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The number of homeless people grew by 18 percent between January 1988 and April 1989 and may number as many as 2 million people, a new survey says.

But the survey, by Partnership for the Homeless, a private shelter provider in New York City, also found that the number of homeless families with children - about 31 percent of the homeless - has leveled off, ending a four-year trend showing families with children as the fastest-growing segment of the homeless population.The survey results were based on questionnaires circulated to more than 500 public and private agencies in 46 cities. It comes just days after more than 40,000 people marched on Capitol Hill to demand more government action to make housing affordable.

"This is a watershed opportunity to begin a new decade with a comprehensive attack on all the root causes of homelessness," said Peter Smith, president of Partnership for the Homeless. Citing public opinion polls that show 60 percent of the people willing to pay more taxes to deal with the homeless problem, Smith said, "The American people have made it clear that they want some swift and effective action taken to address a problem that has become a national disgrace."

The survey said it is nearly impossible to get a hard and fast figure on the number of homeless, noting that estimates have ranged from 600,000 to more than 3 million people.

"Most attempts at estimating the homeless by cities and localities have concluded that the homeless comprise from 0.7 percent to 1.1 percent of their respective populations," the report said. "If this range is reasonably accurate, there may be as many as 2 million homeless across the nation."

But the report said that the private and public agencies responding to the survey reported an average increase of 18 percent in the number of homeless with the highest increases reported in Everett, Wash., 70 percent; Newark, N.J., 60 percent; and Wichita, Kan., 50 percent.

No city or locality reported a decrease in the number of homeless and only in Corpus Christi, Texas; Seattle and Wilmington, Del., were no increases reported.

Among the fastest-growing segments of the homeless population are people with AIDS, which grew in 81 percent of the survey cities, and 87 percent of the survey cities said they anticipate that homeless people with AIDS will continue to increase in the coming year while none predicted a decrease. Only one city, Vernon, Conn., reported having no people with AIDS among its homeless population.

The survey estimated that there are between 28,000 and 32,000 homeless people with AIDS.

Some 22 percent of the survey cities characterized their homeless AIDS population as substantial, 19 percent described it as moderate and 56 percent as small. An overwhelming number of cities said supportive housing and care facilities for people with AIDS are either non-existent - 64 percent - or insufficient - 32 percent.

Overall, 60 percent of the cities said the lack of affordable housing was the major cause of homelessness, followed closely by unemployment and underemployment.

The report also said that those with severe mental illness make up 21 percent of the homeless, with single women, 28 percent, and single men, 25 percent, most affected.