CAMBRIDGE, MASS. — CAROLYN JOHNSON has many heartfelt wishes this Christmas, but the one that overshadows all others will not fit under any tree: She wants a place to call her own.
Ever since her apartment in suburban Boston was destroyed by fire last Jan. 9, Ms. Johnson and her three-year-old son, Alphonso Smith, have been living in a shelter for homeless families. If she receives a certificate for subsidized housing next week, as officials have promised, she will begin rebuilding a stable life.
"I don't want to be on welfare," says Johnson, a former home-health aide. "Once I get the certificate and an apartment, I'm going to go back to work."
For thousands of displaced parents like Johnson across the country, "home for the holidays" is a hollow phrase. A study released yesterday by the United States Conference of Mayors reports that families account for nearly 37 percent of all homeless Americans. In 29 cities surveyed, requests for shelter by families increased by 15 percent in the past year. In addition, 62 percent of cities noted increases in the length of time people are homeless.
Yet homeless families remain largely invisible. Unlike single men and womenwho live on the streets, families usually find refuge in shelters out of public view. Professionals who work with families also say media attention has waned, further isolating them.
"The ability of the public to experience outrage just has a time limit on it," says Nan Roman, vice president of the National Alliance to End Homelessness, in Washington. "Families are still there, but we've moved on to the next injustice."
Marcia Boston, director of a Cambridge Salvation Army day-care center that serves children from five shelters, describes a climate of "welfare bashing." She says, "People ask, 'Why did they get in this situation? It's all their fault.' I don't think people see the big picture."
Barbara Duffield, a policy analyst for the Washington-based National Coalition for the Homeless, cites two trends responsible for family homelessness. First, she says, is decreasing incomes - stagnating minimum wages and cuts in welfare checks. Second is lack of affordable housing.
"The waiting lines for subsidized housing are so long that many cities have actually stopped taking applications," Ms. Duffield says. Among cities in the Conference of Mayors study, 71 percent have stopped accepting applications for at least one assisted-housing program. And all cities expect requests for emergency shelter to increase during 1996.
Many advocates express concern about reductions in federal resources. At the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Ms. Roman notes, budgets devoted to programs for the homeless went from $1.12 billion last year to $823 million this year, a 26.5 percent cut. These cutbacks, she says, could mark "a movement away from more-permanent solutions to homelessness - housing, treatment programs, job training, education - and toward cheaper Band-Aid programs, such as shelters. For families, that's devastating. It's terrible for anybody, but shelters are just not where children should be raised."
Some women become homeless when they leave abusive husbands or partners. Others have no family support. Still others who have been living with relatives find they must leave.
"I lived with my sister, but we didn't get along," says Jackie, a homeless mother in Cambridge who will only give her first name. "We raise our children differently, and we fought too much. I didn't think my kids should see that."
So Jackie took her two sons, ages 5 and 6, to a shelter, where they have lived for 15 months. She is attending school, trying to get her general equivalency diploma (GED). Then she hopes to work with children who have special needs.
Although a majority of homeless mothers whose children attend the Salvation Army child-care center are single, some lost their housing when a marriage failed.
Denise Chery, who has been living in a Cambridge shelter for five months with her sons, ages 8 and 2, says, "My husband didn't pay the rent. He went away. They gave me an eviction [notice] and put me out." Until that time, Mrs. Chery had been working full time in the cafeteria at Lesley College in Boston. Now, because of her unstable living conditions, she says she can only work part time.
Elizabeth Brach, a research associate at Tufts University, in Medford, Mass., who has been studying homeless families at the Salvation Army child care center here, finds that many of these parents defy stereotypes that portray all welfare recipients as passive, content merely to collect benefits.
"I was impressed that they're very engaged, very active on their own behalf in terms of what they need to do for themselves and their children," Dr. Brach says. "They expect that things are going to get better. They've learned from what has happened to them, and they live with a kind of hope and optimism about the future."
Jackie puts it this way: "I have a lot of hopes. I feel that everything is going to fall into place. I want my GED, a job, and healthy boys. That's it." But, she adds wistfully, "I wish that I was having Christmas in my apartment."
Yet even when these parents do get housing, says the Salvation Army's Ms. Boston, other things in their lives remain tenuous. "I don't feel they're going to be homeless again," she says. "But if there were more supports out there, I would feel more positive that they were really going to turn their lives around."
Beyond educational programs, job training, and basic literacy skills, Boston says, one of the biggest supports homeless parents need is affordable child care.
"When they do get housed but still don't have affordable child care, where does that leave them? If they have a job or are going to school 20 hours a week to get their GED and don't have child care, they have to stop doing those things. That will set them back in their goals."
Duffield also lists a need for "jobs that pay a living wage" and affordable health care.
Homeless parents have another wish: more compassion from those on the outside.
"It seems like people shy away from you when you're in a shelter," Johnson says. "They don't even give you a chance to say why you're there. As soon as they find out, they just shut you off."
Still, Johnson describes herself as "very hopeful. All I want is just to have my family back together and go back to work."
That emphasis on family runs deep among these displaced parents, according to Brach and other staff members at the Salvation Army center.
"All of the parents say they're very concerned about their children," says Migdalia Garcia, a teacher at the day-care center. "If other people would get to know them, they would see that they're good people and they're good parents. They want to give their kids what every parent wants to give their child: love and understanding and a safe place to be - a home."