Rachel and Her Children: Homeless Families in America | Chapter 18 of 40

Author: Jonathan Kozol | Submitted by: Maria Garcia | 1395 Views | Add a Review

Please hit next button if you encounter an empty page



It is a commonplace that a society reveals its reverence or contempt for history by the respect or disregard that it displays for older people. The way we treat our children tells us something of our moral disposition too.

The rate of child poverty in 1986 was one-third higher than ten years before. The Children’s Defense Fund states that child poverty, which has increased 50 percent since 1969, now affects “nearly one out of every three children under the age of six.”

In constant dollars, welfare benefits to families with children have declined 35 percent since 1970, according to the New York Times.

The Reagan administration canceled the White House Conference on Children for the first time in this century.

Children are paying a stunning price for these revised priorities. Housing discrimination against children is well documented nationwide. A federal study finds that children are “routinely excluded from a fourth of rental housing” and “from 60 percent” of housing built since 1970. New York City “may be worse,” the New York Times reports. “Call us soft on children,” writes the Times. “We think a society that harmfully discriminates against its young betrays its heritage and subverts its future.”

The bias against children finds its most extreme expression in denial of essential health care and nutrition. In 1985, according to the New England Journal of Medicine, 35 million Americans had no health insurance. One million people had been cut from food stamps in the first year of the Reagan presidency. Six hundred thousand had been cut from Medicaid from 1981 to 1983. Children had been “hardest hit by cuts in Medicaid.” Two hundred fifty community health-care centers had been closed in 1982. One million low-income children had been excluded from nutrition programs between 1982 and 1984. There had been “a nationwide increase in the number and percentage of women who do not receive prenatal care at all or before the third trimester” and a “large increase” in the incidence of anemia in pregnant women.

“Maternal anemia,” according to the same report, “has been associated with low birth weight and with stunted cognitive and physical development in children.” Women who do not receive prenatal care, the Journal said, are “three times as likely” to give birth to a low-birth-weight child. According to one study, “low-birth-weight babies are 40 to 200 times more likely to die and three times more likely to have neurodevelopmental handicaps….”

A “particularly ominous finding,” said the Journal, was the recent increase in the incidence of low-birth-weight babies. In Boston, “14 percent of inner-city children”—or three times the normal rate—fell into this category. “Blood lead levels are also rising. Between 1982 and 1983 there was a 59 percent increase in the number of children with elevated lead levels and a 52 percent increase in the incidence of clinical lead poisoning.” The incidence of measles had increased in 1984 “for the first time since introduction of the vaccine….” A separate article in the same issue of the Journal spoke of the Reagan administration’s “relentless efforts” to reduce health services to “low-income persons who are aged, blind, disabled, or members of families with dependent children.”

Abnormally high numbers of the children of the homeless are low-birth-weight babies. We have been acquainted with the term “failure to thrive.” The phrase, while it applies to children of the rich and poor alike, increasingly defines the status of the poorest children in our land. It also suggests some of the clinical detachment that permits us to attribute failure to the child rather than to the society that has endangered him. But the medical term may be applied more broadly. All but a few of the children in the Martinique and similar hotels will fail to thrive in any meaningful respect.

Early death or stunted cognitive development are not the only risks these children face. Emotional damage may be expected too. Ellen Bassuk, a psychiatrist at Harvard who has studied many homeless families, speaks of interviewing children who are more depressed than those she would expect to find in psychiatric clinics. She describes a nineteen-month-old baby who has started having nightmares and stopped eating. A ten-year-old boy, ridden with anxiety, begins to mutilate himself. He has pulled out his permanent teeth.

Anger that does not turn in upon the child frequently turns out to vent itself upon society. Children like Doby, Christopher, and Angelina live with a number of good reasons for intense hostility and with very few for acquiescence in those norms by which societies must live. Such children, if they do not cause disruption in the streets and the hotels, may do so in the public schools. Even the most enlightened teachers in an urban school are likely to take recourse to severe and punitive measures to contain a child’s wrath and to preserve some semblance of serenity in which to educate the other children in the class.

