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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:

"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.

"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.



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