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What could schools, shelters, volunteers do better?

STANFORD -- A 5-year-old boy takes a public bus to school, wearing a $13 monthly pass on a chain around his neck. His mother buys the pass each month because she no longer has a car.

A 10-year-old homeless boy says he studies on the school's soccer field because it is the only quiet place he has to go after school.

A homeless father says he was unable to get government assistance for his children because he told a social worker "Tengo una casa en Mexico." The interpreter thought he said he owned a house, but he really said there was a place the family could live if they returned to Mexico.

A homeless parent has a persistent toothache. He doesn't go to the dentist because he cannot pay for a filling and MediCal insurance will only pay the dentist if the tooth is pulled.

These are examples of gaps in taxpayer and charity assistance to homeless families in San Mateo and Santa Clara counties, according to the Stanford Studies of Homeless Families, Children and Youth.

Families were frustrated that they have to visit so many agencies to keep their lives going during a period of homelessness. They wanted to see more agency coordination and especially more assistance in finding an affordable place to live.

Service providers were frustrated too. Many of them were suffering from "burnout," the researchers said, which may explain why homeless families reported more verbal abuse from service providers than from the general public.

A substantial number of the 60 agencies studied did try to coordinate services, researchers found, and they also referred families to other agencies for help.

The agencies responded to emergencies but were often less able to spend time and money preventing homelessness, something both the agencies and families wish they could do, said Sanford Dornbusch, the Stanford University sociology professor who directed the studies.

The Stanford researchers interviewed 60 officials of agencies that assist homeless families in the two counties, as well as 71 public school personnel, including school secretaries and clerks, who are the most likely to be the first person a homeless family talks with when they come to register their children for school. Researchers gathered information about each organization, as well as each service provider's perceptions of problems in assisting homeless families and teenagers. The clients of these agencies were asked to assess the services.

Forty agencies and social service providers agreed to fill out a common intake form for every homeless family or youth with whom they had contact in an effort to get standard information.

Among the findings on services:

  • The agencies serving homeless teenagers were hampered by laws that require them to report contact with teenagers to their parents. About half the homeless teenagers living away from their families said they couldn't stay in homeless shelters because they feared shelter staff would force them to reunite with family members who had been abusive or uncaring.
  • Homeless families served by agencies were getting emergency medical care, but dental care was in short supply, the study found. Homeless shelters did not have as many volunteer dentists coming to help as volunteer medical doctors. MediCal, the state-federal medical insurance program for poor people who qualify, will pay for tooth extractions but not fillings, so families tend to delay going to the dentist.
  • The schools in San Mateo and Santa Clara counties were doing a good job of registering homeless children, despite national criticism of school registration procedures for homeless children, Dornbusch said. Even though the majority of the 596 homeless families studied had moved at least three times in the previous year, 9 of 10 school-age children were registered in school.
  • Getting to and from school and finding a quiet place to study, however, were major problems for homeless children. There is no system for providing school buses or public bus passes to children when homelessness forces them to relocate. The homeless children often want to stay in the same school, even though it is distant from the shelter.

"School personnel, homeless parents and the homeless children themselves all agreed on two central problems that threaten the education of homeless children: frequent changes of school and lack of transportation to school."

Children may be registered, but the researchers found that their attendance decreased as the number of schools they attended increased.

  • Government programs for helping families find their own place to live is not keeping pace with demand. The state's Housing Assistance Program, which helped some families with the first month's rent and deposit, has been cut back recently. The current waiting list for Section 8 housing, the largest subsidized housing program, is closed.

"Families wait months and years before they receive housing," Dornbusch said. Requirements that limit the persons per room and also state that children of different genders cannot share a bedroom make it especially hard for families with three or four children to find a place to live.

  • Homeless families said they often faced discrimination in the private rental market even when they had cash for the rent. Landlords who were willing to trust homeless families and to be flexible about methods of payment, such as receiving the deposit in installments, did help some families out of homelessness.



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