Report Expected To Sharpen Policy Debate on Homeless

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Washington--The majority of homeless children in the United States do not attend school and lack access to the educational services they are entitled to, a report to be presented next week to the Congress will argue.

The report, being compiled by the new office for the education of homeless children and youth within the Education Department, represents the first stage in federal efforts to ensure that states make adequate plans to deal with a problem that officials at both levels of government say is more pressing than they had realized.

Though the document's final figures will not be available until its Feb. 15 release, evidence suggests that they will show a population of homeless school-age children of one million or more.

The report will also show, according to a department official, that a high percentage are 5 years old or younger.

"The policy implications of this report are staggering," said Edward E. Smith, the program officer who is compiling the data.

The new accounting draws on state reports required as part of the Stewart B. McKinney Homeless Assistance Act of 1987. And its figures bolster the case made by other recent reports that greater attention to children's services in programs for the homeless is essential.

Last year, for example, the National Academy of Sciences determined that children were among the fastest-growing group in the homeless population.

The National Coalition for the Homeless last year estimated that there were between 500,000 and 750,000 school-age homeless nationwide, and that only about 43 percent attended school regularly.

The McKinney Act, which addresses educational as well as housing, health, and other needs of the homeless, requires that each state identify and count all homeless children, whether they are living in public shelters, in cars or vans, or on the street.

It also stipulates that officials determine whether any state laws or policies prevent homeless children from attending school, and that they develop plans to provide educational services to such children that are equal to those provided other state residents.

But complying with the McKinney Act has been a much greater challenge, many state education officials say, than they expected.

While the act has enabled them to see how serious the problem is, they assert, it has offered no guidance and little funding to deal with it.

Unless the Bush Administration decides to fully fund the McKinney legislation, which has only received a fraction of the money called for in the original bill, educators predicted last week that little real progress will be made.

Advocates for the homeless are already criticizing what they see as the "snail's pace" of state compliance.

"There has been an extraordinary delay," said Maria Foscarinis, spokesman for the National Coalition for the Homeless in Washington. "And time is so precious when you're dealing with the education of kids.''

Cynthia L. Uline, coordinator of Pennsylvania's office of education for homeless children and youth, responded that "the McKinney Act has been a helpful impetus, but it doesn't help states know what to do."

Mr. Smith, in the federal office, acknowledged that the Education Department has been reluctant to "tell people what to do."

The McKinney Act mandates only that states submit a plan to receive funding. It does not require that the plan be approved or offer sanctions for those who do not comply. Mr. Smith said he can only offer "suggestions" about the states' proposals.

Mr. Smith also noted that the issue is a particularly complex and sensitive one. Many state leaders, he said, have been unwilling to admit the severity of the homelessness problem in their own jurisdictions.

And for those who would like to take action, the question of funding has been a stubborn obstacle.

"There are a lot of people out there who will say, 'Hey, if the Feds are not going to pay for it, then I'm not going to impose any new rules on districts and ask them to pay for it'," Mr. Smith said.

"People are going to try to go tiptoeing around this thing because it's so political," he added.

The McKinney legislation called for $2.5 million in grants to support the implementation of exemplary programs in schooling the homeless. These grants were to be in addition to the $4.8 million allotted generally for the act's education program.

The 1990 budget proposal submitted by President Reagan, however, commits only $340 million to fund the entire McKinney legislation, falling $42.8 million short of the figure authorized by the Congress. And it did not include the grant program for school models.

Though President Bush has voiced a commitment to fully fund the McKinney bill, Mr. Smith said that was unlikely, given budget constraints.

Despite the funding uncertainties at the federal level, however, many states and school districts have already begun to take action on their own. For example:

Last September, the Tacoma, Wash., school district joined with the local chapter of the Young Women's Christian Association to set up a school at one of the city's family shelters that is exclusively for homeless children.

District school buses bring an average of 32 students a day from other shelters to attend the school, which has two full-time teachers.

Last month, the Houston Independent School District tried an unprecedented but short-lived experiment in providing overnight housing for homeless children. Two public-school buildings were kept open and equipped with beds to serve as emergency shelters. But after two weeks, the program was cancelled due to low usage.

State legislation is pending in New Jersey that would alter residency requirements to prevent school districts from turning homeless students away. And in Massachusetts, a bill under consideration in the legislature would provide state reimbursement for the costs of transporting homeless children to schools within, and across, district lines.

The New York City Board of Education has given its 32 community districts the responsibility for seeing that students housed in shelters attend school. District employees visit the shelters to enroll students, and school buses transport them to city schools each day.

An increase in such activity is expected over the coming months as the state plans mandated by the McKinney Act are developed. The plans must be submitted to the federal office of education for homeless children by April 30.

As of last week, however, only Georgia had submitted a plan, although several other states had public hearings scheduled this month to review the preliminary drafts of their plans. They include Massachusetts, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Washington.

Many other states, however, are waiting until after the federal office holds organizational meetings this month.

Two meetings will be held for the East and West regions. The first is in Hartford, Conn., on Feb. 14-15, and the second in Salt Lake City on Feb. 23-24.

In addition, the National Coalition for the Homeless last month of8fered state officials model legislation to serve as a guide in dealing with homeless issues.

The document calls for a shift from "warehousing" the homeless in shelters to offering permanent low-income housing, preventive health measures, and emergency financial assistance.

It also calls for a "guarantee" of educational services for homeless youths, including compensatory programs, special-education and bilingual services, vocational training, gifted-and-talented programs, and school meals and transportation.

Medical services, such as inoculations and physical examinations, should be provided the homeless child upon arrival at a new school, according to the proposed model.

School records should be maintained so that they are readily available for transfer, its says, and state grants should be offered schools to address the needs of homeless students.

