Homeless Americans face another challenging winter, now fast approaching. Considerably more assistance is expected to be available for them than a year ago, although specialists say additional aid is needed. And there are signs that more understanding and compassion are required of public officials responsible for their care.
One element particularly buoys those who struggle daily with the challenges of the homeless: Americans' great wellspring of compassion and love for their fellowman. It can be difficult to tap. But once Americans realize the plight of the homeless, they begin to help. Some who work with the poor note that this is a spirit of decency which can ultimately be translated into substantial assistance. Hence this alert:
No one is sure how many Americans are homeless. They're difficult to count. Most estimates range from half a million to 2 million - at least as many as a year ago, and the highest level since before World War II.
In some cities numbers are fairly exact. In New York, for instance, 60,000 homeless people were helped by public or private agencies last year; yet, since many shun such organizations, no one can be sure how many additional homeless men and women there were. One national organization that collected estimates from many communities found a consistent tally of between 1.5 and 2 percent of their population.
Nationally, about 20 percent of the homeless are families, mostly mothers with young children. About 45 percent are single adults, mostly men, often just released from mental care. Another 20 percent are runaway youths. Only some 15 percent are those generally regarded as ''homeless'' - drifters, alcoholics.
A troubling trend: The young are joining the homeless. Five years ago the most common age of men in New York City shelters was 55; today it is 31. For women, it then was 59; today, 22.
Unfortunately, the economic recovery has not directly helped the homeless.
This year the structure is in place to give more assistance than early last winter. A year ago as cold weather deepened, many individuals and private institutions rallied splendidly to provide shelter and to feed the homeless and other poor. In metropolitan Washington last fall, for instance, only four or five churches were operating shelters for people without a home; by winter's end , nearly 30 offered shelter, food, or both.
Most specialists say the national need far outstrips the ability of voluntary groups to meet it. The New York-based Coalition for the Homeless recently found that in 10 cities nearly all volunteer-run shelters are already full, and are turning away more people now than a year ago.
Last March the federal government moved to help: Congress and the President approved $100 million in food and shelter costs. But the money ends Dec. 31 - before winter does. Although the House of Representatives has approved an extension, it has yet to gain backing from the Senate or the Reagan administration.
Further, organizations that aid the homeless charge that administrative regulations that accompanied the existing law have crimped their ability to spend the funds in ways to benefit the homeless over the long haul. For instance , the regulations specify that the funds cannot be used to repair or purchase shelters.
In several areas of the United States more concern for the homeless is needed. In Massachusetts only $2,000 has been donated to a private fund the governor established to aid the homeless. In Pennsylvania, a state law last year removed some 30,000 Philadelphians from the welfare rolls and resulted in heavier summertime demand than usual for food and shelter for the homeless. And in New Jersey the governor protested when New York City sent to hotels in his state some 1,000 poor people without homes after they were displaced from their own dwellings.
Alerted, Americans, we trust, will again reach out to those in their midst needing shelter to bridge the winter.