The Children's Story of Homelessness

Sarah Bolan

Advocates for Children
College Park Scholars
University of Maryland at College Park

Kim is a 20 year old single mother who lives in the Martinique Hotel in New York City. She has some education and before living in the Martinique, was a preschool teacher who owned a home of her own. Kim and her children, like so many others in the novel, Rachel and Her Children by Jonathan Kozol, are victims of unfortunate circumstances and end up on the welfare system living in a run down housing project. Kim's placement in the Martinique results from the loss of heat in her home in the winter. Kimís income does not allow her to properly fix the heat and so she is forced out of her home after her funds are depleted. Kim and her children are not as fortunate as some and have no family members or friends who are willing to help them out of their situation. The bank is also unwilling to help Kim because they have denied her loans. Kim must now support her children on a mere welfare check. Kim is the only protection that her children have, and living in a place like the Martinique Hotel is surly not the place to provide children with protection. This novel tells the story of the homeless and, most importantly, the victim's of homelessness, the children.

Kim is a some what unusual case in Kozol's novel simply because she is educated. However, Kim is a single mother just trying to feed her children and to ultimately survive in this expensive world. Many of the homeless and welfare recipients are single mothers, who, like Kim, do not have many friends or family members who are willing to help them out. In many cases, these women come from families where there is little money to spare if the families are not on welfare themselves. Kimís children are ultimately trapped because they have no means by which to help themselves. Their mother is their only source of support, both financially and emotionally. Kim can obviously not support her children financially simply because she is on welfare, and as a result of her situation she can not adequately support her children emotionally either. Kim's children, like so many others who are trapped in the homeless hotels or in shelters, are the unfortunate and unjust victims of poverty. How can we help these single mothers and in turn help their children?

On an average night, 95.8% of those in shelters are families with children (Jencks p.11). The most frightening truth about homelessness is that the majority of the homeless are single mothers with children. Despite the numerous homeless single men that we encounter on the streets, they are not the majority. Americans, as a whole, do not realize how many children are living on the streets or in homeless shelters, like the Martinique Hotel in New York. Christopher Jencks, the author of The Homeless, states that the steady increase in the number of single mothers, alone is a major cause of the increase in the number of homeless (Jencks p 103). This increase has put a ridiculous number of children on the streets.

Kim, more so than the others, seems to have a chance to get out of the Martinique and off of welfare because she has an education. However, despite Kim's education and previous steady job, she is now in the same situation as so many others who never received an education and have ended up on the streets without a permanent home. The fact that Kim has had an education but she is still living in a homeless hotel is very frightening. Kim, like the other mothers on the streets and in shelters, is forced to remain on welfare because she can not hold a job and earn enough money to pay for child care and food. Like so many others on the streets, Kim has no one to turn to for help. She is on her own and the system is definitely not going to save her.

Kim and her children may be able to receive some help, in the form of child care. So many single mothers can not get off of welfare or cannot get off of the streets because they can not leave their children alone. Free child care should be provided through local schools to mothers like Kim who are low income or are receiving welfare aid. Countless homeless people have children but cannot maintain a job because they have no where for their children to go while they are at work. Maintaining a job means paying for child care for the children. Previous welfare benefits for these mothers with two children averaged $42 a week. Working mothers who left their children in a nonrelative's home paid an average of $64 a week in 1990. Those who used child care centers paid $76 a week (Jencks p.110). Now that these women are employed they will no longer be eligible for welfare which means that their only source of income will now be their low paying job. These women will now have to depend on their salaries to pay for child care as well as food and other necessary expenditures. How can someone make ends meet with this low paying job and all the other costly necessities? The mother will have more money if she doesn't get a job and stays at home with her children. This choice will ultimately, in most cases, determine the family's future of dependence on welfare. By putting more tax dollars towards child care for these women, their chances of getting out of these shelters will increase. Taxes might also increase, but I would personally feel better paying taxes if I knew that they were for these homeless children's benefit. As a result, the mothers will no longer have to worry about the expense of child care and they will have someone to care for their children while they work. This program will eventually lead more women to depend on their own incomes instead of welfare and will save helpless children from a hopeless future.

With the free child care, Kim is now able to work at a steady job and still keep her children clothed and fed. Her job allows her to establish credibility and she can now apply and be accepted for a loan, with which she can move into a permanent home. Kim's children will still qualify for free child care until her income is high enough to afford child care. If Kim maintains her job, and no outstanding circumstances intervene which require a substantial amount of money, Kim will remain in her home. Hopefully many other mothers will follow in Kimís footsteps and these children will now have a permanent home.

Providing free child care, overall, will greatly benefit mothers with low incomes or on welfare. In many cases, the children are the mothers main concern. If these mothers know that their children are being properly taken care of, then they will be able to better their situation by earning money. This program will help those who want to help themselves and will not provide a crutch for these women to live and depend on. Other members of society will appreciate the fact that their money is not being used for these people to depend on the government, but is being used to encourage people on welfare to help themselves to get out of their situation. This program will, ultimately, aid mothers and will slowly put them in permanent housing, which will overall help the children.

Kim, in Kozol's novel, is just one in a list of many of the homeless that Americans encounter everyday. I think that many of us who do not come in contact with the homeless, but only read about them, assume that the homeless is a group of drunken individuals who do not want to help themselves. Rachel and Her Children is a shocking glimpse of what the majority of the homeless are; normal individuals who have had a series of misfortunes. This realization is very much overdue for the American public. The most important realization, however, that the American public needs to make is that way too many of the homeless are children. Children can not help themselves get out of their situation, and so we must encourage and help these children's mothers so that they can provide a better life for their children. Some of the homeless may not necessarily deserve a break in life because they have put themselves in their situation. However, their children are not responsible for their situation, and they definitely deserve a chance to live a full life.


Kozol, Jonathan. Rachel and Her Children. New York: Fawcett Columbine, 1988.

Jencks, Christopher. The Homeless. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1994.

This paper was prepared in 1997 for a colloquium facilitated by Stephen Wright, instructor for the Advocates for Children program, part of the College Park Scholars community at the University of Maryland, College Park.

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