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Rachel and Her Children.

Rachel and Her Children

Homelessness in America has become the issue of the 1980s. Hollywood celebrities lead sleep-ins on heating grates, bag-lady-chic is the latest in clothing, and Lily Tomlin has added an impersonation of a street person to her comedy routine. And at upscale dinner parties only AIDS challenges homelessness as the issue of discussion between the couscous and chicken cordon bleu.

Kozol's purpose is to describe the "sad realities" of homeless families and insofar as this is his only purpose, he succeeds. The visual images evoked by Kozol include the young boy who slept in a Goodwill box from age 9 to 14 until he was no longer small enough to fit through the box's deposit slot; the man, woman, and child asleep in a single telephone booth in New York City; a little girl reporting how "Mr. Rat came in my baby sister's crib and bit her;" and Rachel herself, a homeless mother in New York, who pleads with Kozol: "Can you get the government to know that we exist?" Such imaages remain with the reader long after the book is put down.

Kozol is unable, however, to move beyond these images. He states categorically that, "the cause of homelessness is lack of housing." Nobody will dispute that gentrification and urban redevelopment of inner cities have produced a dramatic decline in low-cost housing. The policies of the Reagan administration, determined to get the federal government out of the housing business, have further exacerbated this crisis. But the problem of homelessness is more than simply lack of housing. It is also inextricably intertwined with a lack of job training, with an extraordinarily bureaucratized welfare system, and with national policies which have left 21 percent of our nation's children living below the poverty level. (Among major industrialized nations, only Australia rivals the United States in the number of its children who live in poverty.)

Because Kozol does not address broader issues than the lack of housing, his proposed solutions are unsatisfactory. Perhaps Kozol sensed this himself and for that reason relegated his suggestions to an appendix. Increasing the availability of low-cost housing is essential to solving the homeless problem, but if Rachel and her children were placed in such housing today, they still would suffer. For example, Rachel has been a drug addict, and no one has yet devised a satisfactory strategy for preventing benefits intended for children from being taken by drug-addicted parents.

It should also be noted that Kozol's book is about only one segment of the homeless population--homeless families. Nothing is said about the debacle of deinstitutionalization and the abysmal failure of public psychiatric services which have produced so many distrubed and untreated homeless individuals. Studies in many cities have established that approximately one-third of all homeless individuals are mentally ill--mostly with schizophrenia--and another third are addicted to alcohol and/or drugs. Alcohol and drug addiction play major roles in causing homelessness among families and these addictions gnaw at the solutions proposed to help them.

Kozol would argue that these issues are beyond the scope of his book. He set out to describe an underclass of children which is increasing daily and which is going to grow into an army of illiterate, unemployable, developmentally arrested adults. He quotes admiringly Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan. "We are not going to get away with this," Moynihan says. The twenty-first century, "is going to punish us." Or as Kozol puts it, "It is the present we must deal with, and the future we must fear."
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Author:Torrey, E. Fuller
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 1, 1988
Words:585
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