The National Governors' Association is also expected to take a strong stand on the issue at its annual meeting Feb. 26.

A draft policy statement will be presented to the governors that calls for the creation of permanent, low-income housing. The draft says that "for too many children, a homeless shelter or welfare hotel is the only home they have ever known."

"In addition to the psychological effects of being without a safe and secure home," the document states, "homeless children often do not attend school regularly ... and will face multiple barriers to becoming productive, self-sufficient, and healthy adults."

In its recommendations, the policy statement calls for an increased federal role through the administration of McKinney funding to provide such support services as: adult-literacy and education programs, child care, alcohol- and drug-abuse treatment, health services, and transportation.

Accurately determining the extent of the problem, however, is the first step in establishing policy, officials say. And many question whether the first attempts at an accounting have provided reliable figures.

Each state acknowledged, in its federal report, the nearly impossible task that accurately counting the number of homeless children represents. But, despite this, most of the newly appointed state coordinators of the McKinney program were shocked by their results.

"One of our researchers came back from an interview with homeless kids with tears in his eyes," said Ellouise Collins, who directed the McKinney research project for the Georgia Board of Education. "There was this feeling of 'what can we do?' These kids need a home."

Mr. Smith and many of the state coordinators admitted that the statistics pulled together in each state were very rough "guesstimates." And, they said, because each state used a different method to collect the data, the figures were not comparable.

In Minnesota, for example, state officials used a very broad definition of "homeless" and counted 32,120 school-age homeless youths.

The information was collected from social-service agencies, shelters, and schools.

Of that total, an estimated 6,000 children did not attend school regularly, according to Thomas Gray, a researcher for the state coordinator's office.

Other states, such as Georgia, where 9,000 schoolchildren are estimated to be homeless, only surveyed schools and have no estimates on the "hidden homeless" who do not attend school.

Some states, such as Utah, did a one-day "snapshot" of shelters. State officials in Utah found 286 school-age children in shelters on Jan. 26.

+The barriers keeping children from attending school in Minnesota were typical of those identified in other states and in studies by the coalition on the homeless. They include:

Difficulty in transferring school and immunization records quickly,

Lack of transportation within a district, or across district lines, and

Reluctance on the part of homeless parents to enroll their child in school.

Some states also found that residency requirements were often a problem. New York became the first state to address that barrier last year when it passed legislation offering homeless parents the choice of where they would enroll their child.

When Massachusetts officials asked one of an estimated 2,000 homeless children there what a school could do to help him, the boy replied: ''Let me go to school while I'm here; I've already missed some months.''

Overwhelmingly, state coordinators found, the children wanted to attend school.

For a homeless child, said Phyllis R. Ryan, executive director of the Philadelphia Committee on Homelessness, school offers relief from the often squalid atmosphere of a shelter. It gives the children some measure of continuity, she said, reinforcement of their identity and self-worth, and a chance to learn basic social skills.

"If you're not encouraged at home, where do you begin to believe in yourself?" Ms. Ryan asked. "For these kids, it has to be done at school."

On Feb. 14, the Coalition on Homelessness in Pennsylvania will release a report that includes the responses of shelter providers to a survey. When they were asked what the top priority should be in addressing the estimated 10,389 homeless school-age children in the state, Ms. Ryan said, the overwhelming response was "education."

But on the question of what type of school experience may best meet the needs of a homeless child, officials differ.

According to Ms. Uline of the Pennsylvania coalition, the best school atmosphere is one in the mainstream--not in a separate school just for the homeless.

"Time at school is an anchor for kids whose lives are otherwise in crisis," she said. "It's a more positive route than creating a system that might help institutionalize homelessness."

Michelle Fryt, the state coordinator in Massachusetts agreed. "We've worked so hard to get desegregation in other areas, we'd hate to see these kids segregated that way."

But in other states, the idea of providing alternative school settings has found strong support. Mr. Gray in Minnesota, for example, said, "I can imagine that it would be very difficult to be a street kid and survive in a mainstream school."

The stigma of not having a permanent address--of not having adequate clothing or basic social skills--is often the main reason some children drop out, according to Alan Tiger, executive director of the Tacoma, Wash., ywca

Because teachers at that city's shelter school are trained to deal with students' problems, he argued, the children are better served educationally.

"We've had kids who just cry all day," he said. "How would a regular school teacher deal with that, and 30 other students?"

Shelter schools are in operation in a number of other cities, including New York City, San Diego, and Salt Lake City. In Salt Lake, homeless students have just been moved from a trailer facility to a two-room school that was added to a $4-million shelter opened last month.

In Brownsville, Tex., the Justice Department is funding a shelter and school for undocumented aliens of school age who enter the country from South and Central America to avoid being drafted into the military.

Most state education departments, however, are taking steps to ensure that homeless students have at least the opportunity to enroll in mainstream schools. They are informing districts that it is now, by law, homeless children's right to be afforded an education equal to their more fortunate peers'.

Some state chiefs, such as Harold Raynolds Jr. in Massachussetts, have urged districts to take steps to minimize the amount of time such children are out of school--even if certain policy requirements must be waived.

In plans being drafted by several state McKinney coordinators, common proposals for new policies include the following: easing access to school and health records, reimbursing districts for transportation costs, increasing interagency collaboration, training school and shelter personnel, and providing counseling and tutoring services to homeless children in public schools.

"Each state's plan should be a management tool," Mr. Smith said. "It should be their roadmap for working with the school system."

But Ms. Foscarinis of the National Coalition for the Homeless countered that state planners should remember to focus on the children. "The main point should be that these kids get what they're entitled to," she said.

"Remember," she added, "if states fail to educate a homeless child, they're in violation of federal law."

Vol. 08, Issue 20

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