In classes that contain large numbers of such pupils, education often must be forfeited almost entirely. Discipline problems dominate the teacher’s time. An atmosphere of martial law prevails. Teachers faced with pedagogic situations of this sort often flee the education world for more rewarding work. This, in itself—the loss of excellent teachers and the loss of decent education for all children—is one of the incalculable costs that we incur.

What happens to children whose behavior in the school is so disruptive that they simply can’t be handled anymore? What of the child who begins to drift into the streets and never gets to school at all? That child runs the risk of being placed in jurisdiction of the courts. A child in this situation enters a legal netherworld, or category, commonly referred to as that of the “status offender.” The status offense is not a form of criminal behavior (it is not the child but the child’s status that offends us), but it does compel the state to introduce a child to the legal system.

A month before my visit to the Martinique I was asked to speak before an audience of justices of New York’s Family Court at a weekend convocation held in Tarrytown. Conversations with a number of the judges, children’s advocates, and welfare workers present at this meeting left a stunning portrait of the long delays and vast expense in time and labor needed to bring children through the labyrinth of the courts.

The dollar costs of juvenile placement are the least important; even these are quite astonishing. The cost of placement for a child who is too severely damaged to be suited for an ordinary foster home—one who requires placement, for example, in a low-security institution—ranges from $25,000 up to $50,000 yearly. In cases where children are believed to need more careful supervision, costs may be as high as $80,000.

Shortages of space in juvenile homes, moreover, frequently compel the court to place the child in an institution which is also home to serious offenders. The status offender and the genuine offender (one who, were he older, would have been condemned to prison) live together in such institutions. The status offender learns survival strategies from those with whom he dwells and must contend. Soon enough, the categories that divide them become academic. The child whose sole offense had been a status that compelled compassionate attention from the state now becomes apprenticed to those who are competent in real offenses. He learns to struggle, to connive, to lie, and to fight back.

With few exceptions, children placed in institutions of this sort mature in time into adult offenders. The cost of their adult incarceration may be less than that of juvenile detention ($40,000 yearly is an average cost for prison maintenance of adults at the present time in New York City), but there are additional expenses that cannot be measured: damage to victims and to property; costs required to provide police protection for the law-abiding citizen; costs of litigation, prosecution, and defense; and all the other billions squandered as the seemingly inevitable price of our initial willingness to countenance the institutional assault upon these children in their early years.

The power of peer pressure to instruct a child in the use of violence is most readily perceived in juvenile detention but prevails, often with equal force, in places like the Martinique. “My kids ain’t no killers,” Rachel said. “But if they don’t learn to kill they know they’re goin’ to die.” The lessons of violence are all around them. Exiled from the family of society, they may see few reasons to respect the family’s rules.

A letter from a woman in the Martinique brings me this information: “A security guard got killed right on my floor last week. It’s been on the news since Sunday morning. It seems a man was beating up his wife. Security was called. The man was told to leave the room. He came back with a shotgun and he shot the guard right in the face. He ran to get some help and he collapsed and died beside the elevator. Half his head and brains were on the floor around the corner where he had been shot.”

Can we expect that children do not see these things? “They see it all,” Rachel observed. “They see it everywhere.” We have now seen Angelina coming home in handcuffs. More important, she has seen herself in handcuffs. The end of innocence for Rachel’s children seems to be at hand.

New York City spends a huge amount of money to build prisons and a great deal more to house the prisoners within those buildings. A year after my visit to the Martinique, I am told the New York prison population is approaching 15,000. In desperation to find further space, the city has converted a ferryboat to hold another 160 men. It now announces plans to build a vast new prison that will hold 4,000 inmates. The prison will be built on Staten Island. The Staten Island borough president, who has opposed a plan to build four homeless shelters in his borough, indicates his preference for the prison. “A jail is preferable to a shelter,” he explains, “because it’s self-contained.” He notes that “it doesn’t spill over” into the surrounding neighborhood.

