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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.

It was Richard Nixon who introduced “privatization” into the vocabulary of public housing. Under his Section 8 Existing Housing Program, poor people were encouraged to find private landlords willing to rent them apartments for a price established by the Department of Housing and Urban Development according to a schedule they called “fair market rents.” The tenant would pay 25 percent of the rent, and the public housing authority would pay the rest. (The Section 8 Existing Housing Program still exists. What no longer exists is a supply of vacant apartments whose landlords are willing to rent them at HUD’s “fair market” rates.) At the same time the Nixon administration established the Existing Housing Program, it also introduced a new construction program under Section 8. While in fact providing no money to build new housing, HUD offered real estate developers much higher operating subsidies for apartments in newly constructed buildings that met basic standards of habitability.

Since 1980, however, federal subsidies for new low-income housing construction have been cut by 60 percent, with the remaining 40 percent largely committed to projects undertaken earlier. Overall, federal housing support declined from over $30 billion in 1981 to $8 billion in 1987. In that period, New York City has experienced a loss of $7 billion. The 20,000 new units of federally subsidized housing that had been built each year in New York City throughout the 1970s dropped to 5,000 in the 1980s. There is currently an eighteen-year wait to get into public housing.

While low-income housing construction has been declining, upscale housing construction has experienced something of a boom. Over 200,000 units of residential housing were created in New York (the larger part of it in Manhattan) between 1970 and 1984, most of which only middle- and upper-middle-income residents could afford.3 The next three years saw the creation of 79,000 more units.4 As any resident of New York City knows, there is a direct link between residential housing construction and homelessness, since many of the new or renovated buildings have replaced tenements, single-room-occupancy (SRO) hotels, and other places where the poor have traditionally lived. New York is no different in this respect from other large cities across the country. Nationally, one million SRO units—half the total—have disappeared since 1970.

But gentrification and rising housing costs, and the contraction of low-income housing alternatives, only answer the question in part. To understand why there are more and more homeless families in America, it is necessary to recall a term that was popular a few years ago, “the feminization of poverty.” Poor people are poorer and more numerous than they were when the term was first introduced, and poor women are poorer than poor men, and more numerous. In its report issued last October, the Committee on Health Care for Homeless People of the Institute of Medicine notes that between 1966 and 1985, the number of people living below the poverty line rose from a low of 23 million in 1973 to a high of 34 million in 1984. Most of those people are women and children.

Homelessness may be the prima facie consequence of fire, faulty heating, neighborhood violence, or a death in the family, but its root cause is poverty—being so poor that paying for housing is beyond one’s means.5 The Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) shelter allowance is $286 a month for a family of three and $312 for a family of four in New York, a city where many think a $700 studio is a bargain; it is widely recognized, even by policy makers in Washington, to be inadequate by at least 50 percent.6 Since most homeless families rely on welfare as their main source of income, it is easy to see why they have trouble affording housing. Why they are dependent on public assistance is another matter, but it is not unrelated to the fact that more than half of all AFDC payments since 1980 have gone to women who were teen-agers when they had their first child. Many of these women have never worked and lack job skills. Others find it impossible to work because of having to care for their children. (These are exactly the sort of women whose behavior the 1988 Family Security Act, the so-called “workfare” bill, with its stringent work requirements, is supposed to change.)

New York’s Human Resources Administration offers a statistical portrait of the city’s homeless families: 95 percent are black or Hispanic; 86 percent are headed by women; their average age is twenty-seven, although 11 percent are teen-agers; 50 percent of their children are under five; 83 percent are supported by public assistance. Rachel and her children, the family featured in the title of Kozol’s book, fit these statistics. So did the family of the woman on the tenth floor of the Martinique I met the day I accompanied her lawyer to the two tiny rooms she shared with five children, three her own and two her teen-aged daughter’s. So do most AFDC families in New York.

The difference between poverty with a roof overhead and poverty in the streets or the subways or a homeless shelter is not, in monetary terms, very great. Instead, it is often the difference between a timely welfare check and a late one; having an address to receive the periodic questionnaires that welfare recipients are required to fill out to stay enrolled for public assistance if they are not to be “churned” from the system; having an address and being churned anyway; having family or friends with room to share or not; being healthy or sick; having an abusive spouse or not; having locks on the doors and windows or not. Poverty, in other words, is homelessness waiting to happen.

