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Homelessness can rob children of childhood, study finds

STANFORD -- The damage inflicted on children by a period of homelessness often becomes more apparent after the family has found a home, a just-released Stanford University study has found.

One-sixth of formerly homeless parents said that specific problems engendered by homelessness persisted after the move to more permanent housing, according to the Stanford Studies of Homeless Families, Children and Youth. The most frequently mentioned of these problems were depression and sadness, disobedience and school difficulties.

The studies, conducted in 1990 and 1991, gathered information on 1,342 children in 596 homeless families in the California counties of San Mateo and Santa Clara. Social service providers, school personnel, members of formerly homeless families and poor families at risk of homelessness were also interviewed.

The vast majority of homeless children were enrolled in school, the studies found, and schools have become more flexible in their responses to the homeless. But frequent changes of school and lack of transportation to school are key problems for homeless children.

Formerly homeless parents, in assessing the effects of the homeless experience on their children, reported more negative behaviors and psychological problems than did currently homeless parents.

One explanation, offered by Dr. Hans Steiner, a psychiatrist at Stanford Medical School, suggests that homeless children often act like miniature adults, postponing expression of their needs in order to help their distressed parents. When they are no longer homeless, children feel free to express their rage, anxiety and depression, he theorized.

Alternatively, homeless parents may find it difficult to acknowledge their children's problems while they are homeless. Once the crisis is past, parents may find it less difficult to accept, said Stanford University sociology Prof. Sanford Dornbusch, who headed the studies.

One long-term effect of homelessness on children may be the loss of hopes and dreams, the studies found. Homeless children, like children everywhere, talked about growing up to be ballerinas, sports stars, doctors or lawyers. But they often told those doing the studies that these things would never happen for them, that they were impossible.

Some children could not even imagine having their own home and family one day. A 12-year-old boy said that when he grows up, "I'll do nothing, just sit around, if I have a place to sit around at, if I'm not dead."

Homeless children are robbed of their childhood in many ways, the studies found. For example, they worry about things that most children don't give a thought to: paying the bills and their parents' search for a job.

"She's a 35-year-old midget. She's aware of too much," said a formerly homeless mother about her daughter, 2-1/2.

The children interviewed knew why they were homeless - their parents couldn't pay the rent or family fights meant they could no longer stay with relatives.

Although they were grateful for shelters that provide food and a place to sleep, children resented the restrictions that shelters imposed on their lives. They didn't like having to wake up at unusually early hours. They wanted to be able to fix snacks in the kitchen instead of always waiting for scheduled meals. And, like their parents, the children were bothered by lack of privacy in the large shelters.

This lack of privacy also affects their education. Many homeless children reported that they had difficulty finding a quiet place to study or do homework. Many said they used their family's room at the shelter, a room usually crowded with furniture, parents and siblings. Other children told the Stanford researchers that they studied in the family car, the closet, a shelter's television room, or outdoors.

Schools adapting to homeless children

The vast majority of homeless children identified, both those living in shelters and those living on the streets, were enrolled in school, the studies found. Among the shelter population, 89 percent of the homeless children of school age were currently enrolled in school. As a check on the accuracy of the reporting, the researchers asked the parents the name of the school their children were attending.

Schools have become more flexible in their responses to homeless children, the studies found. For example, in enrollment procedures, school officials still insist on proof of immunization for entering students, but other requirements can more accurately be termed "requests." Administrators ask parents to try to get their children's academic records from a previous school, but lack of such records is not a barrier to enrollment.

This may have changed since the mid-1980s when Dr. Ellen Bassuk, associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, headed a study of homeless mothers and children in Massachusetts. Parents told Bassuk that the schools made it very difficult for children to transfer.

School personnel, and homeless parents and children agreed on two central problems in educating homeless children: frequent changes of school and lack of transportation to school.

Of the homeless children in the Stanford survey, most of whom were still in elementary school, more than half had attended four or more schools. That is not surprising the researchers said, since the majority of the homeless families surveyed had moved at least three times in the past year, and more than 20 percent had moved five or more times in that period.

Transportation was a problem because many homeless families had neither a car nor access to school buses. Their children were forced to use public transportation, which was both expensive and, especially for unaccompanied younger children, frightening and dangerous. One 5-year- old, the studies found, walked by himself to the bus every morning, wearing a bus pass on a string around his neck. A 7-year-old had to use three buses every morning to get to his second-grade class.

The Stanford researchers surveyed school personnel to determine how high a priority they gave to aiding homeless children in school, and found that school staff, forced to deal with a number of social problems, did not place such aid at the top of their agenda. Those who urge that schools be the main providers of services to homeless children must work to insure that additional resources are given to schools for these services, or they simply won't be provided, the studies concluded.

The studies were funded by major grants from the Walter S. Johnson Foundation, with additional assistance from the Hewlett Foundation, the Koret Foundation and the Santa Clara County United Way.



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