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Families With Children Constitute Third of the Homeless

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Families with children constitute more than one-third of the homeless population in the nation's major cities, and nearly all of these cities expect the number of such families to increase during the next year, according to a new study by the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

In Norfolk, Va., 95 percent of the homeless population is made up of families with children, compared with 63 percent in New York City and 20 percent in New Orleans, Phoenix, and San Antonio, according to the study, which was released by the mayors' group this month.

The study also found that the number of such families requesting emergency shelter during the past two years has increased, on average, by 31 percent in all but one of the 29 cities surveyed.

The study, which was based on responses to a questionnaire sent to all 29 cities, does not provide an estimate of the total number of homeless people in those cities.

Estimates of the total number of homeless people nationwide range from 250,000, as calculated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, to more than 3 million, a figure that advocates for the homeless argue is more accurate.

Access to Education

According to the study, officials in almost two-thirds of the 29 cities said homeless children are affected by "unstable school attendance and lack of access to education.''

For example, New Orleans officials reported a "variety of education problems,'' including families' difficulties in registering children for school and in applying for public assistance because of a lack of proper documents, such as birth certificates; low educational attainment; and unstable school attendance.

In Boston, officials reported that homeless families sheltered in hotels outside the city had difficulty getting their children to school.

Federal Response

At the federal level, the Senate version of a bill that would authorize $450 million in new spending to aid the homeless includes a provision addressing the educational needs of such children. But according to lobbyists, the provision is dividing House and Senate proponents of the bill and could delay its passage.

The controversy stems from language in the measure that would penalize state and local education agencies that do not ensure that homeless children stay in school, by reducing the agencies' aid under the Chapter 2 block-grant program. Advocates for the homeless contend that some school districts have used residency requirements to deny enrollment to children who cannot claim permanent addresses. (See Education Week, April 22, 1987.)

The House version of the legislation does not contain the penalty provision, although House lawmakers are drafting an alternative that they hope Senate members will accept.

The education provision, which also is pitting supporters of education against advocates for the homeless, is not expected to jeopardize passage of the omnibus legislation, which addresses such other needs of homeless families as nutrition, housing, and health care, according to David Bley, a staff assistant to Representative Michael Lowry, a Democrat from Washington who was one of the chief sponsors of the House bill.

Other Findings

The study by the mayors' group also found that:

  • More than two-thirds of the homeless families are headed by single parents, and that most of the cities reported that families are forced to break up in order to obtain accommodations in shelters.
  • The number of families that reside with friends or relatives because they lack permanent housing increased "over the last few years'' in all of the 29 cities included in the study. And these families are at a "high risk'' of becoming homeless in the near future, most cities reported.
  • The number of beds available in shelters for the homeless increased by 21 percent over the past two years in the cities surveyed.
  • About 30 percent of the demand for emergency shelter by families in the cities surveyed goes unmet.
  • Cities most frequently cited affordable housing as the primary unmet need of homeless families, followed by day care, social services, jobs and job training, transportation, health care, and nutrition.
  • More than half of the cities surveyed use hotels or motels to shelter homeless families.

The cities selected for the survey, which was conducted in April, were:
Boston; Charleston, S.C.; Chicago; Cleveland; Denver; Detroit; Hartford; Kansas City, Mo.; Los Angeles; Louisville, Ky.; Miami; Minneapolis; Nashville; New Orleans; New York; Norfolk, Va.; Philadelphia; Phoenix; Portland, Ore.; Providence, R.I.; St. Paul; Salt Lake City; San Antonio; San Francisco; San Juan, P.R.; Seattle; Trenton, N.J.; Washington, D.C.; and Yonkers, N.Y.

A copy of the study, "A Status Report on Homeless Families in America's Cities,'' is available for $10 by writing the U.S. Conference of Mayors, 1620 I St., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20006, or by calling (202) 293-7330.

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