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A Poignant Look at Homeless Teens on 'Independent Lens'

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There are some 22,000 students registered as homeless in the 400,000-student Chicago school system, according to a new film airing as part of  public television's "Independent Lens" series. The documentary highlights three of those students, but brings much-needed attention to the plight of many others like them.

"The Homestretch" airs on PBS Monday night at 10 p.m. Eastern time (check local listings). Filmmakers Anna de Mare and Kirsten Kelly take us to the basements, the emergency shelters, the transitional homes, and even a mental hospital where homeless young people rest their heads while trying to attend school.

The Chicago Public Schools calls such young men and women, and its program for serving them, "Students in Temporary Living Situations." We find out some of the basics about how the education system learns that a student is facing such a problem. For example, the student may show up wearing the same clothes several days in a row. He or she may linger at the end of the school day, or roam the streets. 

The school system has a homeless "liaison" at every school, we learn, though this is typically the school clerk or school nurse taking on an additional, daunting task on a volunteer basis.

Teacher Maria Rivera realized that a student of hers, a Latino teenager named Roque (pronounced "Rocky"), had no regular home. Lacking documentation, the teen's father left the country, and his mother re-married and left. Roque, who is also undocumented, ended up in the basement of Rivera's home. 

The teacher introduced Roque to Shakespeare, and in the film, he gets the lead in Hamlet in a citywide student production of the Chicago Shakespeare Theater. 

Roque seems full of promise, but his grades have suffered and he is hesitant to inquire about area colleges that will accept an undocumented student. The teacher accompanies him on a visit to Northeastern Illinois University, and she makes Roque reach deep for the confidence to ask whether the institution might accept someone like him.

(Although it's not critical to the issue of homeless students, the film has a delicious scene in which Rivera and Roque are peering through the windows of the apparently closed college bookstore. Rivera advises him to look at the professor-assigned texts for various English classes. "Whoever has the Norton anthologies, that class is going to be boring," the teacher says. "Look for the ones with the novels.")

While Roque is coping pretty well with his temporary living situation, the other two subjects face their own sets of challenges.

A young woman named Kasey was thrown out of her house when she came out as a lesbian, she says. She had bounced among friends, other family members, the street, and an emergency youth shelter called the Crib, sponsored by a homeless support group called the Night Ministry.

The film visits the shelter, where one young man sadly but matter-of-factly tells a rap session of fellow homeless teens a truth that is probably shared by all too many of them: "I have no one to actually look out for me."

Another young person at the Crib tells of how she has spent more than one night sleeping under a parked car and "you just hope it doesn't move."

At nightfall, there are more young people hoping for a place to sleep than the shelter has room for, so a lottery is conducted. Some of those waiting will strike out. And remember, this is Chicago, not Santa Monica, Calif. It gets pretty cold at night for a good chunk of the year.

The third featured subject is Anthony, who spent his childhood in foster homes and has been on his own since age 14. Now apparently in his late teens, he already is the father of a young son and is striving for his GED and for entry into the Year Up Chicago program, which will place him in a corporate internship. He stays at a residential facility called Belfort House, run by a group called Teen Living Programs.

As the hour goes on, there will be setbacks for the three young subjects, and reasons for hope. And one can hope that directors de Mare and Kelly do more about homeless teens or about education in Chicago. 

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