Wednesday, March 28, 2012

For Mon., Apr. 2: Responding to Kozol, generating ideas for first essay

Before class on Monday, I would like you to do two things: First, after reading the first section of Jonathan Kozol’s Rachel and Her Children, I would like you to reflect on your initial response to this text. What do you find interesting so far? What issues strike you as significant? What do you find engaging about Kozol as a writer?

Second, share your initial thoughts with the rest of class about what topic or issue you’d like to focus on for our first assignment. Don’t worry, you don’t have to choose yet or be absolutely certain, but I’d like you to explore the issues that you think are the most promising at this point. What sub-topics in relation to gender and homelessness interest you? Which ones would you like to explore further? Feel free to sketch out a few ideas or ask questions. The point is to get you moving towards a focal point so that our research seminar with the librarian will be as productive as possible for you on Monday.

Please post your response as a comment to this post.


  1. “The poor were people who had $15,000. I said to myself: That isn’t poor. That isn’t no way near where I am at.” This quote from Annie, one of the residents of the Martinique Hotel, intensely struck me. It also prompted me to ponder perspective. Where I grew up, this would be considered extremely poor, but to a person with no permanent home who is not able to acquire the extra $95 that would make the marked difference between a shelter and a real home, this is not poor at all. This is merely one of the problems that plague the homeless in the United States today, and yet many people are not aware of these issues. According to a quote on the front of the book, our society is one that has “largely chosen to look the other way” in regards to homelessness, and this is doubtlessly the solid truth. I will freely admit that before beginning this book, I did not know that nearly three-quarters of the homeless consist of families with children. I was unaware that reforms leading to more quality shelters are proposed, and sometimes even initiated, yet not pursued with enough vigor to actually institute change that will benefit this silent population. However, I was aware that the kinds of work provided to the homeless are often not permanent and do not offer the wages needed to adequately care for a family. Kozol presents the often-assumed, and terribly inaccurate, stereotype that homeless people are lazy, and even prior to reading this book, this stereotype bothered me because I knew that it was not true. One simply cannot care for themselves, let alone an entire family, with the aid of a temporary job that pays $7.50 an hour. I worked at Dollar Tree last summer, and I remember wondering out loud one day if I would be able to live on such an amount of money. I came to the conclusion that I would barely able to pay rent, let alone feed myself, pay utilities, or resolve potential hospital bills. Another phrase that struck me was when Kozol states that “the cause of homelessness is lack of housing.” Although seemingly obvious, a great number of people assume that drugs, alcohol, prostitution, perpetual poverty, or other factors cause homelessness. On the contrary, it is far more sensical to conclude that homelessness causes these outcomes, trapping homeless people in a cycle from which they cannot escape, especially as government funding is trimmed to become more and more slim with each passing year. The fact that an HUD secretary referred to the massive reduction of support for low-income housing from $32 billion to $7 billion in a seven-year period as “getting out of the housing business” altered me to one of the major issues involved with homelessness. Firstly, the idea that a public official, who is supposed to be bettering the public good, would speak about such a pressing and growing issue in such icy terms is disconcerting to me and illustrates a kind of naiveté that comes only from closing one’s eyes in the face of issues that cannot be ignored. From my analysis, it is problematic the issue of homelessness and prevention of it via adequate, affordable public housing is viewed in such clinical terms. It is viewed as a “business,” as something for which funds can merely be trimmed, with no effects. The staggering fact that actual people are part of this equation falls on deaf ears for some, as they clearly view it as an issue of money and not one that deeply affects fellow human beings.
    There are a few subtopics within the issues of gender and homelessness that I am interested in exploring, and these are as follows:
    • Prevalence of addiction among homeless populations, availability of treatment, and whether or not this treatment is effective
    • Prevalence of mental illness among homeless populations, availability of treatment, and whether or not this treatment is effective
    • Religion and various religious beliefs among homeless populations
    • Sexual orientation and attitudes toward various sexual orientations among homeless populations