An equation, then, already exists between the homeless population and the inmates of a jail. The theme of containment is applied to both; the jail contains its inmates more efficiently. His phrase—“it doesn’t spill over”—is suggestive. “Spillage” is applied more frequently to sewage than to human beings. But it is unrealistic to believe that any containment of this “spillage” is within the power of the city. New York will never be able to build new prisons fast enough to hold all of the turbulence and anger that are being manufactured daily in the Martinique Hotel and in the more than sixty other buildings that contain its homeless children.

In reviewing a book on the alleged genetic origins of crime, Mayor Koch writes that “people who try to blame society for criminal behavior look pretty foolish.” He cites the authors’ “fundamental insight” that “an individual commits crime because of enduring personal characteristics.” These innate factors include, among others, “level of intelligence, genetic inheritance, anatomical configuration….” He says the authors “effectively destroy the shibboleth that poverty causes crime” and quotes without demurral their assertion that “chronically criminal biological parents are likely to produce criminal sons….” He describes such persons as “this legion of habitual predators.” He notes that “the number of convicted felons in New York prisons has more than doubled” since he came to office.

The number of homeless families has increased more than 500 percent in the same years.

What of the children who do not become entangled in the legal system but remain to do their best in the hotels and public schools? Many do not get to school at all. Transient existence cuts them from the rolls. If readmitted to their former schools, they may face a long ride on a bus or subway twice a day. If the bus or train is late, they arrive at school too late for breakfast and must struggle through their lessons on an empty stomach. If transferred to another school close to their temporary residence, they still face the other obstacles that we have seen. Just getting up and getting out may be a daunting task.

At P.S. 64, on New York’s Lower East Side, 125 children from the Martinique were registered in February 1987. Only about 85 arrived on any given day. This estimate indicates that almost one third aren’t in regular attendance but does not include those who, because of bureaucratic complications or parental disarray, have never been enrolled. I would guess, based on a head count of the schoolage children in the ballroom of the Martinique at lunch, that more than a third of the children in this building do not usually get to school.

What of those who do make it to school? Teachers speak of kids who fall into a deep sleep at their desks because conditions in their hotel rooms denied them a night’s rest. How much can such children learn? Stanley Goldstein, principal of P.S. 64, estimates that a quarter of the hotel children are between two and three grades behind their peers in academic skills. This, he observes, makes them still more reluctant to appear at all. “They feel like idiots …,” he says. “Can you blame them?”

A reporter describes a nine-year-old in the third grade, already a year behind his proper grade, who cannot read, cannot tell time, and has a hard time adding and subtracting numbers of two digits. He has been classified “learning disabled” and “emotionally disturbed.” Many of the hotel children, school officials say, are becoming “deeply troubled” and exhibiting the symptoms of withdrawal. Others are becoming hyperactive.

Mr. Goldstein notes that it is difficult to reach the parents of a child. (Families in the Martinique seldom have phones.) He adds that, even when attendance officers attempt to visit parents at the Martinique, they are often unsuccessful. He says that sometimes no one answers—“Or sometimes there’s no one there.” What does the attendance officer do? He can leave a message at the desk, but parents tell me there is a good chance that it will never be received.

“You’re not dealing with the Pierre, you know …,” says Mr. Goldstein. “We have children who just disappear from the face of the earth.”

The New York Board of Education does not know how often children of the homeless lose out on an education; nor does it keep records of how well those who are registered in school perform. Nor has it any central policy to dictate to the schools how homeless children should be treated.

