Waiting for a break

LINDA Coleman sits in the dinette of an apartment, trying simultaneously to talk to visitors and keep an eye on her six children. Baby Daniel, 7 months old, sleeps in the bedroom. The younger children, Eric, 3, and Timmy, 5, run around the room. Megan, 7, and Shawn, 8, who have not attended school for the last couple of days, sit more quietly in the living room. Four-year-old Hope, a bag of rice cakes in hand, crawls into her mother's lap.

The more visible homeless in this country are often the mentally ill or alcoholics seen sleeping in city doorways. But an estimated 50 to 70 percent of the nation's homeless are not mentally ill. Some have flitted in and out of homelessness for years, staying in single-room occupancy hotels when they have jobs. Others are newly or temporarily unemployed. Some are refugees of broken marriages and abusive homes. There are also a growing number of youths, with few job skills.

The Colemans don't look homeless. The children are neatly dressed. Mr. Coleman is at work. But the family is part of what some experts call the fastest growing group of homeless in this country -- families with children. In New York City, there are already more children than adults being housed in the city's temporary shelters and hotels. Some groups predict this will be the case nationwide by next year.

The Colemans spent the last month in an apartment provided on an emergency basis to the homeless by the Seattle Housing Authority. The couple spent the previous day apartment hunting, but had no luck. Today Mr. Coleman is back at work and his wife is wondering what they will do in a week, when they must leave their current lodgings.

They were evicted from their apartment last summer because they were behind on rent. They stayed with relatives for a while, and moved to the city-provided apartment a month ago. Although her husband has a steady job, a previous year of unemployment resulted in a pile of debts, and his checks are garnisheed because of outstanding bills.

This temporary home has perhaps delayed, but not alleviated, the family's problems.

``The kids are real ornery and terrible,'' she says with a sigh as Timmy tries repeatedly to grab something from a guest, despite repeated protests from his mother. The couple has been bickering, she says, which also affects the children.

``I've talked about leaving and going on welfare,'' says Mrs. Coleman. ``I said I might give the kids away for a while. That upset them; they've been following me around all day. . . . I hope we will find an apartment. I keep making myself say that it will be all right.''

The Colemans' situation is not too different from many homeless families around the country, except that a majority are headed by single women. People who work with such families say the effects of this existence on families is almost catastrophic.

A soon-to-be-released study in Massachusetts will show that pre-school homeless children often lag in at least four of the major developmental milestones, such as the age at which they begin walking, talking, and playing with building blocks. Among children six and older, there was a significant degree of depression and anxiety, says Ellen L. Bassuk, the Harvard University Medical School psychiatrist who headed the study.

``Almost every kid I talked to had thought about suicide,'' she says. There were very few services available to these children. For example, only 20 percent of the preschoolers had access to Head Start programs, universally viewed as a successful program for the poor.

Homeless families are not always recognized, because they try hard to stay invisible. In California, several advocates for the homeless note that some families avoid seeking social services because they fear their children will be put in foster care.

The Massachusetts study indicates that 90 percent of homeless families were receiving assistance through Aid to Families with Dependent Children -- and had been receiving this aid for a long period of time.

The study also determined that although Boston's homeless population is predominantly black, outside the city the homeless are largely white. Surprisingly, more than two-thirds of the heads of homeless families had at least a high school education -- but few had records of successful employment or marketable job skills.

Dr. Bassuk says that although these families live in deep poverty, it is not simply an economic issue. Many of the women have little self-esteem and have been victims of abuse. Two-thirds of the mothers came from disrupted homes. But, Bassuk adds, these women are not psychotic.

Bassuk argues that homelessness is not simply a housing issue for this population.

``These are people with severe residential instabilities,'' she says, noting that some in her study have had housing problems for at least five years. ``This is often not their first time in a shelter. Three-fourths of the families had doubled or tripled up with others previously.''

Without financial assistance, housing, and a very wide range of support services, these families move from one unstable situation to another. From a policy point of view, says Bassuk, shelters or interim housing is just another stop on a cycle.

But families are not the only category of homeless.

Wanda sits at the long dinner table at Seattle's Sacred Heart Shelter, where tasteless but nutritious lentil bean soup, warmed fried potatoes, and a limp salad make up dinner for the shelter's residents.

An older divorcee, dressed impeccably in black, with nice jewelry and neat black pumps, Wanda tells how she joined the ranks of the homeless.

``I had a summer job, and I thought I would get in the stores for the Christmas season,'' she says, adding that she gets no financial help from her ex-husband. ``But I am past the age when stores are overjoyed to put me to work.''

When she was unable to find a job, she had to move out of her apartment, leaving her furniture to the landlord as the last month's rent.

``I don't owe any money,'' says Wanda, with determination. ``And I have not hit skid row yet.'' She notes that even a sleeping room is too expensive when there is no work. She has not signed up for welfare, and still hopes to find a job.

In a different part of Seattle, Mark sits in front of one of the better department stores, holding a sign asking for help. He has worked on fishing boats; but last season was so short he wasn't able to save much money.

Mark hasn't found other work so he stays at Seattle shelters, waiting for the new season to begin in a couple of months.

Over and over, in talking with the homeless, one hears the earnest desire for work.

Joe Jordan straightens out the quilt on his bed in a Los Angeles skid-row transit hotel. He pays for the room with a voucher from the county's general relief program. He has been doing janitorial work found through the agency.

``It could lead to something,'' says Mr. Jordan with hope, as he displays his job-hunting suit and his favorite tie.

Another job seeker, Victor Sain, says he left his hometown of Muskegon, Mich., to get work as a musician in Los Angeles. He has been involved in gospel, jazz, or rock music most of his life. The son of a policeman and a bank teller, Mr. Sain now wonders if he should have stayed home.

``Maybe I should have if I'd known the price would be coming down here,'' he says of skid row. Sain says he was robbed of all his money and ID soon after he arrived in California. He says he's tried to visit studios in Hollywood, but hasn't been able to get in many doors. Now he is appalled by the robberies, drug deals, and rapes which take place in skid row.

``I didn't come out here to fail,'' he says. ``I can do hard work.''

Sain says he is on the verge of a steady job, which would still give him time to promote his music. But, like many of the homeless, Sain admits that living in skid row means ``a lot of head games,'' -- challenges to motivation and staying out of trouble.

Richard Tucker, who is also living on skid row, puts it another way. He is not frightened by the people here, he is scared that it is so easy to get used to. When his family broke up, Mr. Tucker decided to ``drink it all off,'' and ended up here. Now, he says, he will leave here on his feet, and never come back.

``I think about what I used to have,'' he says quietly, speaking of his family. ``That's fantasy. I don't have it now. If I can't do better, I don't want to go backward.''

He says there are plenty of people on skid row who keep themselves homeless. But he says he doesn't care if they take advantage of charity and the welfare system if it benefits them.

``People who want to help themselves, we should give them the opportunity,'' says Tucker. ``People who cannot, we should help them.'' Third of four articles. Next: How do we provide a roof for everyone?

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