The Rise of the Homeless

Rachel and Her Children: Homeless Families in America

by Jonathan Kozol
Ballantine, 272 pp., $8.95 (paper)

The first time I went to the Martinique, the New York City welfare hotel Jonathan Kozol wrote about in Rachel and Her Children: Homeless Families in America, there was no fence around the interior of its commanding marble staircase. Walking down from the tenth floor, leaning into the banister to avoid the attention of the teen-aged boys clustered on the landings and spilling down the stairs in twos and threes smoking pot and leering at passersby, I looked into the deep, funneling well and thought how easy it would be to fall in. I could recall being that scared only once before—two hours before, in fact—when my companion, a Legal Aid lawyer, and I had taken the elevator to visit one of her clients. The light inside the lift was vague, and as we lurched upward in fits and starts, it would flash on and off. We were the only women in the elevator, and once, when the light blinked on, I thought I saw a man palming a knife. That was why, on our way out, we had decided to take the stairs.

That was in 1983. Two years later, when Kozol began research on his book at the Martinique, at least one child had died plummeting through the shaft in the center of the staircase—a death witnessed by his playmates—and yards of metal fencing, the kind that might be used on playgrounds, were erected as a barrier.

The Martinique was, until the end of December, New York City’s most notorious welfare hotel. A year ago it housed 421 families—about 1,600 people—in rooms that had faulty wiring, inoperable toilets, box springs for beds and bureau drawers for cradles, rats and roaches, countless housing code violations, and no cooking facilities. These rooms cost the government $1,900 a month for a family of four. It made good sense, at least from a public relations standpoint, that in August, when Mayor Koch announced that the city would phase out its use of welfare hotels to house homeless families by 1990, he promised that the Martinique would be the first of the forty-two hotels to be closed. By December 31 the city had moved all the Martinique’s homeless families into apartments in public housing projects or city-owned buildings. But there are still, at this writing, 2,850 families living in other, less well-known, and even less habitable welfare hotels throughout the city, hotels where food must be suspended from the light fixtures to protect it from rodents.

Although Kozol’s book was published a few months before the mayor’s announcement, and effectively drew public attention to conditions in the welfare hotels, its publication was related to the new welfare hotel policy only secondarily: it was one more piece of evidence in a case where the process of discovery had gone on so long that the most damning facts were common knowledge. Still, emptying the hotels, opening smaller, nonprofit, short-term shelters with private bathrooms (what are called Tier II shelters in the city’s lingo), and…

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