For children in the barracks shelters, pedagogic damage may be worse. In these situations, rudimentary classrooms are provided as a substitute for school. In some of these shelters, according to the New York Times, “the one-room schoolhouse—a fond bit of Americana—has been revised and updated to serve the city’s dispossessed.” There is nothing fond, and little of Americana, in the setup that the city has contrived to fill the days, if not the minds, of these unlucky children. One courageous teacher, given few supplies, does the best she can with a forty-year-old encyclopedia, donated desks, and storybooks on loan. “I’ve had three children and I’ve had forty-five … I never know, from one morning to the next, who will be here or how many.” Sometimes her biggest job, she says, is calming the kids down.

The problem is not limited to the five boroughs of New York. Homeless children in Westchester County undertake extraordinary journeys to get to their schools: Of 860 dislocated children living in motels, half or more must travel up to forty miles twice a day. Many travel longer distances. Because of shortages of space in Westchester motels and (according to one press report) because motels in other counties offer cheaper rooms, 454 children have been sheltered in motels in four different counties.

Each morning, they are put on buses—or, where there are not enough of them to justify a bus, in taxis—and they ride from town to town, county to county, in their search for education. Often these taxis take a number of different children to a number of different schools. “This results in children arriving at school either very early or late,” reports a school psychologist in Peekskill. Many of these children rise so early that they don’t eat breakfast and arrive at school carsick and hungry. “In our school,” he says, “we have children as young as four years old traveling over thirty miles….”

There is unintended irony in this. A society that vocally rejects the “busing” of poor children over distances of two to seven miles to achieve desegregation finds it acceptable to ship a child forty miles to be sure she goes to school where she originally lived. One homeless twelve-year-old at school in Peekskill says that she has been commuting from Poughkeepsie since the age of ten. A ten-year-old at school in Yonkers rides sixty miles twice a day from a motel in Newburgh. Because the system lacks coordination, schools in Mt. Vernon have children who commute from Yonkers, while Yonkers schools have children who commute from Brewster. Westchester County, according to the New York Times, is trying to devise “a computer program” that would “keep track” of the children and their parents, “cross-referencing the homeless….”

In provision of transportation, as of basic shelter, money may be made out of despair. A long taxi ride costs $10 a day per child: $1,800 for the academic year. A bus ride, priced at $1 per child per mile, costs up to $80 a day. In one extreme case, a homeless child relocated in Poughkeepsie has to commute to school in Yonkers at a state expense of $180 a day—$32,000 if projected for the academic year. For one-third this sum, the child could be sent to private school. For a great deal less, she could be sent to school with children from Poughkeepsie. Is there a reason she must ride to Yonkers every day?

The owner of a motel housing thirty homeless children sees an opportunity for profit. He recently bought four buses and obtained a contract with Westchester County to transport the kids to school. He gets a dollar a mile for each child. “I would anticipate we will be picking up from more motels …,” he says. “I don’t think homelessness is going to disappear.”

Finding shelter for homeless families with children in New York becomes more difficult on weekends because, on Fridays and Saturdays, prostitutes have more business and the homeless must compete with them for space. In Washington, D.C., in 1986, the problem is more easily resolved. Children and prostitutes are housed in the same building.

“The number of homeless families seeking emergency shelter” in the District, writes the Washington Post, “increased more than 500 percent during the last year,” pushing the city to house thirty-nine homeless children with their parents in a rooming house for prostitutes known as the Annex.

In the Annex, mothers put milk on windowsills to keep it cold. Families are confronted with drug paraphernalia in shared rest rooms. Children mingle with the prostitutes and clients. The owner of the rooming house describes it as unfit for children. “This is a pigpen,” he tells a reporter. But the city keeps the children in the “pigpen” for almost a year.

A member of the city’s Commission on Homelessness visits the “pigpen” and sees homeless children playing in corridors while, twenty feet away, prostitutes and clients take turns waiting to make use of the same room. Exit signs for the fire escape are in front of a locked door. Smoke detectors don’t work. The ropes from the window sashes have been confiscated by drug users to tie up their arms. “This is one of the worst things anybody could do to any family,” says a woman who has lost her home after losing her job. But she says she doesn’t dare complain. “If I lose this I have nothing.”

