For Immediate Release
February 6, 2008

ISBE brings national figure in to call attention to education of homeless teens

Carissa Phelps shares her struggles from homeless teen to UCLA Law and MBA graduate

CHICAGO – The Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) highlighted the issue of homeless youth today during the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Annual Statewide Conference in Chicago. Carissa Phelps, a former homeless teen who has gone on to graduate from UCLA with an MBA and law degree and is the subject of a documentary, shared her personal struggles of life as a homeless teen who moved through the education system in California. With an estimated, 60,000 homeless students in Illinois, the State board has made training school personnel to compassionately identify and respond to the needs of homeless students a priority.

“The education of our homeless children is a priority for the State Board of Education,” said State Superintendent Christopher A. Koch. “We are pleased to have Carissa here to share her inspiring personal story about being a homeless teen and the issues she faced. We hope that this visit can help teachers, administrators and students identify with the face of homelessness.”

During her 90-minute presentation, Phelps showed portions of her yet-to-be-released documentary, “Carissa.” The piece tells the real-life story of Phelps who, at the age of 12, was abandoned by her mother in the lobby of Fresno’s Juvenile Hall. Feeling unsafe and with few resources available, she fled to the streets where, homeless and alone, she had to take care of herself. The documentary explores her life on the streets between ages 12 and 14, following her to the exact locations where it all took place. The film also captures Phelps in her final year at UCLA, where she recently graduated with joint law and MBA degrees.

"The lack of supportive housing and meaningful alternatives to the streets, gangs, and crime is the same in Chicago, Los Angeles, and Fresno,” Phelps said. “Young people have limitless potential to be doctors, lawyers, leaders, and more in our communities. Whether we inspire them or not, they will determine our future as a nation.”

Data collected by local school districts in 2006 indicated approximately 18,000 students in Illinois schools were homeless. However, based upon the most current research methodology, and the 750,000 students who receive free or reduced price lunches, it is estimated that the number is more likely 60,000 homeless students in Illinois.

Phelps’ journey highlights the growing issue of ‘unaccompanied youth’ in Illinois. The term unaccompanied youth, as defined by the federal McKinney-Vento Act includes a youth not in the physical custody of a parent or guardian. This would include runaways living in runaway shelters, abandoned buildings, cars, on the streets, or in other inadequate housing; children and youth denied housing by their families (sometimes referred to “throwaway children and youth”); and school-age unwed mothers living in homes for unwed mothers because they have no other housing available.

The annual NCLB conference is sponsored by the Illinois Resource Center in collaboration with ISBE; the Illinois NCLB Consolidated Committee of Practitioners; Illinois Association of Title I Directions; Illinois Coalition for Title I Parents and the Illinois Title I Teachers’ Association.

Additional information on homeless education issues can be accessed at or by calling the Illinois State Board of Education Information Hotline at 800-215-6379.

Additional information about Phelps and the documentary can be found online at