`INSTITUTIONALLY, we have waged war on the family,'' says Jonathan Kozol, author of ``Rachel and her Children: The Homeless in America.'' Mr. Kozol is a slight man, with spectacles. He speaks in a gentle voice, but the words come pouring out in a continuous stream. Since the book came out, Kozol says he has been flooded with letters expressing outrage.
``Nobody writes and says to me it was a pleasure to read this book,'' he comments. ``Many people said it was unbearable to read.''
Kozol is the activist-author of other best-selling books - ``Death at an Early Age,'' which details the failure of the Boston public school system, and more recently, ``Illiterate America,'' about the adults those schools produce.
The living room of his house is definitely part of a writer's house - homey and atmospheric, with dark beams and low ceilings, and a study full of organized-looking boxes full of papers. A plump ginger dog sits in a friendly fashion more or less on a visitor's feet.
``Homeless families in most states cannot get shelter if they stay together. In many cases, the mother is threatened with the loss of her children. Poverty is taken as evidence of parental failure,'' says Kozol.
Taxpayers pay $24,000 a year to keep a family of four in a rat-infested hotel room. Adults spend their days patiently looking for something that doesn't exist: an apartment they can afford.
The welfare department ``gives the mother and father $300 for an apartment, knowing full well that there's no apartment for less than $500,'' says Kozol.
``It's not even a lottery where some can survive.''
The subject that recurs over and over again is blame: Whom do we blame when we read Kozol's description of a Mr. Allesandro, his family starving, standing before a feast of Special K, sausages, juice, and eggs - looking ``like a man admitted to an elegant banquet''?
Whose fault is it that Annie Harrington, asthmatic, with her baby on her hip, climbs up the stairs to the 14th floor?
It's easy and appealing to target ``blatantly unattractive hotel owners,'' says Kozol. The greatest damage to the homeless, however, has been done by developers: ``people who dine with editors of newspapers, [who are] idolized as the heroes of Manhattan.''
Another easy focus of blame are poor people themselves. Surely, some might think - but might not say out loud - incompetence has had a hand in their plight. Or drugs. Or having too many children. For instance, a New York Times article by Mayor Edward Koch singled out a man on welfare with 19 children.
``If you want to find something to discredit poor people, you can do it,'' says Kozol. ``If you talk to enough poor people, you can find one who's crazy, one who's lazy, one who's selfish, and one who's greedy.
``But if you talk to a lot of poor people in New York City, you'll find that nine-tenths are decent people who have nothing wrong with them except that they're poor in a city that caters to rich people.
``If we were in Boston, I could take you to meet several families tonight. These are not people who would count officially as homeless people, because technically they have places to live.
``If you saw the places they lived, you wouldn't call them homes. These are places with no heat, where they have to keep the gas stove on all night in order to keep from freezing.
``Where there are holes in the wall, and rats come out and walk over my foot while we're talking. Where there are no chairs to sit on. Or there's one chair and the mother has to decide whether I'll sit there or her husband will sit there or one of her children will sit there.
``This is a normal family. There's nothing wrong with them. They don't have any 19 children. They have two children.''
As for drug use, ``it's a symptom, not a cause,'' Kozol says. ``There are drugs everywhere in the US. There are more drugs in [hotels for the homeless] than other places.
``Is it that poor people are inherent drug addicts? Is it because there are a lot of black people there, and black people are peculiarly susceptible to drug use?
``Or is it that, in utter destitution, people of any color, race, or background are easily susceptible to pacifiers of any kind?
``Why is it so difficult for us to give simple answers? People are homeless because they don't have homes. They're hungry because they don't have enough money to buy food. They're sick because we make no provision for their medical care. They're illiterate because we send them to 10th-rate schools to which we would never send our children.''
In the past month Kozol has given interviews to 40 to 50 newspapers. The articles have been ``generous and decent. People seem genuinely upset and saddened.
``But there's a tendency to say, `These poor unfortunate people. What can we do for them?'
``Nobody says, `What have we done to them?' Nobody says, `Why did we do this?' Nobody says, `How in God's name did we elect and reelect a president who told us in advance that he was going to make life tough for poor people in order to reward his supporters? When we see hungry children in New York City asking for money, we're seeing the direct consequences of the votes we cast.''
Asked if he saw any glimmer of hope, Kozol says, ``Would you say that if we were talking about a concentration camp?''
The only possible escape for these homeless is somehow to find a strong ally on the outside.
``The official political climate of the United States for the past eight years has been mean-spirited, but the letters are generous. They're not all liberals. Some letter writers say they're Republicans.''
In addition to the letters, he has been getting $500 to $1,000 a week in ``little checks.'' The money will be used to help the people in his book.
One family has an apartment now, and some of the money was used to buy furniture. One reader got together with 20 of her friends and each pledged $100 a month for five years to get one family off welfare. ``That's the good side of America, all this impulsive kindness and compassion,'' he says.
Kozol spends a lot of time talking to leaders in business and government.
He figures that if he ``says it one more time, this time somebody will take it seriously.''