  2. The pure injustice revealed in Kozol’s book awakens a sense of anger and frustration within me. In New York City, nonprofit shelters “charge the city between $34 and $41 nightly to give housing to a family of four. Hotels like the Martinique charge $63 nightly” (21-22). In comparison, the monthly welfare housing allowance is about $150 to $200 lower than the cheapest rental units available in the city. I cannot believe that politicians are willing to pay such exorbitant rates to provide substandard housing that is nearly impossible for families to leave; for much less money, the government could increase the welfare housing allowance to provide safe and stable housing to families. The reason for this poor decision is that the hotels’ owners financially contribute to politician’s campaigns. In my sophomore year of high school I did a research project on the reasons for poverty, focusing especially on destitute regions of Africa. Though drought contributed largely to famine, political corruption, unrest, and conflict played more significant roles in creating and perpetuating starvation. I have never before considered that the type of corruption impoverishing citizens in Africa could have the same effect in the United States.

    My favorite aspect of Kozol’s writing is his juxtaposition of figures and anecdotes. He presents estimates of the scale of homelessness across the nation and numbers that reveal the political forces associated with homelessness. Often within the same page are heart-wrenching tales about the experiences of families who have no place to call home. He is an expert at simultaneously appealing to logos quantitatively and to pathos qualitatively. I reacted strongly to this combination, and would say that most readers would respond similarly.

    I am a highly results-driven person. Describing an unjust situation is incredibly important; however, raising awareness is not an end, but rather a preliminary step in improving the situation and working toward solutions. Through my research I hope to investigate more of the underlying reasons for homelessness and also to consider policies that would attack the issue at the causal level to improve families’ lives. A few topics which I am considering are the availability of low-income housing; the shortage of jobs with wages that can support a family, especially in the current economy; and the correlation between government-funded housing and dependency, focusing especially on differences in dependency associated with types of housing (emergency shelters, public housing projects, rentals paid for by welfare housing allowances, etc.).

  3. The thing that struck me the most about "Rachel And Her Children" was the dedication and persistence of hope that all of the homeless people in Kozol's stories displayed. In a system so disorganized and corrupt that is was frustrating to read about let alone experience, these people are able to try their best to get the most out of it. There is the woman who carries her baby to a different neighborhood every day to look for cheap housing that she knows doesn't exist. There's Annie, who has Asthma but never gives up on her family despite hardships like trying to carry groceries up 14 floors. And of course there's Rachel who has to resort to prostitution in order to feed her children. Despite such dire conditions, none of these people give up.
    This amazes me because as I read more and more statistics about the rising number of homeless people in New York, the lack of housing, and how much money is being wasted I nearly gave up. The people in Kozol's stories have to face this every day - being told that they have to find housing for less than $250 a month, that their food stamp money is getting less and less every year, that their children will be taken away from them if they aren't able to find a good enough job to take care of them. It seems like a fairly hopeless situation to me. And yet all of the parents still sacrifice everything for their children, and work hard every day to try to pull themselves out of it.
    I don't understand why the system for homeless aid is so corrupt and unorganized. If the city paid $1,900 a night for a homeless family to live in the Martinique Hotel, then why couldn't that money just go towards that family's rent? Why is there a whole storage of food allotted for the hungry that isn't able to be distributed because of transportation costs? I'm wondering what has changed in the system since this book was published. But it seems that the system needs to be reworked completely.
    I thought Kozol did a great job of appealing to our emotions in each of his stories. He wrote about the people in a way that any reader could connect to. This us feel more compassion for the situation that the people were in.

    The book gave me a lot of ideas about what I could research. I'm really interested in the psychiatric affects that homeless living has on children. I could also research how the housing crisis and job loss led to a vast increase in family homelessness, how homelessness impacts one's religion, how mental illness plays into homelessness, or how and why governmental policy on homeless is created the way it is.

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  5. After reading the first section of Rachel and Her Children by Jonathan Kozel I think that I was most struck by misdistribution of local funds allocated to help homeless families in New York City. This is something that I previously had no conception of, and really had never through about. I was aware that public housing and welfare were not always easily assessable or equally distributed, but I did not think of a fiscal irresponsibility when it came to social support. Although this idea was the most challenging to accept from a logical standpoint, I was also very moved by the display of family togetherness despite immense hardship. Looking at homelessness through this lens creates an intimate view of what is otherwise often only seen from a distance, and it brings a sense of strength and compassion to the issue. It also takes this broader issue and really humanizes the impact it is having on families.

