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Alice Baum, author attributed homelessness to mental ills

LOS ANGELES -- Alice Baum, a social activist who in 1993 wrote "Nation in Denial: The Truth About Homelessness" with her husband, Donald Burnes, died Sept. 23 at Hoag Memorial Hospital Presbyterian in Newport Beach, Calif. She was 66.

In 1980, Mrs. Baum served as executive director of the National Advisory Counsel for the Education of Disadvantaged Children.

Born in New York, Mrs. Baum graduated from Wellesley College. She met Burnes when he was director of educational research for the National Institute of Education in Washington in the early 1980s. They married in 1989.

For nearly three years the couple worked directly with homeless people in Washington. Their experience inspired their book, which challenged a popular belief that most homeless Americans were working-class poor who had been living from paycheck to paycheck until they lost their jobs.

Baum and Burnes argued that at least 65 percent of homeless people suffered from mental illness or drug or alcohol addiction and were incapable of holding steady work. Along with emergency shelter, many street people needed medical treatment, they argued.

They linked the rise in homelessness during the 1980s and 1990s to the aging baby boom population. Between 1970 and 1990, they wrote, the number of Americans age 18 to 44, the period when people are most at risk for addictions and mental illness, rose from 73 million to 108 million.

Part of the solution they proposed was to convert public shelters to "intake centers," where homeless people could be placed in long-term care programs. Mrs. Baum called the approach "aggressive outreach."

Some critics questioned the book's premise that the largest percentage of homeless people suffered from illness or addiction. The couple retired to Capistrano Beach in 1995 but remained involved with several causes, including care for children with AIDS.

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