On Homelessness

By Jonathan Kozol

Vol. 11, No. 2, 1989, p. 17

I met a homeless man in San Antonio who could stand in for many. He fits none of the stereotypes. Wasn't crazy. He wasn't lazy, he wasn't a drug user, or an alcoholic. He was a former auto worker. He'd lost his job at Chrysler in Detroit when the auto industry turned down. Lost his job, then his benefits, then his health insurance, then his home, and then his wife. Family split up; that happens often under the stress of homelessness. Came to San Antonio, looking for a job and lower rent, found neither. At the time I met him he was selling his blood twice a week to buy his children food. There are plasma centers now in almost every American city. Used to be, maybe twenty years ago, you'd see one place like that in a run-down neighborhood where the traditional homeless, the old alcoholic, would go to sell blood, but now you see those places all over the country. In some cities there'll be two or three of them. Where the poor who have little enough to spare sell their blood to buy their children food. It's just terrible to see that in America.

What's gone wrong in this good country? What's happened? We've always had poor people, but never in my lifetime have we had homeless people on this scale and never, not even in the Great Depression, so many homeless children. What's happened?

Three significant changes since 1980. Rents, first of all, have doubled, in some cases tripled, in major cities across America. In my hometown, Boston, rents have virtually tripled in just eight years. The same years have seen the transformation of the labor market. Two million jobs that paid good wages, high wages, in the auto industry, in steel, textiles, oil, manufacturing industries; two million of those jobs have disappeared every year since 1980. And those were jobs that paid often as much as $14 or $15 an hour. Half of all the jobs created since pay poverty wages. And of course, those are jobs that don't bring health insurance. With rents up and wages down, the federal government picked this decade to cut AFDC benefits. Aid to Families with Dependent Children, the major form of welfare in America, is down 35 percent in real dollars since 1970. Restricted food stamps. Tightened eligibility for Medicaid. Cut back on WIC, one of the most precious programs in America, another program which dates back to the Johnson years--Women, Infants, and Children, emergency nutrition, one of the last weapons in the fight against premature birth, and brain damage. WIC was cut $5 billion by the White House. And, most important in the current context, slashed funding for low-income housing by $25 billion. Low-income housing subsidies dropped from $32 billion down to $7 billion and this year dropped another billion.

Nobody in the United States can claim to be deceived--President Reagan was very honest about his intentions. Though I disagree with him on many issues, I have to concede, he was honest.

Courtesy of the Texas Observer, from a speech Kozol made February 2 at the LBJ Library in Austin. Kozol is the author of Rachel and Her Children, a study of homelessness published last year by Crown.