    What I have really enjoyed about Kozel’s writing style thus far, it how he is incorporating several separate and personalized stories to exhibit the situation of homelessness instead of simply sharing his own analysis of the situation. In addition, this allows the reader to visualize homelessness as not a concept but a series of stories. It sheds light on the diversity that exists within the homeless community, and combats stereotypical notions of what it mean to not have a home.

    For my first project I was thinking on focusing on how public education interacts with homeless children. The book discusses several instances of how homeless children feel different in their classrooms, and how this is impacting their confidence and success. I am also interested in exploring what resources are available to low-income children via school, and what impact this is having on progress for this issue. Another issue that I am interested in exploring is why children are given more money by the government if they are placed in foster care than if they stay with their mothers, and coupled with this why this system makes it difficult for families to stay together.

  6. While reading the first couple chapters of “Rachel and Her Children,” I was shocked by the system for dealing with homelessness in New York City. The problems of overcrowding, distribution of money, and inability to find housing that the social workers and homeless in New York seem to have become accepted issues that are believed to be unchangeable. Kozol describes these problems with several stories of families living in the hotels that house many of New York’s homeless. The stories emphasis these issues when they are illustrated as people’s reality and, in some instances, the things that are keeping them from overcoming homelessness.

    I was also especially interested in the discussion of faith in regard to homelessness. Many of the people interviewed talked about reading the Bible, praying, and just having faith in God in general. I believe this is evidence of their will to live and to make a better life for themselves. Their dedication to their faith is proof that they believe that there is something better that they can work towards. We talked in class about the stereotype that poor people are lazy or that they are comfortable with their lives in poverty. However, I think faith is proof that people are working towards their potential and a better future.

    For my paper, I would like to explore the effect of domestic abuse on homeless woman and families, holiday seasons and their effect on homeless families (especially Christmas), or education levels and if they are as big of a cause of homelessness as people believe. Both domestic abuse and poor public education are possible causes of homelessness that need to be researched and responded. However, I think it would also be interesting to learn more about how homeless people respond to and deal with holiday seasons. There is a section in Rachel and Her Children that talks about Christmas and says it is the worst time of the year for homeless people. I fear that there may not be much research done in this area.

  7. These first few chapters of Rachel and Her Children were a startling look at the struggles and trials destitute people and families must endure to survive. What I found perhaps the most discomforting and alarming is the stories of many families and people who have been hard-working and honorable people reduced to shambles through consequence no fault of their own. Their stories were touching and alarming. The stories of people who have had to endure housing in hotels such as the Marquette are often of people who have struggled due to circumstances beyond their control such as disease, job loss, natural disasters, etc. It is easy for people who are relatively privileged-such as the case with many of us at DU- that these problems are not a world away. They are right next door. They are right in the community. And it is alarming to think that even as students at this University we also have no guarantees this will not be our lives as well someday.
    I was also genuinely frustrated and angered by the redundant, illogical, and in-navigable housing situation described throughout the book. As is brought up several times by Kozol, it is incredibly frustrating that to house a family in a temporary shelter costs more than it would to give them a few extra dollars to find their own apartment. This issue, how it may have developed since the book was written, and the issues it poses is a topic I would consider studying for our paper if possible. It would also be a topic I would use to explore welfare and its seeming conundrums. I am also intrigued to write about the prevalence of health issues and treatment affordability in its relation to homelessness. This idea comes from the women we read about who lost everything due to a throat disease, and the family at the end with breathing issues. Another topic I was prompted to consider is the less-specific but nonetheless incredibly important problem of young children and homelessness.

