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Tally of Homeless Should Be Viewed 'With Caution,' Department Concedes

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Washington--In a report sent to the Congress last week, the Education Department estimates that there are 220,000 school-age homeless children across the country.

The figure, based on tallies supplied by the states that state officials have already termed "very conservative," is substantially lower than estimates arrived at last year by research groups. In their preface to the new report, department officials suggest that its findings ''should be viewed with caution."

The report, issued by the department's new office of education of homeless children and youth, also estimates that, in the 42 states that reported on schooling, a total of 66,590 homeless children do not attend school regularly.

Fourteen states also reported an estimated 33,119 homeless children of preschool age.

Data Collection 'Difficult'

Each state, as well as Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia, was required to forward data on its homeless children to the Education Department to comply with the Stewart B. McKinney Homeless Assistance Act of 1987. The effort is aimed at determining the problems that may be preventing homeless children from attending school. (See Education Week, Feb. 8, 1989.)

The authors of the report note that many states found data collection "difficult."

Widely varying sources and methods were used for collecting the information, according to the report.

Some officials submitted data from state surveys, others extrapolated from sample data, and some used a one-day count of children.

Few states agreed on the definition of "homelessness" and many included various categories, such as runaways or children living with relatives.

The report also notes that many states reported their data to the federal office using a different format than had been requested.

Because of "the unevenness in both the quantity and the quality of information available in different locations, the statistical data included should be viewed with caution," the report states.

'Avoidance on the Issue'

The report was sent to the Senate Labor and Human Resources and the House Education and Labor committees Feb. 15. But as of late last week, few staff members had seen it.

John F. Jennings, staff director of the House Elementary, Secondary, and Vocational Education Subcommittee, said the report "shows clearly that the data are not reliable."

Saying that "there was some considerable avoidance on this issue," he suggested that the states' data-gathering effort "may force them to focus some attention on the problem."

"It may be a long time before we begin getting reliable data from the states, but it was important to start the process," he added.

Andrew Hartman, minority staff director of the full House Education and Labor Committee, said he had not seen the report. But he noted that "whether the numbers are good or bad," the report may "bring the issue to a front burner."

"I don't think people realize homelessness is such a family phenomenon, that there are a lot of kids in that group, and that their schooling is a real problem," he said.

The report determined that the greatest number of homeless chilre in Los Angeles, with an estimated 12,250 reported.

New York and Chicago are second and third, with an estimated 10,169, and 10,000, respectively. Following in the top 10 are Minneapolis (5,055), Houston (3,106), Phoenix (3,104), Kansas City, Mo. (3,023), St. Paul (2,757), San Francisco (2,750), and Portland (2,416).

Reasons for Problem

Reasons most often reported for the failure of homeless children to attend school included the following:

Parents are preoccupied with housing, food, and employment.

School records are often delayed or lacking.

Guardianship and residency requirements are not uniformly interpreted or applied.

Transportation is often not available.

The states also identified some educational needs of homeless children. Among reported needs are: preschool enrichment, remediation, counseling, and after-school and extended day-care programs.

In reporting difficulties they encountered in meeting those needs, states cited the lack of data on the issue as a barrier, as well as disagreement on the definition of homelessness, lack of tracking systems among state agencies, and the fact that the homeless are often reluctant to come to an agency for help.

Each state has received McKinney Act funding to set up a local office for the education of homeless children and youth, and to compile state statistics.

The McKinney Act also requires each state to develop a plan for the education of each homeless child in the state. Those plans are due into the federal office by April 30.

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