the benign, well-vetted applicants presented by the housing authority will "sneak in" other people to double up with them. Landlords are generally not fans of overcrowding in their properties. Well, let's be frank. They're not fans of overcrowding their properties if they can't get a per-person surcharge out of it. Section 8 voucher holders are protected by Chicago's fair housing laws. As is the case with families, the existence of the law doesn't stop the landlords from discriminating. Many of them would be happy to accept a five figure penalty fine rather a single Section 8 renter.

On top of this, landlords and investors prefer smaller units because they are theoretically more marketable. While turnover in smaller units is higher, the opportunity to raise rents comes up far more often in conjunction with those turnovers. Of course going too small tips the balance to the point where the increases can't keep up with the overhead costs so buildings full of studios aren't common. But family-sized apartments are quite rare and are likely to stay that way.

So landlords buy a lot of units that can't house families. This drives up the demand and thereby the cost of the few 3 and 4 bedroom apartments available. Families are likely to be turned away from even these larger units because the landlords don't want the kids in the building. So the families run out of options and try to get vouchers. It can take years to get off of the waitlist for a Section 8 voucher. In the meantime they crash with a friend who is already on Section 8, validating the landlord's fear that all Section 8 renters will sneak in additional unwanted people. The landlord stops taking Section 8 tenants. The waitlist gets longer.

As a result, uninvolved parties start looking to government as an alternative source of housing. We wind up in the current situation where people who seem on the surface to have no say in the affairs of the real estate market are holding the entire city hostage over housing matters. We get a situation where landlords who have for ages wanted to make families and Section 8 into someone else's problem finally getting that opportunity, but not really in the manner they might have chosen. Be careful what you wish for?

What the Private Market Can Do

In the wake of all the news coverage, landlords may be tempted out of panic to make a sweep of their properties looking for doubled up families. Seriously, don't do this. If you didn't already know they were in there, they're not hurting anybody. You'd have to repaint the place in between tenants anyhow. If anything, offer to put up an additional wall or two to create more privacy in there.

Landlords need to stop being afraid of families. They need to stop romanticizing the idea of homelessness and realize that it's happening in their buildings. They need to stop thinking of themselves as being in the business of investing and shift to the business of housing.

Renters, you need to do your part too. If you know there's a family living in the building, don't complain about them. Seek out apartment buildings that have larger units. Don't rent those units - leave them for the families. But show the landlords that buildings with large apartments are market viable. If you wind up renting from a landlord that accepts Section 8, thank them for making it part of their business model. Make sure you are vocal about how much you appreciate the efforts they're making to reduce homelessness. If you've got the money to spare and you know that a family in your building is struggling, offer to take on their rent increase. That extra $25 per month could mean that a kid gets to eat dinner.

Finally, all you home buyers out there, you can do your part too. Especially the left leaning folks who are concerned about teachers earning a living wage and students in dire circumstances. Become landlords. Buy two-flats, buy three-flats, and keep them as apartments. We need more private landlords who are tolerant of differences and concerned about the well-being of others. My guess is that if the rent control ban is lifted you'll have an ample number of options to pick from. The City of Chicago has proven that it's really awful at being a landlord. You can probably do better.

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Published by

Kay Cleaves