The story that jolted the conscience of the nation when it first appeared in The New Yorker
Jonathan Kozol is one of America’s most forceful and eloquent observers of the intersection of race, poverty, and education. His books, from the National Book Award–winning Death at an Early Age to his most recent, Fire in the Ashes, are touchstones of the national conscience. First published in 1988 and based on the months the author spent among America’s homeless, Rachel and Her Children is an unforgettable record of the desperate voices of men, women, and especially children caught up in a nightmarish situation that tears at the hearts of readers. With record numbers of homeless children and adults flooding the nation’s shelters today, Rachel and Her Children offers a look at homelessness that resonates even louder.
“Kozol, today’s most eloquent spokesman for America’s disenfranchised, won a National Book Award for Death at an Early Age, and this new work is every bit as powerful. Reading it is a revelation…A searing trip into the heart of homelessness.”New York Times
“A searing indictment of a society that has largely chosen to look the other way…One would need a heart of stone not to be moved.”
“Among the many virtues of Jonathan Kozol’s strong and often beautiful books is that we cannot forget for even an instant that the poor are our own kind and live but a moment away.”
“I haven’t experienced the same kind of shock over a book since the first time I read John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath.”
“Extraordinarily affecting…A very important book. To read and remember the stories in this book, to take them to heart, is to be called as a witness.”
San Francisco Chronicle
“A book that should be read by every middle-class (and any class) American…pulls us, willingly or not, straight into the heart of what it means to be a homeless family in America.”
Los Angeles Times
“Compelling, moving, eloquent…An extended tour of hell.”
“Gripping desperate stories of more than a dozen families and their children…Kozol bears witness to their suffering and to the inhumanity of the system created to help them.”
A Mood of Resignation
It is possible to picture what a cheerful place this might have been at Christmas in the years when Woodrow Wilson was alive and Edward was the king of England and there was a tsar in Russia and fashionable musicians entertained the patrons in the ballroom of the Martinique Hotel.
A faded brochure from 1910 contains this information: “The Hotel Martinique is located at the intersection of Broadway, Sixth Avenue and 32nd Street, and the plaza thus formed is termed Herald or Greeley Square. . . . One block east is Fifth Avenue, the great residential street of New York. Within a radius of three blocks are to be found the greatest of the city’s retail stores, making it an ideal headquarters for shoppers. The best theaters are centered in this vicinity, and the two great Opera Houses are within easy walking distance.”
Of the hotel’s less formal restaurant, the brochure says this: “The Gentlemen’s Broadway Café is a veritable architectural gem.” The walls and columns of Italian marble “give to this room a richness which is completed by Pompeiian panels of unquestioned merit.”
More elegant, it seems, was the Louis XVI dining room: “The wainscoting and pillars are of Circassian walnut, enclosing panels of gold silk tapestry, producing a result described as the most refined public dining room in the city. No better evidence as to the quality of the cuisine can be given than that the restaurants are filled daily with a patronage of the very highest order. The food is invariably good, the wines of exceptional excellence, and the attendance unobtrusive.”
The building is said to tower over all adjacent structures, “furnishing views and a degree of light seldom secured in a city hotel. The sanitary precautions, plumbing, etc., are the most complete.” Prices for rooms, according to the brochure, were $3.50 a day for room and bath, $6.00 and up for bedroom, bath, and parlor.
Prices are higher now. The patronage has changed. The Louis XVI dining room with its Circassian walnut and silk tapestry is gone. The Italian marble, however, is still there. The attendance remains unobtrusive.
December 20, 1985: Heavy chains secure the doorway of the former ballroom. They are removed to let a dozen people enter at a time. The line of people waiting for their lunch goes back about 200 feet. In the semi-darkness I see adults trying to keep children at their sides. Some of the kids are acting up, yelling, racing back and forth. A few are sitting on the floor.
This is the lunch program of the Coalition for the Homeless. Meals are served to residents five days a week. The program is organized by a young man named Tom Styron. He has enlisted the help of several women living in the building. Because I have come with him today, he has enlisted my help too.
One of the women sits by the door and checks the names of those who enter. Another woman helps to serve the food. The room is so cold that both keep on their coats. One has a heavy coat. The other has an unlined army jacket. She is very thin, a Puerto Rican woman, and is trembling.
I watch the people coming to the table. The children don’t avert their eyes; nor do the women. It is the men who seem most scared: grown men in shabby clothes with nervous hands. They keep their eyes fixed on the floor.
