Families with no place to call home. In need of sheltering

Rachel and Her Children: Homeless Families in America, by Jonathan Kozol. New York: Crown Publishers. 261 pp. $16.95. ONE of the most profitable buildings in New York City is a decaying 16-story hotel at the intersection of Broadway and Sixth Avenue, near Times Square. Despite leaky plumbing, peeling lead paint, trash-filled hallways, broken windows, and a large population of rodents and roaches, its tiny rooms rent for as much as $1,900 a month. The owners grossed more than $8 million in 1986, all of it from welfare funds paid by the City of New York.

This squalid gold mine is the Martinique Hotel, an urban refugee camp for 400 families and 1,200 children with no other place to call home. It is also the setting for Jonathan Kozol's latest book, a haunting, heartbreaking portrayal of people trapped in what he calls ``the saddest place that I have been in my entire life.''

In 1986 Kozol spent nearly 60 nights at the Martinique, listening, sometimes until 3 or 4 in the morning, to sorrowful accounts of the circumstances that brought these parents and children to this desperate spot.

One family of seven lost everything in a fire. Another could not keep up payments on their three-family house in Queens when illness forced the wife and mother to quit her job. A maintenance worker lost his job, and then the family's apartment, after his wife left him with three young children to raise. Kozol's list of the dispossessed goes on.

Kozol refuses to accept standard sociological explanations - teen-age pregnancy, drugs, family breakdown - for the plight of these itinerant families. Instead, he reduces their problem to a single italicized sentence: ``The cause of homelessness is a lack of housing poor people can afford.''

Between 1980 and 1986, he points out, federal support for low-income housing dropped from $32 billion to $9 billion. When Jimmy Carter was President, 300,000 units of subsidized housing were constructed; under Gerald Ford, 200,000 units. By contrast, in 1986, the Department of Housing and Urban Development subsidized construction of only 25,000 units.

This lack of affordable housing haunts the parents in Kozol's book. Waiting lists for public housing in New York are 18 years long. Welfare budgets allow only $270 a month for rent in a metropolitan area, where even minimal space in outlying boroughs costs $350 or $400. Month after month, sometimes year after year, these families remain stuck in their costly Martinique prison, hoping for better times that never come.

Kozol, author of the highly acclaimed ``Death at an Early Age'' and ``Illiterate America,'' has written a documentary of despair and deprivation - long on horror, short on hope. He rails against bureaucratic regulations that ``disintegrate'' families by making it illegal for husbands to live with wives and children who receive public assistance. He calls reprehensible the policy of allowing private-sector owners to ``profit from the suffering of those whose anguish they cannot alleviate.''

At the same time, he pays moving tribute to the enormous courage of these Martinique mothers. Despite long periods of surviving on welfare and their wits - diapering babies in newspapers, cooking meals one course at a time on illegal hotplates, enduring humiliation in welfare offices - the women's conversations with Kozol bear witness to their fierce love for their children.

``My children are still pure,'' says Rachel, the mother in Kozol's title. ``They have a concept of life. Respect for life. But if you don't get 'em out of here, they won't have anything for long.''

Whatever else Kozol's book is about - brave mothers, greedy landlords, insensitive bureaucrats, inadequate housing policies - it is most centrally about children, and the tragic effects of homelessness on the next generation. At last count, there were 11,000 homeless children in New York alone. Across the country, families now account for one-third of all homeless people.

``Knowingly or not,'' Kozol warns, ``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.''

When Kozol began his project, shelter organizers warned him not to romanticize his homeless subjects. Some readers will feel he has done just that. By failing to include comments from caseworkers, he forces a reader to wonder: Are all these residents the innocent victims he portrays them to be? Rachel, after all, is a former drug addict. Kozol also borrows heavily from secondary sources such as newspaper articles and television documentaries.

Yet whatever the book's shortcomings, the cumulative effect is powerful. Kozol has spotlighted a massive social problem that deserves more attention from politicians than it receives.

Kozol has no doubt that we can, if we will, ``guarantee that every citizen, above all every child, will be housed in safe and dignified conditions.'' Nor is he talking about just physical shelter.

One of the exiles at the Martinique, Annie, a 27-year-old wife and mother of three, articulates her dream this way: ``A home to me would be like this: You have your dinner at the same time all together.... You sit down in peace together. You read together. You say your prayers together. You to go sleep together and you don't have to be scared....''

Marilyn Gardner is on the Monitor staff.

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