IT was 1983 when Ellen Bassuk saw teenaged parents rocking their newborn in a cardboard shoe box at a homeless men's shelter.
That year and the next, the president of the Better Homes Foundation watched the number of homeless families rise. "I saw children, 2 and 3 years old, sleeping with their mothers in back of abandoned station wagons," she says, as well as in emergency shelters and abandoned buildings.
She had been working in a Boston hospital as a psychiatrist for the homeless and mentally disabled. Moved by what she saw, she turned to homeless families. They are the most rapidly growing segment of the homeless population, according to a recent report by the United States Council of Mayors.
Today, Dr. Bassuk is regarded as the nation's expert on the problem of homeless families - the causes and effects, as well as the cure and prevention. Her first priority is mainstreaming homeless families into society.
"We are squandering our most valuable resource," she says, by not reaching the children of the homeless with education, health care, and a chance to grow up in normal surroundings.
To help stop this trend, Bassuk and David Jordan, editor-in-chief of Better Homes and Gardens magazine, formed the Better Homes Foundation in 1988. It aims to provide funds to groups helping homeless families nationwide. The foundation does not build houses but supports homeless programs by giving money and technical assistance to groups that qualify.
"Homelessness is not 'houselessness, says Bassuk. "It is a rupture in community supports. It is a feeling of detachment from family, friends, church, and even yourself.Home" implies a basic shelter, says Bassuk, but it also entails a connection with a community, friends, and family.
In 1985, Bassuk studied the long-term effects of homelessness on children. From 80 families and 151 children living in Massachusetts family shelters, Bassuk found that many homeless mothers had never had people to turn to for help. They were disconnected from caretaking institutions, as well as from family and friends. The isolation may have stemmed from the mothers' childhoods, which contained a high proportion of divorce, desertion, or violence. Drug abuse, including alcohol, was also a problem in many