The meal is good: turkey, potatoes, raisins, milk, an orange. It would be enough if it were one of three meals to be eaten in one day. For many, however, this will be the only meal. For an adult who has had no breakfast, this is at best a pacifier to fend off the hunger pangs until late afternoon.
Many of the children have on coats and sweaters. After they eat, some of them come back to the table, timidly. They ask if there are seconds.
There are no seconds. Several families at the back of the line have to be turned away. In my pocket I have one enormous apple that I bought in Herald Square for fifty cents. I give it to a tall Italian man. He doesn’t eat the apple. He polishes it against his shirt. He turns it in his hand, rubs it some more. I watch him bring it back to where he’s sitting with his children: one boy, two little girls.
The coalition buys the lunches from the New York Board of Education. The program therefore does not operate when school is not in session. Christmas, for this and other reasons, may be one of the most perilous and isolated times for families in the Martinique Hotel. Christmas is a difficult time for homeless families everywhere in the United States.
It will be 1986 before these people are assembled here again. As they get up to drift into the corridors and cubicles in which they will remain during the last week of the year, some of them stop to thank the people at the table.
The Martinique is not the worst of the hotels for homeless families in New York. Because its tenants have refrigerators (a very precious item for the mother of a newborn), it is considered by some residents to be one of the better shelters in the city. In visiting the Martinique, one tries to keep this point in mind; but it is, at first, not easy to imagine something worse.
Members of the New York City Council who visited the building in July of 1986 were clearly shaken: “People passing by the hotel have no sense of the tragic dimensions of life inside. Upon entering the hotel, one is greeted by a rush of noise, made in large part by the many small children living there. These children share accommodations with a considerable cockroach and rodent population. The nearly 400 families housed at the Martinique are assisted by just seven HRA caseworkers, whose efforts to keep in touch with each family—at least once each month—often amount to no more than a note slipped under a door.”
The report made by the city council offers this additional information: The average family is a mother with three children. Thirty-four percent of families became homeless after eviction by a landlord; 47 percent after being doubled up with other families; 19 percent after living in substandard housing. Fifty percent of heads of households report that they have once held full-time jobs. Seventy percent have seen at least five vacant units they could not afford or from which they have been turned away by landlords who did not want children or welfare recipients.
The city council describes a family living here more than one year: The family was originally forced to leave a city-owned apartment when one child, a daughter, became ill from lead-paint poison. In their next apartment the family’s son became ill from lead poison. “After six months of shuttling back and forth between hotels and EAUs,” the city council writes, “the family found itself at the Martinique, where lead paint peels from the ceiling of their room.”
The city council makes this final observation: “On the day of the committee’s visit, just two elevators were operating. . . . The elevator on which the committee rode did not operate properly.” At the time of my first visit, six months earlier, one elevator was in operation.
It is difficult to do full justice to the sense of hopelessness one feels on entering the building. It is a haunting experience and leaves an imprint on one’s memory that is not easily erased by time or cheerful company. Even the light seems dimmer here, the details harder to make out, the mere geography of twisting corridors and winding stairs and circular passageways a maze that I found indecipherable at first and still find difficult to figure out. After fifty or sixty nights within this building, I have tried but cannot make a floor plan of the place.
Something of Dickens’ halls of chancery comes to my mind whenever I am wandering those floors. It is the knowledge of sorrow, I suppose, and of unbroken dreariness that dulls the vision and impairs one’s faculties of self-location and discernment. If it does this to a visitor, what does it do to those for whom this chancery is home?
The city council tells us that the owners of the building are Bernard and Robert Sillins. The apparent manager (he is described as a consultant) is a gentleman, Mr. Tuccelli, whom some of the tenants view with fear. Mr. Tuccelli is consultant also to the nearby Prince George, but he maintains his office here.
The lobby is long, high-ceilinged, vast. On the right side, as one enters, is a sort of “guard post,” where a visitor must either be signed in by residents or else present good reason to be in the building. Even the best reason (meeting with the social workers) does not guarantee admission. Residents must be notified of waiting guests by guards. There are fifteen occupied floors above the lobby. There is no bell system.
In a recess on the left side of the lobby are two elevators and a winding flight of stairs. Again on the left, but farther back, is an alcove that contains a row of public phones.
