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IT is really tough to be homeless in America today. Even for those sheltered in the (relative) comfort afforded by motels out in the suburbs, homelessless can lead to loss of civil rights. Those caught in ``short-term housing emergencies'' that grow longer term by the day face such challenges as unwillingness of local school districts to accept their children, lack of any of the tenants' rights they would be accorded in traditional public housing, and even, as our reporter discovered while researching yesterday's story on homelessness in the suburbs, deprivation of rights of free speech: One family was threatened with eviction when the management of the motel where they were staying discovered they were talking with a reporter.

All right, you may say, these people should be grateful for what they've got. The motels are a much pleasanter alternative to the sorts of shelters that are set up in armories and the like.

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Point well taken. It's also true that some of the procedures that seem like an assault on civil liberties - searches of those entering shelters, for instance - are also a protection for many.

But policies for helping the homeless, particularly families whose plight is the result mainly of the very tight squeeze on inexpensive housing, should be geared toward keeping them ``in the system,'' to the extent possible: in the housing market, and not just warehoused; in the employment market, and not just resigned to idleness; in the school system, and not dropping out.

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