"Welfare Hotel Families: Life on the Edge" - Philip Shenon - New York Times

"Welfare Hotel Families: Life on the Edge" - Philip Shenon - New York Times

by: Philip Shenon | publication date: October 31, 1983 | Publication: The New York Times | pages: B1

"A foot-long stainless-steel carving knife is kept in the top drawer of a beat- up dresser in Room 832. Elizabeth Jackson, 21 years old, put it there. ''You've got to have a weapon,'' she said. ''A lot of people have knives in this hotel. Bigger knives, too. You need protection. You need protection bad.'' Miss Jackson, the mother of two young children, has lived in the Latham Hotel on East 28th Street since last month, when her family was evicted from its Brooklyn apartment.. . ."

Shenon randomly picked out a welfare hotel and moved in for three days and nights to get a sense of what life was like for New York City’s thousands of displaced families. He didn’t introduce himself to anyone right away. In an internal publication of the Times, Shenon explained the freedom it gave him not to have to reveal himself too soon. For one thing, the manager didn’t kick him out and for another, it gave him time over the first day and a half just to wander around the hotel, watching the tenants and observing the conditions in which they were living as they lived them. Interviewing started in the afternoon of the second day and at that point he identified himself as a Times reporter. “I wore a Walkman, which often sparked conversation,” he said. “The young kids kept pulling the earphones from my neck to listen to the music. As they listened, I talked to their parents." Although he did not use the fi rst person, and plenty of people were quoted by name, Shenon’s piece included what only could have been his personal observation: the stifling heat and smell of overcrowded rooms without air conditioning or fans, the bugs crawling on the bed sheets, the thin walls, the wakeful children, and the men in flip-flops that “bat against the stairs, making a noise like gunfire.” And, he later pointed out that a huge advantage of not disclosing his affiliation—and by extension a big advantage of reporting undercover in similar circumstances—is that he knew for certain that nothing had been staged expressly for the benefit of a reporter for the New York Times.

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