Rachel and her children became homeless after living in a basement for five years:

Five years in a basement with no bathroom. One small room. You had to go upstairs two floors to use the toilet. No kitchen. It was fifteen people in five rooms. Sewer kept backing up into the place we slept. Every time it flooded I would have to pay one hundred dollars just to get the thing unstuck. There were all my children sleepin’ in the sewage. So you try to get them out and try to get them somethin’ better. But it didn’t get no better.

It is reasonable to suggest that if circumstances had been a little different—if the plumbing had worked, say, or if the landlord had made repairs—Rachel’s family might not have become homeless. It is equally reasonable to suggest that there are countless other families whose plumbing is about to back up. It is called good luck if they manage to hold on to their homes, and bad luck if they don’t, and the problem with this accurate and limited characterization is that those who don’t tend to be portrayed as victims of fate by writers like Jonathan Kozol, rather than as representatives of circumstances more substantial and entrenched.

In Kozol’s view, the main difference between a homeless family and one that is not is that the one that is not homeless has a home. He is not referring to how, in demographic terms, homeless people are indistinguishable from other poor people, but to his belief that they have no special claim, no intrinsic defect, that predisposes them to their condition. It is a notion that runs counter to conventional thinking on the subject. The Institute of Medicine’s Committee on Health Care for Homeless People found, for example, that homeless families tend to have multiple problems, of which homelessness may be an expression. These families have “chronic economic, educational, vocational and social problems; have fragmented support networks; and have trouble accessing the traditional service delivery system.” In other words, they don’t have family and friends to rely on In other words, they are stymied by the bureaucracy. The same group also found that

the prevalence rates for mental illness, alcoholism and drug abuse are much lower among adults who are members of homeless families than among homeless adults who are not, but the fact remains that such health problems are more prevalent among homeless parents than among the general population.

One of the committee members, Ellen Bassuk, associate professor of psychiatry at the Harvard Medical School, is elsewhere particularly critical of Kozol’s obvious, and perhaps willful, naiveté in this regard, though the faith she places in the powers of her profession makes her analysis equally reductive. Kozol, she writes in the Yale Law and Policy Review (July 1988), elevating their disagreement to the ideological,

fails to recognize that many homeless persons have significant problems that could not be alleviated solely through the provision of housing.

…In many families psychological and support system factors contribute to the origins of homelessness. Therefore, only a comprehensive, long-term plan that addresses those factors can successfully combat homelessness. This plan should include permanent housing, adequate income maintenance programs, case management services, available and welcoming community resources, and assistance in creating and reestablishing supportive relationships. Homeless families should be offered necessary support and rehabilitative services such as crisis intervention, life skills, child care, psychological counseling, special education, and job training…. The overall goal is to create a network that will serve as a safety net during times of personal and economic crisis.

Safety net”? “Life skills”? “Rehabilitation services”? Why is it that bureaucratic language can express its concern for its subjects only by effacing them?

Some of the nonprofit organizations that operate transitional shelters now do provide residents with a variety of services like job counseling and family therapy (which is one reason why Tier II shelters charge even more to house homeless families than welfare hotels do). That not all of the transitional shelters offer this sort of help says less about its necessity or efficacy than it does about the transitional shelters.

Aside from some minimum guidelines that all must conform to—one toilet for every ten people, one shower or bathtub for every fifteen, private quarters for every family—the condition of these shelters, some of which are run by the city, varies considerably. At the top of the line are the furnished apartments operated by the Henry Street Settlement on the Lower East Side; at the bottom are the shelters with public bathrooms and congregate kitchens like the one the city operates in Chinatown, which used to be a barracks-style shelter. The fact that a transitional shelter is run by a non-profit organization instead of a private owner does not guarantee that it will be clean, well-run, or safe. Nor does the fact that it is called “transitional” mean that stays are brief: some families have lived in transitional shelters for a year.