The city’s excuse, the Washington Post writes in January 1987, “is, as usual, that it had no choice.” But, says the Post, there have been sufficient warning signs. When the city attempts to justify this as a temporary answer to an unexpected need, the Post observes that city officials have been putting families in the Annex “since last March.” The Post editorializes that responsible officials ought to be removed. Embarrassed by the sudden press attention, a city official moves the families to another building. “This,” she says, “is just to get the situation out of controversy.”

The situation in Washington seems neither worse nor better than that in New York. Homeless families, according to the rules in Washington, must go every day to a decrepit place known as “the Pitts Hotel,” where they receive their meals and room assignments for the night. If the Pitts is full, they’re given bus fare and sent to one of two other dismal shelters. The next day they return to the Pitts and must begin the process once again.

“We have a more efficient system in the U.S. to deal with stray pets,” says New York Congressman Ted Weiss, “than we have for homeless human beings.”

Do we know what we are doing to these children?

Knowingly or not, we are creating a diseased, distorted, undereducated, and malnourished generation of small children who, without dramatic intervention on a scale for which the nation seems entirely unprepared, will grow into the certainty of unemployable adulthood. The drop-out rate for the poorest children of New York is 70 percent. For homeless kids the rate will be much higher. None of these kids will qualify for jobs available in 1989 or 1995. But every one who is a female over twelve is qualified already to become a mother. Many only thirteen years of age in hotels like the Martinique are pregnant now. Hundreds more will have delivered children, brain-damaged or not, before their sixteenth year of life. They will not be reading books about prenatal care. They will not be reading or observing warnings about damage done to infants by the alcohol or drugs they may consume. When their hour of labor comes, many will not even understand the medical permission forms they sign before they are sent into anesthesia. What, then, will happen to their children?

Those who are tough-minded may berate the mothers of these children. They may lacerate their fathers for not finding the employment that does not exist, or for which those educated in the schools provided to poor people cannot qualify. No matter how harsh, however, how will they condemn the children? Will they accuse these children, too, of lacking the resilience to stand tall? Some of these children are so poorly nourished, their confidence so damaged, or their muscle tissue so deteriorated, that they have a hard time standing up at all.

Visitors remark that places like the Martinique Hotel remind them of a penal institution. Prisons are for those who have committed crimes. What crime did the children in the “pigpen” or the Martinique commit? These children haven’t yet lived long enough to hurt us. They have not grown big enough to scare us. They have not yet learned enough to hate us. They are as yet unsoiled by their future indignation or our future fear. The truth is, they offend us only in one manner: by existing. Only by being born do they do injury to some of us. They take some of our taxes for their food and concentrated formula, their clothing, and their hurried clinic visits and their miserable shelter. When they sicken as a consequence of the unwholesome housing we provide, they cost a little more; and, if they fail utterly to thrive, they take some money from the public treasury for burial.

So they offend us not by doing but by being. We pity them enough to put them in a warehouse, but we do not mark these buildings in a way that will attract attention. You could walk from Broadway to Fifth Avenue on Thirty-second Street a dozen times and never notice that there is a building on the left side of the street in which 400 families are concealed.

The Martinique Hotel is an enormous building and should not be easy to disguise; but the sign has no illumination and it’s hard to see the name of the hotel unless one studies it from across the street. For this reason, and because of the bleak lighting in the lobby and the filthiness of the glass doors, it is difficult to recognize this as a residence. It resembles less a dwelling place than a dilapidated movie house or a bus station. One would not imagine from the sidewalk that this building might be home to 1,800 human beings.

Concealment is apparently important.


user comment image
Great book, nicely written and thank you BooksVooks for uploading

Share your Thoughts for Rachel and Her Children: Homeless Families in America

Popular Books

Popular Genres

500+ SHARES Facebook Twitter Reddit Google LinkedIn Email
Share Button
Share Button