NEWTON, MASS. — IT was 1983 when Ellen Bassuk saw teenaged parents rocking their newborn in a cardboard shoe box at a homeless men's shelter.
That year and the next, the president of the Better Homes Foundation watched the number of homeless families rise. "I saw children, 2 and 3 years old, sleeping with their mothers in back of abandoned station wagons," she says, as well as in emergency shelters and abandoned buildings.
She had been working in a Boston hospital as a psychiatrist for the homeless and mentally disabled. Moved by what she saw, she turned to homeless families. They are the most rapidly growing segment of the homeless population, according to a recent report by the United States Council of Mayors.
Today, Dr. Bassuk is regarded as the nation's expert on the problem of homeless families - the causes and effects, as well as the cure and prevention. Her first priority is mainstreaming homeless families into society.
"We are squandering our most valuable resource," she says, by not reaching the children of the homeless with education, health care, and a chance to grow up in normal surroundings.
To help stop this trend, Bassuk and David Jordan, editor-in-chief of Better Homes and Gardens magazine, formed the Better Homes Foundation in 1988. It aims to provide funds to groups helping homeless families nationwide. The foundation does not build houses but supports homeless programs by giving money and technical assistance to groups that qualify.
"Homelessness is not 'houselessness, says Bassuk. "It is a rupture in community supports. It is a feeling of detachment from family, friends, church, and even yourself.Home" implies a basic shelter, says Bassuk, but it also entails a connection with a community, friends, and family.
In 1985, Bassuk studied the long-term effects of homelessness on children. From 80 families and 151 children living in Massachusetts family shelters, Bassuk found that many homeless mothers had never had people to turn to for help. They were disconnected from caretaking institutions, as well as from family and friends. The isolation may have stemmed from the mothers' childhoods, which contained a high proportion of divorce, desertion, or violence. Drug abuse, including alcohol, was also a problem in many
The mothers' problems were mirrored in their children, Bassuk found: Almost half the preschool children in her sample manifested "serious emotional and developmental delay." Compared with poor, housed children, homeless children were "slower in language development, motor skills, fine-motor coordination, and personal and social ability," she wrote in a Scientific American article. Nearly a third of the estimated 220,000 school-aged homeless children in the US never go to school, according to a 1989 Depar tment of Education study.
To mainstream homeless families into society, more than bricks and mortar are needed, Bassuk says. Federal involvement, more low-income housing, and more human services like family counseling, drug counseling, and health care are required.
To prevent homelessness is better, Bassuk says. Families on the brink of homelessness can be spared the desperation, humiliation, and frustration of losing a home if money for food, utilities, and rent is provided in time.
In order to help both those already without homes and those on the edge, Bassuk especially likes programs with a "case manager" system. A person is assigned to a family and then keeps tabs to ensure the family's needs are being met.
While homelessness has been present in America for hundreds of years, it became an "epidemic" in the '80s, Bassuk says. A slow economy and a shrinking pool of low-income housing, combined with cutbacks in federal funding, contributed to an upsurge. The most critical factor has been the elimination of low-income housing and single-room-occupancy hotels.
A person becomes homeless usually through a series of cascading events, Bassuk says. "It doesn't happen overnight." Some say the homeless are victims of society, some say the homeless brought it on themselves. But "very few three-year-olds ask to be living in an abandoned bus," editor Jordan says.
An example of the foundation's work is the New Future Program in Huntsville, Ala. A coalition of community services aids homeless mothers and their children. "We have educated the community," says Marilyn Mabry, head of the Huntsville program. Now the entire community contributes to mainstreaming the homeless.
While the Better Homes Foundation is doing a lot of good, "this problem is never going to be solved at the local or state level," Bassuk says. The federal government must play a larger role: "We are the only industrialized nation where children are the poorest segment of society."