Ranks of Homeless Include More Families

Aid groups scramble to meet complex needs - especially for kids

The eviction noticed arrived when J. Lathan Cornick was between jobs and drowning in debt, sending him, his wife, and their three children to a homeless shelter here.

The Cornick family has never gone hungry or slept on the street, but they have lived a vagabond's life since that day last June. The two oldest children have been in and out of two school districts. The youngest has spent almost half his life shuttling from shelter to shelter.

It's not a singular story, but the problem does appear to be getting worse. A US Conference of Mayors survey released today reports that requests for shelter by families increased by 5 percent over last year, compared with a 3 percent rise in requests by individual men and women.

Families with children are estimated to be 36 percent of the homeless population - and the fastest-growing group of homeless nationwide. The survey also reports that 88 percent of the cities queried regularly turn away homeless families because of a lack of resources.

Challenges for children

The consequences of homelessness are felt most strongly by children. A recent study by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty in Washington reports that homeless children are more prone to falter in school, have sleeping problems, or be depressed than are other children. They develop movement and speaking skills at a slower rate, the study shows.

"It's devastating to children to be homeless," says Maria Foscarinis, executive director of the center.

Additional studies have documented that a child who grows up without a home is more likely to be poor, unlearned, and unwell as an adult.

In response to the growing numbers, a host of programs have sprung up to handle homeless families' particular needs. The efforts are a mere drop in the bucket, experts on homelessness complain, but are better than nothing.

Prevention is where the focus should be, they say. "It's pointless opening more and more programs if we're not teaching people to take care of themselves," says Heather Gallimore, executive director of Genesis, an Atlanta shelter dedicated to housing families with newborns.

That means addressing the causes that lead families to homelessness - a parent's drug addiction or mental-health problem, an unaffordable housing market, or the lack of quality child care that keep parents from finding well-paying jobs.

"We've sort of pathologized the whole issue of homelessness, but we really haven't rolled up our sleeves and tackled the problem as a nation," says Andrew Hahn, a professor at the Heller Graduate School for Social Policy at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass.

The proliferation of homeless families is not a development that is being ignored, however. Groups from Girl Scout troops to the Quaker Oats Co. are pitching in to make the going smoother for homeless and hungry children.

The Cornicks, for example, are now in a transitional housing program sponsored by the Lutheran church. There, they have a year of free housing, after-school activities for their children, and counseling on subjects from nutrition to managing personal finances.

Mr. Cornick says the housing has been clean and comfortable and the atmosphere encouraging. Most helpful, he says, is information on how to put a $32,000 debt behind him.

Since September, he has been working as a forklift operator - a job with full benefits - 29 miles away. It's a trek he makes daily by borrowing rides - he has no car and says no bus line connects the two cities during the hours he works. Yet he remains upbeat and focused on the future.

"They tell me that in a year, I can even apply for a loan on a home," he says. "The kids really want a home."

Child-centered aid programs

Kids Cafe is another service that has recently been developed. Now in 150 cities, the program provides food and after-school activities to homeless and hungry children. Boys and Girls Clubs and local food banks are partners, using food to draw children to a safe and productive environment, says Doug O'Brien of Second Harvest, a Chicago-based umbrella group for 200 food banks nationwide.

Also, volunteer organizations across the country are marshalling retired teachers to work as tutors for children in shelters. One-on-one tutoring gives homeless children needed personal attention, while keeping them from falling back too far in their schoolwork, program operators say.

These programs are evidence that those working with the homeless are learning more about how to address different groups' special needs, says Paula Van Ness, president of the National Alliance to End Homelessness.

"We're getting some answers and we're using those answers to refine what we're doing," she says. "We're learning more about how help people and we've made great advances."

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