WHEN Linda Martin last January led her family several hundred miles to the icy Illinois River and across its satin-silver expanse, she thought she had found a place of promise.
In Putnam County, Ill., Ms. Martin enrolled her children in schools she thought would enable her children to eventually shake off the penury that had weighed them down since birth. But when Martin and her four children became homeless in February, school officials from the county made it clear her children were no longer welcome. The neighboring district of La Salle-Peru gave the same messsage.
The district superintendents shrank from providing education to a needy family that was not paying taxes and helping to defray school costs, says Mary Balma, an advocate for homeless people in the area of north-central Illinois.
The case of the Martins highlights what homeless advocates say is a trend holding many of the estimated 450,000 homeless children in the United States in ignorance.
Federal law cited
A federal law aimed at protecting the right of public education for the children (although schooling is a state responsibility) is little known, infrequently invoked, and poorly enforced.
When Martin did find an apartment in La Salle-Peru, her children transferred to that school district. Putnam County in the end did not put them out of school. ``Still, I felt very frustrated, very angry, and very helpless,'' said Martin, asking that her real name not be revealed.
According to Ms. Balma, Putnam County School Superintendent Francis Karanovich threatened to have Martin's children arrested for criminal trespass if they came to school.
Dr. Karanovich denied in an interview that she tried to eject the Martins from the county schools. She did say that in early March she strongly suggested that the children enroll in the nearby La Salle-Peru school district where their family had been expected to find housing, she says.
``There is a significant failure in enforcement'' of provisions in the McKinney Homeless Assistance Act that protect the right to education for homeless children, says Maria Foscarinis, director of the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty in Washington, D.C.
``We have monitored the issue nationally for some years now and found that implementation [of the law] has been mixed at best,'' Ms. Foscarinis says.
The Illinois legislature last week passed a bill directing public schools to open up to the state's 25,000 homeless children and outlining how educators should do so.
The law, which awaits the governor's signature, is the first of its kind passed by a state legislature in the United States. It commits Illinois to the stipulations of the Education of Homeless Children and Youth program established in 1987 under the McKinney Act.
At the national level, the US Senate had planned to begin hearings yesterday on a bill that would strengthen aspects of the McKinney Act. The House of Representatives has already passed a similar bill.
Up to 33 percent of the nation's homeless children are kept away from public schools, according to estimates by the federal government. Some stay away because of the negligence of their parents. More often, though, they are snubbed by local school officials, say supporters of the homeless.
Governnent figures probably underestimate the number of children deprived of schooling because homeless Americans are by definition difficult to poll. Moreover, many of them are ignorant of their rights, and few of those who know their rights are willing to defend themselves, say advocates for the homeless.
The number of homeless children denied an education will probably rise if officials continue to fail in the enforcement of laws that guarantee the childrens' legal rights, say the advocates.
More families homeless
Families are the fastest growing segment of the homeless population in the United States. They represented 43 percent of homeless people last year, compared to 27 percent in 1985.
About 30 percent of the people who entered the nation's shelters last year were children, an increase from 25 percent in 1988, according to a survey of more than two dozen cities by the US Conference of Mayors.
Homeless children denied schools lose one of their last, main sources for friendship, security, and guidance, say advocates.
``After children lose their home the next security blanket for them to lose is usually their school and all their friends and then they turn around and there's nothing much more that's left to lose,'' says Balma, assistant director of the Illinois Valley Public Action to Deliver Shelter.
With their schooling disrupted, the children face greater odds of becoming homeless adults. Consequently, the long-term costs to society usually exceed the immediate expense of educating the children, say the advocates.
``Whether a homeless child receives an education or no education plays a big part in determining whether he or she becomes a homeless adult,'' says Sister Rose Marie Lorentzen, director of Hesed House, a shelter in Aurora, Il. which opened in 1982.
``This is probably the most disenfranchised group in America: the children of the poorest of the poor,'' says Joel Clary, director for the Illinois Coalition to End Homelessness.