Homelessness: One student's story

Nathan Strain spent the majority of his senior year as an independent homeless youth.

March 7, 2014

Flickr/Kevin Dooley

(This story is made for your ears. Push the orange play button above.)

Nathan Strain spent nearly all of his senior year at Hampshire High School homeless.

“It was the beginning of November, and I was living in my foreclosed home in Hampshire,” Strain, now 19, told WBEZ recently. “One day I came home and the bank had changed the locks.”

Strain’s parents had a messy divorce when he was young. His mother remarried, but his sophomore year, his step dad walked out. Eventually, his mom couldn’t pay the bills on the house in Hampshire and moved them to Crystal Lake. Strain, who wanted to graduate with his class, commuted back and forth for the first two months of school, but eventually, went to stay in Hampshire, in his old house. Until the bank changed the locks.

“Then I lived out of my car for about a week,” Strain said. “It was really cold though so I was able to ask around. And my old neighbor, his parents were OK with me living there and staying in his room. I already was already working two jobs. But I guess the main struggle was the fact that society has this kind of expectation that people already have someone helping them. I really had no one or anything.”

Strain said as all of this was happening, he was trying to maintain a 4.0 GPA and keep up with all the things you picture high schoolers doing: the musical, the marching band, the jazz band.  

“You have no idea how alone it feels to go to a school where everyone assumes that you have parents who are supporting you, that you have income supporting you,” Strain said. “Nobody would believe me when I would say I don’t have $10.”

To hear more about the Coalition’s report and how districts are grappling with the increasing numbers of homeless students, listen to the Afternoon Shift segment above, featuring Rene Heybach, director of The Law Project at the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless and Deb Dempsey, the head of homeless education at the Kane County Regional Office of Education, who worked with Nathan.

“What started happening was I started losing everybody,” he said. “I lost most of my friends. Most of the teachers who liked me stopped liking me because I wasn’t showing up to classes anymore because I was doing other things.”

Those other things were things like filing taxes, repairing his car, finding his next meal.  And a lot of that, Strain said, he could not have done without the help of counselors at his school.

“I had to do the paperwork and the dirty work myself, but they told me what I would need to do,” Strain said. He rattled off examples: filing for SNAP benefits, filing his taxes as an independent youth, applying for financial aid, getting fee waivers for college applications, helping him find food pantries.

Strain is one of 54,892 children identified as homeless during the last school year.  A new report out today from the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless looked at that number and surveyed districts, like the one Strain went to, District 300, found a majority of school districts are struggling to provide services to more than half of their homeless population.

Under the federal McKinney Vento Act, homeless children are entitled to access to early childhood education, tutoring, counseling, and help with public assistance, such as low-income housing and food assistance.

But federal funding for McKinney Vento has flatlined and state funding has been cut. The report calls on the state to restore $3 million to help districts serve homeless students and currently, the Illinois State Board of Education has requested that amount. But, like every year, the education budget must still make it through the legislature and be signed by Governor Pat Quinn.

Today, Strain is enrolled at the University of Illinois—Urbana Champaign, studying chemical engineering. School is paid for, he tested out of freshman year, but he said the best thing is he doesn’t have to worry about eating or losing where he’s living.

“I’m able to actually focus on just school,” Strain said.

He said he wants other kids in his situation to know there’s help out there.

“I would tell them it gets better and that they need to find the simple things in life that don’t cost any money and to hold on to those,” Strain said. “For me, I don’t watch TV anymore, I don’t play video games, when I want to enjoy myself, I go stand in the sun, because I love the sun that sounds so stupid, but I’ve really learned to enjoy the sun.”

And he said lawmakers should think about kids like him when they decide how much money to put toward helping homeless students.

“If I told them they should help me because I’m a human being, and deserve to not live a terrible life, they would not turn a head because there’s lots of people who say that,” Strain said. “But what I will say is, I’m here in the best engineering school in the world, sitting in one of the toughest subjects and I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for the help I got.”

“And all the people who say, you just have to work to get there are all the people who have never had to do it.,” Strain added. “I hate myself for having ever thought working hard is enough to be successful.  Because it’s not. It is not enough. You need to work hard and have a lot of luck. And I got really lucky.”

Becky Vevea is a producer for WBEZ. Follow her @WBEZeducation.