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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 placing families in permanent housing were all solutions Kozol endorsed. It would seem, then, that the story he told last year in Rachel and Her Children, the story of families—single mothers and their children, mostly, but two-parent families, too—who lose their homes and find themselves living in the relentless squalor of places like the Martinique, will have a happy ending, or at least a less sad one. Indeed, there are substantially fewer families living in New York City welfare hotels than there were a year ago. Whether this puts an end—happy or otherwise—to the problem of homeless families, however, remains in question.

Nineteen-eighty-three, the year I visited the Martinique, was a signal year in the history of homeless families in New York City. That year, their number rose to 1,300 after holding steady at about 600 throughout the previous decade, and the city, which had sheltered them on an emergency basis in a handful of privately owned, shamelessly run-down hotels, now found itself patronizing thirty-six such hotels and motels throughout the five boroughs.

Why the increase happened then, and not one or two or ten years earlier, is complicated, but only partially mysterious. Three years into Ronald Reagan’s first administration, the effects of his social welfare policies—from the elimination of certain nutrition and health programs to the drastic cuts in federal subsidies for the construction of low-income housing—were just being felt in the cities. So were the effects of the inflationary period before that, when the value of the public assistance grants that most homeless families rely on to rent apartments diminished, as did the ability of landlords to turn a profit on the tenements in which the poor live. Some of those landlords, most of whom were small-time owners with only one building to their name, resorted to arson, and some simply stopped providing basic services like heat and hot water and maintenance, forcing residents to move out. Many landlords also stopped paying taxes. When the city seized these buildings for tax arrears, it did not attempt to rehabilitate them. Instead, it boarded up these properties, further reducing the number of apartments available to the poor.

Back in the early 1980s, homeless families might have appeared anomalous, a contradiction in terms. Homeless people, by definition it seemed, were people without relations. They were solitary, displaced persons, street people, Bowery bums, hobos, tramps, bag ladies. Homeless families were museum pieces, captured in the photographs of Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans and others who chronicled the Depression for the Farm Security Administration. Or they were people who appeared on the news now and again huddled around a Red Cross canteen or lying on cots in a school gymnasium after a hurricane or flood or tornado.

It wasn’t a natural disaster in New York City that brought increasing numbers of homeless families to income maintenance centers and emergency assistance units from 1982 on seeking shelter, but in response, cots were laid out in long rows in armories and gyms, and thousands of people were sent to seek refuge there before being placed at one of the hotels. “So I’m all alone there,” a man who lost his job after his wife died, leaving him to look after their three small children, told Jonathan Kozol,

in this place with about 200 cots packed side by side. Men, women, and children, all together. No dividers. There’s no curtains and no screens. I have to dress my kids with people watching. When my girls go to the toilet I can’t take them and they’re scared to go alone.

Advocates for the homeless, Kozol among them, contend that the city made these “Tier I” or “barracks shelters” purposefully uncomfortable to dissuade people from making further use of the emergency housing system. If that was the strategy, it failed, for the conditions in these congregate shelters were so miserable that residents were even more desperate to be placed in a welfare hotel. And, as more and more families were placed in the hotels, their average length of stay grew longer. “Temporary housing becomes de facto permanent housing when no exit is available from the temporary system,” observed a task force convened by the Manhattan Borough President’s Office. Families that could have expected to stay three months in 1982 were likely to stay six months in 1983. By 1987, sixteen-month “temporary” placements were not uncommon.

A number of the most disreputable hotels were in a well-traveled section of midtown Manhattan, a corridor of businesses and residences from 42nd Street to 23rd Street, and when the “hotel kids,” as they came to be known, began coursing the streets—playing, loitering, stealing, begging, doing drugs and dealing them—and when their parents did likewise, what had been hidden in the outer reaches of the city was exposed. Overnight, it seemed, homeless families were part of the urban landscape, no more remarkable than the ragged men and women who pushed their belongings in shopping carts and ate out of dumpsters.

In this, New York was not exceptional. A 1987 survey by the US Conference of Mayors found that families with children represent the fastest growing segment of the nation’s homeless population. Although the majority of homeless people in America are still individual men and women, families now account for about 34 percent of the nation’s urban homeless population.1 But if the plight of homeless families in New York City is not necessarily worse than it is in other places (since abject poverty is abject poverty, wherever it occurs), it strikes people as decidedly more outrageous, not so much because of the conditions in which people are housed, as because of the price the public is paying to house them in those conditions. In 1987, the federal government paid half and the state and city governments each paid a quarter of the $159 million it cost to shelter homeless families in New York City. Even President Reagan wondered aloud why that money couldn’t be put toward permanent—and obviously cheaper—homes. (It couldn’t because Reagan administration policies prohibited New York State from using federal emergency assistance grants to pay for permanent housing.)

The President’s offhand query was picked up by officials at the Department of Health and Human Services, which foots half the hotel bill, and turned around. Why, they suddenly wondered, were they paying something like $30,000 a year per family to house homeless families in hotels? They threatened to cut federal funding. That notice was probably an even stronger incentive than the upcoming 1989 election in New York City for the mayor to announce the phasing out of the hotels.

The standard explanation for why there are more homeless people now than there were at the beginning of the decade is that there is a nationwide shortage of affordable housing. This is Kozol’s thesis (“the cause of homelessness is lack of housing”), and it is reiterated by a recent Institute of Medicine panel (“the committee concluded that despite the regional variation, the lack of decent, affordable housing is a major reason why so many people are homeless in the United States”), a recent New York City Bar committee report (“the primary cause of homelessness in New York City is the lack of low-income housing”), the Mayor’s Conference (“every survey city identified the lack of affordable housing as one of the main causes of homelessness”),2 and advocates like Bob Hayes of the Coalition for the Homeless (“There is a three-word solution to homelessness: housing, housing, housing”).

The government used to be in the low-income housing business. From the Great Depression to the Reagan administration, government was the main source of construction and operating subsidies for low-income housing. Until the 1960s, the federal government funded the building of public housing projects, leaving the local housing authorities responsible for their operation and upkeep. The operating money came from tenant rents, and by the Sixties, the cost of running and maintaining the buildings outstripped the income generated by rents. In 1969, the federal government began subsidizing the operating costs of public housing projects, and continues to do so today.

  1. 1

    A Status Report on Homeless Families in America’s Cities: A 29-City Survey, United States Conference of Mayors (May 1987), p. 5.

  2. 2

    The quotations are from Rachel and Her Children, p. 11; “Homelessness, Health and Human Needs,” Committee on Health Care for Homeless People, Institute of Medicine (National Academy Press, 1988), p. 26; “Report of the Committee on Legal Problems of the Homeless,” Association of the Bar of the City of New York, October 19, 1988, p. 8; “Status Report on Homeless Families of America,” p. 1.

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