Fifth-grader Chris Combs doesn't worry about his grades dropping or having to make new friends now. He can count on being at the same school all year.

That's a big change for Chris.When his mom lost their apartment two years ago, the Boise 11-year-old went to three different schools in one year.

"I didn't know anybody and the kids used to pick on me," he said.

"It was scary."

For Chris and other children who have no place to live, the world can become a very scary place.

According to the Idaho Department of Education, which has just conducted the most comprehensive survey of homelessness to date, Idaho has 5,382 such youngsters.

"This is the first hard data we've ever had, and it's a very conservative estimate," said Anita Brunner, who coordinates programs for the homeless involving 70 state and federal agencies for the Idaho Department of Education.

For six weeks late last year, social workers, school teachers and principals, doctors and nurses, police chiefs and supervisors of homeless programs statewide counted heads and combed records.

They determined that Idaho has 11,848 homeless people. At a little more than 1 percent of the state's population, the total parallels the national average.

Infants to 18-year-olds make up an estimated 15 percent of the homeless nationwide. But in Idaho, children account for 45 percent of the total homeless population.

"They are the new homeless," said Marilyn Plummer, Ada County Family School coordinator.

Many live in vans and garages. Some live along rivers. Many walk long distances to catch the school bus. Most have nowhere to bathe or wash their clothes and few have any way to do homework at night.

The struggle takes its toll.

The Department of Education survey found that:

- Only 37.2 percent attend school regularly.

- One-third miss more than the maximum allowed 10 days of school per year and need special permission to continue.

- Another one-third give up entirely.

"After a while, the stress of coping becomes too much," Plummer said. "For children, the psychic damage is permanent."

Chris was one of the lucky ones. His mother, Pat Combs, was sophisticated enough to seek outside help when the family lost its home after a hysterectomy left her unable to work.

Combs, 31, not only turned to the local government and non-profit agencies for temporary housing but also sought counseling for herself and her three sons.

"The majority do try to get some help," said Susan Rainey of Homeward Bound, a local organization that helps house the homeless. "But some people are better prepared to handle that kind of emergency.

When the Combses lost their apartment, they lived in a motel until El-Ada Emergency Housing in Boise found Chris and his older brother a foster family. Chris' younger brother went to a grandmother's house.

But that was 21/2 months later. By then, Chris' grades had begun to slip.

To help him catch up, his foster parents began tutoring him.

Today, Chris' grades are back to normal. He has friends at school and lives with his family in a small house. His mother is back at work.