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February 29, 1988 - Image 65

Resource type:
The Michigan Daily, 1988-02-29

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Advocate for
the Homeless
Jonathan Kozol offers
uncommon wisdom
t would be unthinkable today, but not 25
years ago. In the spring of 1963 Jona-
than Kozol, a 26-year-old Harvard
graduate, walked out on his Rhodes schol-
arship, rented a small room in Paris and
set out to write a novel. After four years
he returned to Boston with a rare insight
into his Ivy League experience. "It had
taken me all that time to realize that
while I knew something about 'voice' and
'style' and 'the structure of a novel,' I
knew very little about living."
Kozol has learned a lot about living since
then. From a painful year's experience as a
substitute teacher in a Boston public school
in 1967, he wrote his first book, "Death at
an Early Age," chronicling the systematic
destruction of the minds and spirits of the
black and Spanish children who passed
through his classroom. Two decades and
several books later, Kozol is still worrying
and writing about children. In his new
book, Rachel and Her Children (320 pages.
Crown. $1795), they are the kids of the
homeless. Kozol chose this topic when, as
he traveled around the country, he saw
people whose options had drastically nar-
rowed because of a lack of education and a
languishing economy. They were not the

Facing a frightening situation: Kozol in New Y
bag ladies and winos he had always associ-
ated with the down and out. "They were a
new kind of homeless," says Kozol. "It
wasn't out of laziness or craziness, but be-
cause they just couldn't pay the rent."
In "Rachel," Kozol delves behind the
anonymous statistics on homelessness.
He gives the shadowy figures a name
and place, a history and face: they're fac-
tory workers and welders, husbands and
housewives, parents and children. They
were poor, but getting by, until events
turned against them. One family after an-
other reveals the chain of events that
brought them low enough to seek out
a public roof. Peter, a carpenter, and
Megan, a mother of five, lost everything in

the fire that consumed their
house. Unable to rebuild their
life, they ended up in a welfare
hotel. A year later their chil-
1 dren were removed to foster
homes. "White children," Pe-
ter says, "are in demand by the
adoption agencies." "Homeless
people are poor people," writes
Kozol. "Forced to choose be-
tween feeding their families
and paying the rent, many of
these families are soon driven
to the streets."
Kozol began his research on
Christmas Day 1985. After
reading a troubling account of
a homeless family in the pa-
per, he caught the next shuttle
from his home in Boston to
New York and went looking
for the family at the Marti-
CTO _-nique Hotel, a shelter on Sixth
ICR © 1988 Avenue and 32nd Street.
ork City When he arrived he found an-
other 400 families just like
them living in the rundown hotel, their
children hungry and cold.
Over the next two years, Kozol contin-
ually visited the Martinique. His inter-
views, presented as diary excerpts, are
haunting tales of layoffs and foreclosures,
accidents and illness, high rents and the
fruitless search for affordable housing.
Contrary to the common wisdom, Kozol
argues that drug abuse, teen pregnancy
and other "unhealthy" behavior patterns
are often the result of living in an en-
vironment as destructive as a city shelter.
He describes a desperate world: a 12-year-
old girl arrested for stealing food, a
mother who smokes continuously "to cut
her hunger," another who turns tricks
to feed her family.
Of the estimated 2 million to
3 million homeless in America,
about 500,000 are children.
"The chilling fact," writes Ko-
zol, "is that small children have
become the fastest-growing sec-
tor of the homeless." The cause
of homelessness, he argues, is
painfully clear: "lack of hous-
ing." The solution, he says, is
simple: subsidize low-income
housing. Kozol offers possible
solutions-including increased
federal funding, public owner-
ship of-welfare hotels and lo-
cal involvement-but concedes
that the task is enormous. Be-
cause the situation is sad, he
says, even frightening, most
people prefer to look away.
By banishing the nightmare,
he warns, we're burying the
IES-VISIONS children.

No permanent address: The Del Ray family managing to survive at the Martinique welfa

MARCH 1988

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