Until very recently, families were stalled in places like the Martinique with no place to go. Those who did leave were often coerced into doing so, threatened with expulsion if they did not accept the lease to an apartment that was usually worse, and certainly not better, than their room at the hotel. Under the mayor’s plan to move homeless families out of welfare hotels, the six hundred families that have been in HRA’s emergency shelter system the longest each year will be placed in public housing project apartments, having been bumped to the top of the list ahead of other high priority, low-income, currently domiciled, potentially homeless applicants. This has got to have consequences.

Others will be offered some of the 252,000 apartments the city promises to rehabilitate and make available over the next ten years. Although it is as yet unclear in what condition these apartments, which are part of the city’s numerous, derelict stock, will be, it is clear that they are primarily located in some of the city’s worst neighborhoods—the South Bronx, Central Harlem, and East New York—where municipal services such as sanitation, fire protection, and education are minimal and crime is commonplace. This too has got to have consequences. It is also clear that the Department of Housing Preservation and Development, which is responsible for the rehabilitation, management, and financing of these properties, has never done a decent job of managing them, which is how the city got the reputation for being New York’s biggest slumlord in the first place, and this has got to have consequences, too.

But all these consequences may be a long way off, since approximately 6,000 children and 4,000 adult family members continue to live in welfare hotels. At the moment, the city has announced plans to close only three of the remaining forty-two hotels, which together house the same number of homeless families as the Martinique did. A poor family that becomes homeless today is as likely as ever to be sent to a welfare hotel or a barracks-style shelter.

Like the transitional shelters, the barracks shelters were intended for shortterm placements. In a report issued in November the New York City Citizens’ Committee for Children notes, however, that although the law restricts placements to twenty-one days, “one quarter of all families had been in the [barracks shelters] for over 3 months; 17 percent were in the shelters longer than six months”; some were there for a year. What this means, the committee observes, is that

families live long periods of time in crowded conditions which provide no privacy for sleeping, dressing or using the bathroom facilities. The most personal aspects of life must be carried out in view of strangers of both sexes; parents cannot prevent their children from witnessing all manner of behavior and activity…. [They also] watch their children become wild and aggressive.

And so, the story of Rachel and her children, and the story of thousands of other homeless, troubled families in New York City, continues—in barracks shelters, in transitional shelters, in welfare hotels with less notoriety than the Martinique, in run-down apartments in burned-out neighborhoods. Even if the mayor makes good on his promise, it is likely that closing the welfare hotels will only solve the problem of the welfare hotels, while the problems of homeless families will go on, in another venue, with another name.

  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.

  3. 3

    A Shelter Is Not a Home: Report of the Manhattan Borough President’s Task Force on Housing for Homeless Families (March 1987), p. 40. The task force defined “low income” as below $16,000 annually per household and “moderate income” as between $16,000 and $25,000 annually per household.

  4. 4

    This number includes additions to the housing stock from all sources, including new construction, renovations, and the conversion of storefronts to apartments, according to Professor Michael Stegman, Chairman of the Department of City and Regional Planning at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Because, at the same time, 41,000 units of housing were lost to fire, deterioration, abandonment, conversion, and other causes, the actual gain in housing units from 1984 to 1987 was 38,000.

  5. 5

    The cause of a family’s homelessness determines its status in the emergency housing system. Those who lose their apartment to fire or are ordered by the city to leave an apartment because the city has determined it uninhabitable are housed under the auspices of the Housing Preservation Department (HPD). Because these nine hundred or so families are given apartment-style accommodations, are never placed in barracks shelters, and only rarely see the inside of a welfare hotel, and then only the best of them, and then only for a few days, and because they are immediately referred to permanent housing, the city has been accused of creating a two-tier emergency housing system. The Human Resources Administration (HRA) is responsible for the four thousand plus homeless families who come into the system most other ways, including eviction and after doubling up with family and friends. These families are sent to barracks shelters, transitional shelters, and hotels. They aren’t referred to permanent housing until they have been in the emergency housing system for a year.

  6. 6

    According to two of the city’s own commissioned reports,” states the Citizens’ Committee for Children in Storage: Families in New York City’s Barracks-Style Shelters (November 1988), “the median gross rent for all apartments in New York City rose by 21.5 percent between 1984 and 1987, while the vacancy rate for habitable units renting for less than $300 in New York City has been estimated to have fallen to under 1 percent” (p. 6).

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