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A place to play. ...while mother's gone for day, looking for housing and work

BRIAN, a chubby two-year-old, toddles toward the sleeping room dragging a toy duck on a string. He's looking for his sister, Angel, 3, who's still napping on a plastic mat. Brian and Angel's mother is looking for a job and an apartment. A young, single parent, she brought her family to Atlanta from Florida in hopes of finding work and affordable housing.

Brian and Angel are two of the 30 children who spend their days at the Atlanta Children's Shelter, one of the first shelters in the United States set up specifically for children of homeless families. Like the other parents, their mother lines them up in front of the shelter at 7 o'clock every morning, so they'll have a safe place to stay during the day. She usually picks them up at 4 o'clock and then takes them to one of the women's shelters, where they will spend the night.

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The Atlanta Children's Shelter, housed in the cramped basement of an old church, is within walking distance of one of the city's largest rapid-transit stations, just half a block away from fashionable Peachtree Street. In 1987, the shelter served more than 1,000 children ranging in age from four weeks to 14 years.

As she watches the children play in the brightly painted activity room, Laurie Downs, director, says the shelter provides free care from 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., six days a week, and offers a hot breakfast and lunch, clothing, shoes, and medical care.

In Atlanta, children make up an estimated 25 to 30 percent of the city's homeless, according to Anita Beaty, co-director of the Atlanta Task Force for the Homeless. But Ms. Beaty says it's difficult to get an accurate estimate. ``Many homeless families never connect with a shelter or government agency, especially if they're new to the city.''

The National Coalition for the Homeless, based in Washington, estimates that up to 40 percent of the homeless are families with dependent children. According to a report presented at the US Conference of Mayors in December 1987, families needing shelter increased 32 percent in 1987.

Ms. Downs says, ``Families end up homeless for lots of different reasons - both economic and social. Some women are unmarried mothers - others have been battered and abused. Many families are just one or two paychecks away from being homeless. When both parents are working and the mother or father loses a job, the loss of one paycheck can mean eviction.''

After she stoops to tie a little girl's shoe, Downs continues. ``We've even had some homeless families where the parents have some college education or post high-school training. With the cutbacks in federally subsidized housing ... they just can't find affordable housing.''

The shelter was started in 1983 by the Task Force for the Homeless and a group of women involved with several of the city's shelters for men. Betty Knott, executive director of the St. Vincent DePaul Society, a Roman Catholic charity, recalls, ``We began seeing more and more women and children on the streets and in the shelters. Many of the children were sick and needed care, and there was no place for them to go during the day if their parents were working or trying to find housing. We begged for money from the city and got some space in a downtown church.''

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The first shelter cared for 10 children and operated on a budget of $38,000. In 1986 the Junior League of Atlanta took it over and moved it to its present location. Now the shelter has an annual budget of $155,555, most of which comes from donations and grants.

But the shelter does more than just provide care. The staff, who have had training in child development, give instruction to preschool and primary-aged children. They prepare daily lesson plans for math and language arts.

``We try to provide comprehensive services for both the children and their parents - the total family,'' says Downs. Unlike many of the other shelters or day-care facilities across the country, the Atlanta shelter has a full-time social worker who works with the parents. She coordinates budgeting and job training classes and leads a weekly support group. She also helps families find affordable housing.

In addition to the director and social worker, the staff includes four full-time workers. Daily volunteers from the church and Junior League also assist.

Downs says, ``We try to give preference to the children whose parents are working or getting some kind of job training. Some days we have to turn away between five to 15 children, but it's hard to say `no' to people who are desperate, especially when they have babies....''

While many shelters close during the warmer months, the Atlanta Children's Shelter is open year round. Downs says that the average length of time children stay here is between four and six weeks, depending on how much public housing is available and how long the waiting list for housing is.

At times, the waiting list has been as long as two years. Even though the Atlanta Housing Authority placed almost 1,000 families in newly renovated units at the end of June, according to deputy director Bettye Davis, ``about 650 families are still on the waiting list.'' Anita Beaty of the Homeless Task Force points out that many families are so frustrated by the waiting, they won't even go through the process of applying for housing.

Although almost 70 percent of the families served by the Atlanta Children's Shelter have been placed in government housing or have found private housing in the past year, Downs points out that many of those people find themselves in a ``catch-22 situation.'' Once they find permanent housing, they must also make other arrangements for day care within a two-week grace period.

Downs explains, ``The parent or parents will find jobs and housing, but they end up giving up their jobs, because they can't find affordable day care for their children. It's difficult to pay for daily child care if they're working for minimum wage.''

She hopes Congress will pass the ABC Bill, the Act for Better Child Care, which calls for $2.5 billion to help moderate and low-income families pay for child care. ``If this bill is passed, it will be a major step in breaking the cycle of homelessness and providing quality care for poor children.''

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