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Alice Baum, 66; Author Linked Mental Illness and Homelessness

October 03, 2003|Mary Rourke | Times Staff Writer

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. Baum, who had been hospitalized due to complications from lung cancer, was 66.

In 1980, Baum served as executive director of the National Advisory Counsel for the Education of Disadvantaged Children. The commission was launched in 1965 during President Lyndon B. Johnson's War on Poverty.

Born in the Bronx, New York, on Jan. 9, 1937, Baum graduated from Wellesley College. She met Burnes when he was director of educational research for the National Institute of Education in Washington, D.C., 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% 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 -- vaulted from 73 million to 108 million.

Part of their solution was to convert public shelters to "intake centers," where homeless people could receive help getting placed in long-term care programs. 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. Though they agreed that there was a need for health treatments for homeless addicts, they maintained that the overall solution to homelessness was more jobs.

Despite the controversy, the book led to ongoing consulting work for Baum and Burnes. "We traveled the country for several years, working with state officials who were looking for responses to homelessness in their area," Donald Burnes told The Times on Thursday.

The couple retired to Capistrano Beach in 1995, but remained involved with several personal causes, including care for children with AIDS.

A new orphanage for children with AIDS in East London, South Africa, will be named for Alice Baum, Burnes said.

In recent years Baum and her husband joined the Dana Point Historical Society and spent much of their time researching local cultural history, writing booklets and organizing tours of historic homes in their area.

Along with her husband, Baum is survived by two children from a previous marriage and three grandchildren. A memorial service is planned for 2 p.m. Oct. 18 in Capistrano Beach. For information, call Donald Burnes at (949) 488-0427.

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