05/08/2014 03:14 pm ET Updated Jul 08, 2014

Heroes for Homeless Kids Celebrate in Aurora

Late spring 1993, a widow and her three children became homeless. Tyeast Boatwright had managed to get by after her husband's death. She'd had a good job coding pediatric medical records for the University of Chicago, but administrative cuts eliminated her position.

Boatwright was shocked by how long she waited for her unemployment benefits. She didn't have much saved and she tried living with extended family in the interim. Their overcrowded setup proved unsustainable and Boatwright and her school-aged kids went looking for a shelter. Boatwright was stunned, "I couldn't believe I was there. I had a strong work ethic. I had always worked. I thought I would be able to get a job."

When kids like Boatwright's have no home of their own, something as simple as homework often becomes a herculean task. Doing assignments, getting back and forth to school, having the necessary school supplies, showering and wearing clean clothes can become nearly impossible for a child living doubled up with family, friends or strangers, in a hotel room, a shelter, a car, a storage facility, or a some other structure unfit for human habitation.

After centuries of homelessness in the United States, laws to protect the rights of homeless individuals -- especially children -- are relatively new. In 1987, the Stewart B. McKinney Homeless Assistance Act became law. Through McKinney, the federal government required "states to ensure that all children experiencing homelessness have the same rights to a free and appropriate public education as housed children."

The law in its earliest forms left interpretation and implementation to the various school departments. Homeless kids, their parents, and their professional advocates hit legal road blocks as they tried to secure continuity in education for kids who had lost consistency in every other part of their lives.

Boatwright wanted her kids to have routine and order in their lives. Something kids in school take for granted, "I was trying to have the kids have a sense of normalcy." And for Boatwright that sense of normalcy didn't mean they went to the school near the shelter, she wanted them in the same school they had when they had a home. That's where their friends were, that's where their teachers were, and that's where they were on track to be prepared for subsequent course work.

And that's where Boatwright ran afoul of the law.

Boatwright and her children had taken shelter at Aurora, Illinois' Hesed House where she found allies in her quest to keep the kids lives as normal as possible until she could get back on her feet.

Diane Nilan, currently executive director of Hear Us - a not for profit dedicated to helping homeless children - was then president of the Illinois Coalition to End Homelessness (ICEH) as well as Director of Hesed House.

Nilan rallied to Boatwright's cause. They knew Boatwright's goal was to regain housing in her kids' old school district and transferring the kids to the schools near the shelter made no sense in the long term. But the McKinney law didn't allow for long-term thinking or student centered planning. The superintendent of schools dug in and refused to allow the Boatwright children back in school.

Over the next several months Boatwright, Nilan, Pro-bono attorney, Patrick Kinnally and their allies launched a legal and public relations battle. A judge ordered that Boatwright children back to their schools while he heard the case. By the time he issued his verdict, a sympathetic landlord with a vacancy in the school district gave the Boatwrights a home.

Boatwright's youngest son -- today, a mechanical engineer -- remarked recently that he never realized they had lost the court case. He'd always thought that they won because of the course their lives took after that battle ended. Boatwright's two other children went on to become an M.D. and a professional chef, so it would be hard to argue that they hadn't won. But for Nilan and the other members of ICEH the loss was profound.

If McKinney couldn't provide stability to homeless children then Nilan and the others decided they needed additional laws. Nilan explained, "We didn't think we could enact federal legislation but we felt we could do something locally."

Boatwright's case had garnered so much attention and gathered real supporters in the Illinois General Assembly, so the advocates went to work lobbying Springfield.

In 1994, the Illinois Education Act for Homeless Children changed the lives of homeless kids across the state. In addition to other gains, homeless kids got to stay in their school of origin. Charlie's Bill -- as it came to be known because of the compelling poster child they used for the legislation -- laid the ground work for improving federal legislation and the lives of children all across the country.

Barbara Duffield, policy director for the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and youth explained, "The strong protection that we have in law now would not have been possible without the Illinois Homeless Education Act. These strong protections speak to the rights of children and the responsibilities of school districts."

Tonight in Aurora, Illinois, -- just a few miles from the shelter where the Boatwrights stayed - Nilan, her fellow advocates, proponents of the law, and kids who benefitted from the guarantee of quality and continuity in their educations will celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Illinois Education Act for Homeless Children. Singer, songwriter, Peter Yarrow will perform at the Copley theater. The public is welcome.