The January release of Rachel and Her Children: Homeless Families in America was especially timely because it occurred during the season when the plight of the homeless elicits the most concern from the public. A well-established spokesman for the underprivileged, Jonathan Kozol previously prodded the national conscience with his books Death at an Early Age: The Destruction of the Hearts and Minds of Negro Children in the Boston Public Schools (1967) and Illiterate America (1985). Here he details the ravaging effects of homelessness on adults as well as children, who, he submits, “have become the fastest-growing sector of the homeless.” Countering the perception that the homeless population is composed solely of drug addicts, alcoholics, and the mentally ill, he presents evidence that it is, in fact, increasingly formed of families who have lost homes following a major catastrophe. Although he fails to array his statistical information in a persuasive manner, he nevertheless succeeds in conveying the harrowing experiences of the dispossessed.
The New York City shelter system is the prime locale of Kozol’s study. There, homeless families follow a path fraught with misery. Much of their suffering is a result of the dubious policy of deterrence, which dictates that, by making the process of obtaining aid extremely unpleasant, all but the truly needy will be discouraged from utilizing it. Indeed, families described in this book do try to avoid the shelter system by “doubling up” in the homes of friends or relatives; often, however, pressure on their hosts exhausts their welcome. Desperate, they then seek assistance at an Income Maintenance (welfare) Center, which usually refers them to an Emergency Assistance Unit (EAU), which in turn assigns them to a night in a barracks shelter or hotel.
After the first night, parents usually return to the welfare center to ensure the continuation of benefits endangered by a change of address. Next, returning to the EAU to secure a better assignment, they are often offered another temporary residence in a “short-term” hotel. These temporary assignations may continue for months or even years as families become increasingly ensnared in the intricacies of the shelter system. Employed parents may lose their jobs because this cycle of assignments consumes the majority of their work hours. Kozol also cites cases in which pregnant women and sick infants have been sent to unsafe shelters—or have even been denied shelter—in direct violation of state regulations.
Eventually, families may be sent to a “twenty-eight day” hotel. Another trip to the EAU at the end of this period may result in assignment to a long-term hotel such as the Martinique, where many of Kozol’s encounters take place. Tenants of these hotels are crammed into dismal, vermin-infested rooms. Lead paint peels from walls and ceilings. Drug use and prostitution are commonplace, possibly occurring with the complicity of guards. The tension is unremitting.
In addition to weathering these living conditions, families must also confront a battery of destructive regulations. Some discourage fathers from living with their families: Although a father might hold a low-paying, temporary job devoid of benefits such as health insurance, his inclusion on a woman’s family budget would still jeopardize her welfare payments. “Thus,” Kozol argues, “loyal fatherhood becomes a fiscal liability.” As a result, some fathers sneak into hotels or sign in as strangers, paying a guest fee to visit their families.
Another rule compels tenants to search for housing despite a severe shortage of available units, an endeavor especially trying for those who must either bring their children with them or entrust them to other family members or residents. If parents seek housing on the open market, the monthly rent must not exceed a prohibitively low welfare limit. In a typical scenario, Anne Harrington (Kozol uses pseudonyms to protect tenants from eviction and other forms of retaliation) was offered an apartment for $365 per month. Although the city paid the Martinique Hotel $1,900 per month to house her family, her social worker denied her this opportunity, citing her limit of $270. Public housing is equally tantalizing: One city official estimates that those who apply for it must wait eighteen years to qualify for one of 175,000 units. (In August, 1988, Mayor Edward Koch announced plans to eliminate welfare hotels by 1990 by giving homeless families priority on the 200,000 name waiting list.)
Other oppressive policies concern provisions for food. Tenants at the Martinique, at one time not even allowed tiny refrigerators, are prohibited from cooking in their rooms. Because their restaurant allowance and monthly food-stamp allocations are too insubstantial to allow them to abide by this restriction, they economize by...