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Panel Says Children Fastest-Growing Portion of Homeless

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Washington--Children are the fastest-growing group among America's homeless, a panel of the National Academy of Sciences has found, terming the situation "a national disgrace."

Their numbers have reached an estimated 100,000 and are still climbing, says the panel's report, an exploration of the problem of homelessness mandated by the Congress under the Health Professions Training Act of 1985.

The growing phenomenon of homeless children, the report states, "is nothing short of a national disgrace that must be treated with the urgency such a situation demands."

In a strongly worded supplementary statement issued along with the report, several members of the committee also called the plight of the homeless of all ages "an inexcusable disgrace."

"Without eliminating homelessness, the health risks, and concomitant health problems," the committee members argued, "the desparate plight of homeless children, the suffering, and the needless deaths of homeless Americans will continue."

While the study acknowledges that building an accurate statistical portrait of the homeless populations is difficult, it says surveys in cities nationwide indicate that the homeless of the 1980's "are younger, more ethnically diverse, and increasingly more likely to be members of families" than in the past.

Blacks and Hispanics are disproportionately represented, it says; about one-third are veterans, many from the Vietnam era; some 40 per4cent of males have problems with alcohol; and 30 to 40 percent of homeless adults suffer from "some type of major mental disorder."

Many of the homeless children are with a single parent, typically a young mother in her late 20's, according to the report.

Health, Schooling Problems

Although admittedly sketchy, the nas panel's data on homeless children mark the first attempt to portray the magnitude of the problem nationally.

The panel--which included mental-health professionals, social scientists, lawmakers, and state officials--estimated that there are at least 100,000 children homeless on any given night among a total of approximately 735,000 homeless people.

That estimate is conservative, the report says, because it includes only children in intact families, not runaways or abandoned children.

Studies examined by the panel indicate that homeless children are far more likely than others of their age to suffer from chronic physical disorders and illnesses such as anemia, malnutrition, and asthma, as well as emotional and developmental problems.

In addition, the report notes that school attendance among homeless children is erratic. Because their families move so frequently, school districts often refuse to enroll the homeless children, claiming that they are not permanent residents. Such children frequently miss weeks of school at a time while courts determine their legal status.

Preliminary data reported to the Traveler's Aid Program and the Child Welfare League indicate that, of 163 homeless families with 331 children in eight cities, only 57 percent of the children attend school regularly, the panel reported.

New Federal Program

The growth in the number of homeless children has raised new schooling issues for state school chiefs.

According to Edward E. Smith, project officer in the U.S. Education Department's office of education for the homeless, every state has received some funding under the Stewart B. McKinney Homeless Assistance Act, federal legislation adopted in 1987 providing aid for the education of homeless children.

In order to receive a second-year grant, however, the McKinney Act requires each state to develop by April 30, 1989, a comprehensive plan for educating homeless children. The plan must demonstrate the state's commitment to ensuring that homeless children are not denied an education because of their homelessness.

Maria Foscarinis, director of the National Coalition for the Homeless in Washington, said that the states are "moving very slowly in complying with the federal obligations."

"In fact," she added, "some states have not complied at all."

The problems states are encountering go beyond residency restrictions, she said. Many will be forced to consider legislation or policy changes that will allow a homeless child's school records to move from district to district as freely as the child.

States will also be faced with policy questions concerning the transportation of homeless children from one district to another, Ms. Foscarinis said. And, in addition, some districts have vaccination and other requirements that the parents of homeless children often cannot afford to meet.

'Wide Range of Activities'

To date, only New York State--where officials estimate there are 15,000 to 20,000 homeless children--has altered its residency requirements to allow the parents of homeless children a choice in selecting a school district. State legislation was also adopted this year providing aid to districts that take in homeless children.

Shelley R. Jackson, staff attorney for the Center for Law and Education in Boston, conducted a survey of the states earlier this year to find out how they were using their McKinney Act funds.

Among the 32 states that responded to the survey, Ms. Jackson said, ''there is a wide range of activity," but Iowa, Kentucky, and Pennsylvania are among those furthest along with their plans.

She noted that California, Kentucky, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Virginia are currently reviewing their residency laws for possible action in the current school year.

In New Jersey, where the number of homeless children this year is expected to equal that in New York, state education officials are strongly encouraging districts to accept homeless children, even with current residency requirements.

Edward J. Doolan, director of the New Jersey Office for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth, predicted that reports like the National Academy of Sciences' will help foster public support for the policy changes and legislation needed to comply with federal requirements.

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