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Homeless, unless you count storage space : For $179 a month, it's worth the risk, one Chicago-area family says. The son, 12, studies by candlelight.

November 15, 2009|Bonnie Miller Rubin

CHICAGO — Maria Maior's son is a football-playing, skateboard-riding, Xbox-loving kid whose home has all the trappings of domesticity: a cushy sofa, big-screen TV and a framed poster of Brian Urlacher, one of the 12-year-old's favorite football players. On most evenings, two big dogs curl up on the carpet.

The scene could be lifted from any suburban subdivision -- except that it's located not in a den, but in a storage unit.

The boy moved into the 10-by-25-foot bunker about two months ago with his mom and her fiance, after a long run of bad luck and the loss of both their jobs.

"As long as I have my parents, I'm fine with this," Maior's son says of the accommodations. "It's really not that bad."

School district officials say the boy is one of a record number of students living in motels, campgrounds, shelters, cars and, yes, storage facilities.

According to recently released data, the homeless enrollment in the six-county Chicago area has soared. McHenry County leads the way with a 125% jump from the 2007-08 school year to 2008-09. Early reports indicate that this year, the numbers are even worse.

"These are not people in cardboard boxes," said Maggie Dempsey, homeless liaison coordinator for School District U-46, which covers 11 suburban communities. "These are the people next door."

Although the faltering economy is behind the uptick, homeless advocates and school officials say they're doing a better job of identifying and counting children such as Maior's son -- one of 230 homeless students enrolled in U-46, an increase of 57 from last year, Dempsey said.

The McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, federal legislation passed in 2002 to ensure that transient youth are enrolled in school, defines homelessness as "children who lack a fixed, regular and adequate night time residence." For those students, school is a beacon of stability -- one reason that federal law requires all districts to provide this group with everything from crayons to transportation.

Maior prefers to drive her son to school rather than have him take the bus and risk arousing suspicion about their $179-a-month housing, which is a breach of their storage facility lease and an apparent violation of local zoning ordinances.

Waking up early, before any storage facility workers arrive, is part of the family's elaborate daily choreography. So is knowing the fast-food restaurants where you can wash; doing homework by candlelight or flashlight; and preparing dinner on a propane grill, which also serves as the primary source of heat.

A sense of humor doesn't hurt. Punching in the security code for access to the property, Maior tells visitors, "I've always wanted to live in a gated community."

It wasn't always like this. Before the housing market crashed, the family rented houses and apartments. Back then, Shane Palmer -- the only father Maior's son has known -- would lay 200 to 300 yards of carpet a day. Now, he's lucky to get 100 yards a week.

Maior repaired TVs and other electronics at $13.50 an hour, but business dwindled in 2008.

Sometimes, she'll make quick cash working on someone's car, but what she'd really like is a full-time job. So far, filling out dozens of applications has been futile. No responses.

"Of course, it's hard to look presentable," she says, her voice trailing off.

To get into an apartment would take at least $1,000, she estimated. But even if the couple could scrape together that kind of money, their ordeal is complicated by two large dogs, including a Rottweiler -- a breed few landlords welcome.

"People say I should put the dogs to sleep . . . but I wouldn't put down a family member just because they were inconvenient," she said, wiping away a tear. "If I do that, our whole world would crash."

Sometimes, when Maior or Palmer gets paid, there's a reprieve from the storage unit. For $40 a night, the family can check into a motel and take a hot shower, watch a movie, pop popcorn in the microwave and sleep in a real bed instead of on air mattresses.

"That's when I get to pretend that this is not really happening," Maior said. "At least until the next morning, when it's time to pack up and go home."

--

brubin@tribune.com

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