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68,000 Children Are Homeless, G.A.O. Reports

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Washington--Nearly 68,000 children age 16 and younger are homeless on a given night, sleeping in shelters, churches, abandoned buildings and cars, and various other settings, the General Accounting Office has estimated.

The report, submitted to the Congress in June in compliance with the Stewart B. McKinney Homeless Assistance Act, also estimated that another 186,000 children are "precariously housed" on any night, staying with friends or relatives temporarily.

The estimate is based on a "snapshot" count of homeless children taken on Oct. 24, 1988, through a survey of shelter operators, government agencies, and other social-service providers in 40 large urban areas.

The estimates in the report do not include runaways, or children who are placed in hotels and motels by government agencies.

The report gave a range of estimates of the problem to reflect possible imprecision in its data. Its worst-case estimate found that as many as 106,543 children may be homeless on a given night, and that 296,452 may be doubled up with relatives or family friends. Its best-case estimate was that as few as 41,176 are homeless and that 39,362 are doubled up.

The gao findings differ greatly from an estimate of 220,000 school-age homeless children submitted in a separate report to the Congress by the Education Department in February. (See Education Week, Feb. 22, 1989.)

The department compiled statistics from 42 state reports. The McKinney Act required states to develop plans to ensure that homeless children have access to schools.

The department noted that states' data-collection methods varied widely, and suggested in its report that its estimate was "very conservative" and "should be viewed with caution."

The gao report found that, of the 68,000 children who are homeless on any given night, 25,500 sleep in urban shelters and hotels; 21,800 in suburban and rural shelters; 4,000 in churches; 9,000 in abandoned buildings, cars, and other public places; and 7,700 in various other settings.

School Attendance Surveyed

The gao report also surveyed shelter operators to determine the number of homeless school-age children who attended school regularly.

Of 3,237 children for whom data were available, 85 percent were found to attend school regularly. An additional 5 percent planned to attend but had not yet enrolled.

But gao analysts note that school-attendance rates for these children are probably much lower. Researchers were unable to obtain data on school-aged children not in shelters, and, because parents in shelters are often unwilling to admit that their children are not in school, the estimated percentage may be overstated, the report concedes.

Of the children surveyed in the report, 52 percent were age 5 or younger, 36 percent were ages 6-12, and 12 percent were ages 13-16.

About half of the sample group were of school age, and the report points out that the relatively small number of older children may reflect the fact that many shelters have age restrictions on children.

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