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One student in the Chicago school where Marcella Cadena teaches lives in a homeless shelter that only lets people in or out every hour, on the hour. And sometimes, the child can't make it out in time — and misses class.
“Now they’re coming to school late and missing 30 minutes of instruction if they don’t make it out by 7 a.m. because they don’t have control over where they’re living,” said 4th-grade teacher Cadena, one of the 25,000 teachers in the Chicago Public Schools who went on strike Thursday.
The striking teachers in Chicago are making an unusual demand: that the country’s third-largest district do more for students who don’t have a stable roof over their heads. In addition to the standard asks of better pay and smaller class sizes, teachers want the school system to provide resources, including dedicated counselors and funding, to help both students and teachers grappling with a lack of affordable housing. Of the 300,000 students in Chicago’s public schools, an estimated 16,450 are homeless. And that’s based on students self-reporting, so it’s likely a low count.
Without a stable home, students have serious trouble succeeding in class, according to teachers and homeless advocates in the city. They often can’t focus, can’t do their homework or study, and sometimes miss class altogether. And teachers told VICE News they wind up doing work outside of what’s typically expected, like making calls to shelters to ensure their students have a place to go after school.
“I have kids who are experiencing homelessness, and they end up not coming to school because they fall through the cracks,” Aaron Bingea, a 7th- and 8th-grade math teacher, told VICE News. “Truancy becomes a big problem.”
When one student in Chicago showed up to class without her homework, she hadn’t forgotten to do it. She tried. But she didn’t have keys to her friend’s apartment, where she was staying while her own family searched for something they could afford. And no one was at her friend’s place to let her in.
“They were always unsure night to night whether they would have housing, and they talked about how difficult it was to just study when you had no space that was your own,” Doug Schenkelberg, the executive director of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, told VICE News.
Even students who aren’t homeless struggle with affordable housing. Bingea estimated that between 80% and 90% of the students he works with are low-income and more than half have to travel about an hour to get to school. Their families have been priced out of their neighborhoods but want to stay in their schools. His school district has lost some 4,000 students — about a tenth of the district — in the last seven years, he said.
The average rent for a two-bedroom apartment in the Chicago area is about $1,200 per month, which, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, means a household would need to make about $48,000 a year to afford a place to live. In 2017, the median household income as just above that, at $52,000.
“What’s really exciting about what the teachers are doing in Chicago is really putting it [affordable housing] in the contract demands, front and center,” said Marilyn Sneiderman, director of Center for Innovation in Worker Organization at Rutgers University. “Historically, unions have actually set up affordable housing. They’ve been involved with advocating legislatively for good housing laws.”
"They end up not coming to school because they fall through the cracks."
The teachers on strike want more nurses and counselors, which some schools don’t have at all, as well as higher wages for school aides and protections for undocumented students. In addition to resources for those within Chicago Public Schools, the union also wants the school system to advocate for better housing policy citywide. It’s part of a growing trend in the labor movement toward bargaining over issues that extend outside of the workplace.
And even if they lose on affordable housing, putting their demands in the contract, the teachers hope, will force the city to address the issue in other ways.
“I don't know of another entity in Chicago politics with as much power as we have that is actually pushing for these things,” Bingea said. “So it's our responsibility to do so.”
Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot has said that affordable housing doesn’t belong in teachers’ union contracts. On Thursday, she cancelled classes for all of Chicago’s public school students before the teachers officially declared their strike.
“We value the workers,” Lightfoot said in a press conference. “Honoring that value is who I am and what I stand for. But I also must be responsible for the taxpayers who pay for everything that goes on.”
But others in Chicago’s city government fully support the teachers.
“I’m a product of Chicago Public Schools. I went to four different public schools because we were gentrified out because we didn’t have affordable housing,” said Chicago Alderman Andre Vazquez, who walked the picket line Thursday. “I’m 40 years old. At some point, things need to move forward, and we need to solve these problems.”
Correction 10/19 7:21 p.m.: An earlier version of this article misrepresented Aaron Bingea's estimate of the percentage of his students that have to travel long distances to school. The story has been updated.
Cover image: Illinois Federation of Teachers President Daniel Montgomery speaks as Chicago Public Schools teachers picket Thursday morning, Oct. 17, 2019, at Lane Tech High School in Chicago. (Colin Boyle/Chicago Sun-Times via AP)