On the right side of the lobby, opposite the phones, there is a registration area—part of it original marble, part composed of plastic sheets and wooden slats. Though the wood and plastic give it the appearance of a temporary structure, it has been like this for several years. In this, it is suggestive of the total situation: a temporary shelter that has now been home to many children for two years and in some cases three. At the end of the lobby, on the left side, there are two more elevators and two flights of stairs. On the right side is a laundry room for use by residents.
On the first floor above the lobby there are two connected rooms, once used for banquets, one of which is used for the lunch program. A year from now, this room will have been painted and it will be heated. Two years from now, it will be divided to create a space for preschool. For now, it is a ghost of 1910. The other room is sometimes used for gift distribution (Christmas and Thanksgiving), tutoring, women’s groups, and other similar activities run by the city or by volunteers.
Next to these is a third room in which crisis workers and a nurse have desks and phones. This room feels like a safe haven in a number of respects (emergencies of every kind are handled here) but chiefly because the people in this room include some of the most hard-working and devoted souls whom I have ever known. Two of the men who work here have become my friends. They are, I have no doubt, two of the most overburdened people in New York; but they dispense good cheer and absolutely unrestricted love to people in despair with a reserve of energy that I have rarely seen in twenty years of work among poor people.
I go out of my way to mention this because the general experience of homeless people with the city workers they confront is anything but benign. Harsh words will be heard within this book; I have no doubt that they are frequently deserved. But no one in the Martinique Hotel has spoken without gratitude of these extraordinary men. Robert Hayes spoke of the saints and martyrs in the homeless cause. Not all of them are radical activists or volunteers; some of them work for the city of New York and two at least are here.
If “Crisis,” as the families call this center, puts a visitor in mind of a safe haven, it is nearly the last haven one will find. Above and beyond are all those rooms, some as small as ten feet square, in which the residents do what they can to make it through the hours and the years. 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. Why it should seem worse than Haiti I cannot explain.
What is life like for children in this building?
For many the question may be answered briefly, as their lives will be extremely short. The infant mortality rate in the hotel is twenty-five per thousand, over twice the national rate and higher even than the rate in New York’s housing projects.* The term used by health professionals for the endangered status of an infant—a child of low birth weight, for example, or a child who does not gain weight after birth—is “failure to thrive.” We will learn more of the implications of this term in speaking with the residents of the hotel. There is one nurse present (daytime hours only) to meet all the health needs of the people in the building.
What of the children who manage to survive? Those who do not fail to thrive in their first hours of life will be released from the obstetric wards to rooms devoid of light, fresh air, or educative opportunities in early years. Play is a part of education too; they will not have much opportunity for play. Their front doors will give out upon a narrow corridor; their windows on a courtyard strewn with glass, or on the street, or on the wall of an adjacent wing of the hotel. The Empire State Building is two blocks away; if they are well situated they may have a lot of time to gaze at that. They are children who will often have no opportunity for Head Start. Many will wait for months before they are assigned to public school. Those who do get into school may find themselves embarrassed by the stigma that attaches to the “dirty baby,” as the children of the homeless are described by hospitals and sometimes perceived by their schoolteachers. Whether so perceived or not, they will feel dirty. Many, because of overflowing sewage in their bathrooms, will be dirty and will bring the smell of destitution with them into class.
They are children who write letters each December to a Santa Claus who sometimes has no opportunity to answer. If their mothers or social workers are attentive, they may get a Christmas present from the fire department or the New York Daily News. They are children who receive used clothes from volunteers, emergency food from crisis workers, quarters sometimes from pedestrians in Herald Square.
If the children are awake at night they may hear their mothers pray. Some of these women pray a great deal more than other people I have met. There are Bibles in most of their rooms. Many, however, cannot read.
By December 22, two nights after I arrive in New York City, I have met about a dozen families living in the Martinique. I’ve been told that people here would be reluctant to confide in someone they don’t know. Perhaps they ought to be reluctant. But this doesn’t prove to be the case. I ask some questions to begin each conversation. How did you end up here? How do you manage? What do you long for? What may happen next? The mechanical matters are answered quickly. People in pain move to the heart of things more rapidly than I expect.
In a small room on the ninth floor there is a mood of resignation and a smell of unwashed clothes. There is no place to sit except the floor or beds. Gwen sits with her children on one of the beds. The baby is two. The older child is eight. I sit on the floor. There is another bed next to the window.