Unit 4 Shines a Light on Needs During National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week

Mon, 11/16/2015 - 8:49am

This week, Champaign Unit 4 School District, along with the Champaign Federation of Teachers, is highlighting the needs that exist in our District and community as part of National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week (NHHAW). NHHAW is held each year the week before Thanksgiving.

So far this school year, 98 Unit 4 families and 138 individual students have been identified as homeless. Last school year, 179 students in total were identified as homeless. The District expects to exceed that figure this school year given the high number of students and families in need who have been identified prior to the end of the first semester. These numbers are on the rise in Unit 4 as they are across the state and nation. According to new data released by the U.S. Department of Education, the number of homeless students in America has doubled since 2006, reaching a record 1.36 million in the 2013-2014 school year. 

Students and families who lack a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence are considered homeless, including:

  • Sharing the housing of other persons due to loss of housing, economic hardship, or a similar reason
  • Living in motels, hotels, or camping grounds due to the lack of alternative adequate accommodations
  • Living in emergency or transitional shelters
  • Awaiting foster care placement

The District employs a full-time Homeless Liaison, Mr. Lekevie Johnson, who works alongside District administrators, teachers, and staff members to provide support and connect families with community resources. Mr. Johnson’s position was expanded from part-time to full-time this school year to meet the increased need for assistance. The District has also formed a Homeless Action Committee as an extension of the Social Justice Committee to aid in addressing the needs of our homeless students and families.

“When a child’s basic needs are not being met out in the community, it is difficult for them to focus on learning while at school,” said Superintendent Dr. Judy Wiegand. “In order to provide a top quality education for all of our students, we must examine the issues of hunger andhomelessness and how they intersect with the work we do as educators. These children and families are part of our Unit 4 Family, and their struggles are real. We are shining a light on the needs that exist so that we can continue to make strides in aligning existing resources and emerging opportunities to tackle these issues one child and one family at a time.”

Due to the stigma often associated with homelessness, it can be difficult to identify families or individual students who qualify for services. District employees, including Johnson, aim to approach each individual with compassion and without judgment. The District utilizes the following guidelines to identify families in need of assistance. 

Is the family’s housing:

  • Fixed? (stationary, permanent, not subject to change)
  • Regular? (used on a predictable, routine, consistent basis)
  • Adequate? (lawfully and reasonably sufficient or sufficient for meeting the physical and psychological needs typically met in a home environment)

Homelessness impacts almost every facet of a student’s life, including academic performance. The Champaign Federation of Teachers (CFT) has begun partnering this school year with Restoration Urban Ministries in order to further support families accessing the organization’s services. Specifically, CFT is working to raise awareness and funds for Restoration Urban Ministries’ Mini Homes project.

​“Teachers, social workers, guidance counselors, school psychologists, and support staff members play a critical role in building relationships with our families, especially those who may be struggling,” said Reading Recovery Teacher and CFT President Cathy Mannen. “It can be difficult to identify if a family is homeless and we find that there are often communication barriers with reaching parents who may be facing these difficult circumstances. By partnering with the District and Restoration Urban Ministries, teachers are taking proactive measures to assist our homeless students and families.”   
The District also partners with organizations such as the Eastern Illinois Foodbank for the Backpack Program and to provide food pantries on both high school campuses to help students who may be food insecure. Emergency funding is also utilized from partner organizations in the community such as the Regional Office of Education, United Way of Champaign County, and the CU Schools Foundation, among others. The District has also started to explore the Community Schools model at the Stratton, Booker T. Washington, and Garden Hills campuses, which will provide comprehensive community services, opportunities, and supports to families and students on-site. 

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