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Welcome to the Hotel Bureaucratic : RACHEL AND HER CHILDREN Homeless Families in America by Jonathan Kozol (Crown Publishers: $16.95; 261 pp.)

February 07, 1988|Garry Abrams | Abrams is a Times staff writer. and

R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr., editor of the conservative magazine, The American Spectator, wrote a column this month to award prizes for the worst books of 1987. The winner for fiction, "Forgotten Voices, Unforgettable Dreams," was a collection of essays by homeless people, described by Tyrrell as "vagrants." Edited by a woman who works with the homeless in New York City, the book didn't measure up to his rigorous standards, Tyrrell said. A smarter editor "would have realized that she had nothing to publish," observed Tyrrell, who claimed he "found the bad prose of the writers less compelling than the bad editing."

Whatever the merits of "Forgotten Voices," Tyrrell's words represent exactly the kind of attitude that educator Jonathan Kozol attacks in his new book about homelessness, its causes and its perpetuation. In its way, "Rachel and Her Children" is a book of essays, too--the monologues of women, men and children about their desperation and helplessness. The stories of a baby's death, rat bites, lead-poisoned children, evictions and joblessness are interspersed with Kozol's reporting, analysis and judgments on the ways homeless people are treated in this country, particularly in New York City. In Kozol's view, "homelessness creates an underclass, enhances the underclass that may already have existed, and, combining newly poor and always-poor together in one common form of penury, assigns the children of them all to an imperiled life."

Kozol's main targets are New York's large welfare hotels where thousands of homeless families are confined in squalid conditions--often at monthly costs to the city of more than $2,000 for a tiny room--and condemned by rigid bureaucratic rules to a cycle of fruitless, mind-numbing errands to meet the "standards" of various welfare programs.

Typically, in return for their exorbitantly priced, landlord-enriching room, homeless people are required to go apartment-hunting with a monthly housing allowance of about $270, nearly $100 less than rent for the cheapest available housing. More often than not, the result is years of hotel life, with the city spending fortunes to house families in substandard, dangerous rooms rather than change its self-defeating welfare rules and allocations. In one hotel, for example, Kozol says the city pays $63 a night for a homeless family, while tourists, who are given cleaner, neater rooms, pay $35. Image-conscious hotels may also require children to not clutter up their front sidewalk by using the rear exit, whose sole other function is for hauling out the garbage.

Early in the book, Kozol singles out one hotel and declares, "Although I have spent a great deal of time in recent years in some of the most desolate, diseased, and isolated areas of Haiti, I find the Martinique Hotel the saddest place that I have been in my entire life." In more general terms, however, Kozol--probably still best known for his 1967 ground-breaking book about inner-city schools called "Death at an Early Age"--is taking aim at the icons of the '80s. In a key passage, he writes, "There is in certain intellectual circles, an increasingly explicit sense that some of us have a more authentic claim, not just to a comfortable life but to life itself, than do others. . . . It is noted that the decade, which has seen fit to apply more stringent standards to the poor, and to reduce their life supports to the bare bone, is also that in which the cult of 'fitness'--an obsession with thin bodies and hard minds--has overtaken the American imagination. Winning is all; the solitary runner, tuned in to a headset that excludes the cries of his less fortunate competitors, becomes a national ideal."

This health club Darwinism both sickens and angers Kozol, especially when it exacts a price on families with children. "Rachel and Her Children" is, among other things, a book of horror stories about the fates of children and their parents once they find themselves locked into homelessness and its bureaucracies. After one particularly harrowing story about the death of a baby--largely because of bureaucratic indifference, callousness and clumsiness toward the family and its child--Kozol concludes, "This, then, is a case not of the breakdown of a family but of a bureaucratic mechanism that disintegrates the family, tearing apart a mother and father in a time of shared ordeal."

The stories of the families that Kozol came to know are compelling, moving and eloquent, even though the storytellers themselves often are uneducated and dulled by monotony, hunger, sleeplessness and stress. The woman whose baby died remembered one moment when her child was dying for Kozol: "His eyes was sinkin' too. And I said: 'David, look at him.' He looked at him. His father looked. And there was dark around his eyes. His eyes was dark and sinkin' in."

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