  8. What I found most interesting about "Rachel and her Children" was the way that NYC handles homelessness. The fact that they are allocating so many funds towards servicing the homeless, yet people are still suffering at such a great degree shows the inefficiency that is plaguing the well fare system. One thing I found interesting was the way Kozol phrased who makes up the homeless population. His attempt to shock and awe by putting a new face on homelessness, is an understandable tactic, but also raises the question of how does privilege play a role in how certain homeless are treated over others. With "Rachel and her Children" another big part they played is putting a face to homelessness, specifically the 'hidden homeless'. This helped raise empathy on the issue and made me realize how easy it was for these families to fall into homelessness really making it such a universal problem.
    What I am thinking I may focus on are a couple of things, mainly one topic that interests me after learning more about it in recent weeks is how white privilege plays into homelessness, are certain people privileged over others and how does that affect amount of care as well as quality. Also I think it would be really interesting to see how do children's lives differ because of their homelessness to other children's. Such as with responsibility, experiences etc. And how does this affect how they progress through life. Another topic I may look into is how domestic violence plays a role. Are women who cannot claim their husbands on their welfare have a harder time then the average abused woman at reporting their abuse because of the financial implications?

  9. Well, I think we can all agree: this book is depressing. With that being said, I want to focus on this “look the other way” phenomenon that exists in our country, because I think that’s the most significant and challenging issue Kozol is exploring in his work. Towards the end of the reading for this week, as Rachel described her tumultuous plight as a forgotten American, I was overwhelmed with feelings of hypocrisy and abandonment. “How come do you care so much for people you can’t see?” asks Rachel (78). This simple yet complicated question was an eerie reminder that we seem to place greater value and effort in overseas aid, and we discuss it more openly, while we struggle to acknowledge the poverty issues existing within our own borders.

    This affected me personally because I am a victim of this system. I’m a privileged American who is passionate about world affairs, so much so that I support various international organizations, yet I have never really given a significant amount of my energy to making a difference for the less fortunate in Denver. I am not sure why I do this, more importantly why we do this. Is it a matter of distance? Perhaps we feel better sending our money across the ocean because it is simple, because we really don’t have to do anything? Why does visible poverty make us instantly uncomfortable, as if we’re witnessing some sort of unforgivable atrocity? I don’t know the answers to the questions, but as my first reflection for this book, I simply wanted to address them. If anything, what I appreciate most about this book so far is the reminder that we can make a significant impact close to home. Kozol makes the homelessness issue much more personal. He lets the people in his book speak for themselves, and so far I have been blown away by what they’ve had to say.

    Here are a few topics I’m considering for my literature review:

    - Mental illness (and mental health care in the U.S.) and homelessness
    - Attitudes towards the homeless
    - Sex and homelessness - with a focus on prostitution and sexual assault

  10. The book Rachel and Her Children raising alarming statistics. What really struck me was learning that some of these “homeless” families still are paying $20,000 a year to rent rooms in hotels. That is a large sum of money that many citizens don’t make. It’s also unfortunate to hear how much some of these men and women want with their lives but the feel like they’re in over their heads right now. They want to go to school, have well paying jobs and raise families. Most of the homeless are really trying to do the best they can to get by. I was also struck hearing Christmas plans for these families. Christmas has always been a huge holiday in my family. It’s about celebrating Christ’s birth while also celebrating family. In my family gifts, food, family, music, laughing is all-present. I can’t imagine not celebrating Christmas because my family didn’t have enough money. We donate hundreds of dollars worth of clothes, gifts, food and monetary donations each year around Christmas time to those in need. We feel like we’re doing good work but there’s so much else that needs to be done. The families talk about how they don’t have Christmas because they only have money for the necessities. It’s sad to hear that little children don’t get any gifts and probably not much food either.

    I was alarmed when the lady was still smoking even though she had virtually no money. She said that is curbs her hunger, which is so sad. Smoking only makes her asthma worse but she says, “I just can’t quite”.

    1. ** I thought this was uploaded but it wasn't. I am thinking about researching how religion is prevalent in homeless people and if religion plays a role in people taking care of the homeless.
      I also thought about sports and exercise and how that factors in to people being homeless. DO sports end up making people go poor and eventually become homeless? Or do sports keep kids off the streets? Famous athletes that were once homeless.

  11. As I read through Rachel and Her Children I was shocked and amazed at the sheer amount of governmental inefficiency that seems to plague the system. I understand that this book was written in the past, but I also understand government and understand that in all likelihood, things have only gotten worse. One of the particular facts that struck me the most was the fact that at one time the Martinique Hotel was owned by the city of New York, but instead of keeping it and using it under its current capacity, the city instead chose to short sell it to a private company and then continue to pay $1.2 million dollars per year in order to use it. I also found it astounding the number of times it was shown that it would be cheaper for the city to simply raise the maximum rent price above $300 instead of paying the more expensive rent at the Martinique. When one reads about inefficiencies as vast as these, a true picture of the problems of homelessness begin to come into view. By running the system in the manner that they have, the government has essentially created a cyclical cycle in which more and more homeless families are created everyday, but almost nothing is done to get these people back on their feet and out of the system.
    In reading the book I saw several ideas that I think would be interesting to pursue throughout my own writing. Originally I considered looking at the relationship between LGBT individuals and homelessness but this is an area in which I have studied before and I want to have the opportunity to branch out further in my research. As I was reading the story of Annie Harrington, her health issues caught my attention. Given that the Obama Healthcare law is currently under review I thought it would be interesting to look into the cyclical nature of health issues and homelessness in order to see if there is a link where one problem comes before the others. If it turns out, that as I might suspect, more people follow Annie’s pattern of getting sick and then losing their home because of medical bills, I think there is a very strong argument for the Obama healthcare law as it will reapportion the money going to house families like Annie and help her with her medical bills instead, thus saving money in the long run.

  12. The most striking characteristic of Kozols writing that I like is that he puts a heavy emphasis on the individual's story rather than just the number. I think providing a voice to those who rarely get a chance to be heard is very important and this appeal to pathos creates sympathy within the audience. I also like how he doesn't chose the typically story. He doesn't chose the story or the image that most people want to hear. He destroys the image of the mentally ill bag lady bad man persona and he illustrates that these are real people who are not lazy but were unfortunate to have to succumb to bad circumstances. I especially was moved by the Jamaican women's narrative about how she wanted to be a surgical nurse and had to quit work because she experienced severe depression when her mother died. That story alone lets the reader know that homeless people are not the image the media perpetuates in society.

    1. Her story really wanted me to explore the idea of socio economics and homelessness. Im interested in how people who come from affluent homes deal with homeless versus people who may have already been living in a low income household then for some reason become homeless.

    2. Minority homeless peoples vs whites who are homeless.

    3. Men and homelessness. In the book it says men are not allowed in many shelters with the women and children so it would interesting to explore there side of the story and read about how they deal with life being away from their families.

  13. Here's Lizzie's comment:

    I found the first part of Rachel and her Children to be incredibly moving. I had never before realized how many children are homeless and/or living in poverty in the United States, a country that prides itself on being one of the richest nations in the world. The lack of resources available for the homeless individuals and families in the U.S. is astonishing. Rather than trying to keep families together, many of the rules of welfare and other programs meant to help the homeless tear families apart. Men have a hard time staying with their families under welfare rules, something I had never known before. Children are taken away from their mothers because the mothers can’t find appropriate shelter. While it is understandable that social workers want children to be in the best possible environment, a better solution would be to help these families find more permanent shelters, rather than taking the children away and doing nothing to help the parents.

    Another thing that struck me from this reading was the difference between a shelter and a home. The book states that “shelter, if it’s warm and safe, may keep a family from dying. Only a home allows a family to flourish and to breathe” (50). This example is shown through the stories of the many different families who experience moments of being unable to breathe in the small, dank spaces that they are given in order to try and eke out a living. It is also shown in the young boy who sat awake at night watching his father and Kozol talk. He was awake because he was hungry, and the picture Kozol painted was not one of an innocent child, but rather one of a young boy who had seen too much suffering.

    One possible topic I would like to explore is the effect of homelessness on children later in their lives. Are children who grow up homeless more likely to remain homeless themselves? Do they finish high school and go to college, or do they drop out? Another issue that would be interesting to explore is that of age and education level on the homeless population. Many of the people portrayed in this book seemed very young, and most of them were not adequately educated. Is that indicative of the whole homeless population, or just a small subset? These are just two of the issues that I think would be interesting to explore.