In the Bronx, Anthropologist Builds Hope for the Homeless : Social welfare: Scientist helps bridge the gap between disparate worlds--Fifth Avenue and the gritty borough.


“She’s been expecting a visitor,” says the doorman, a taciturn Fifth Avenue type. It’s 3:35 p.m., and humid. The white-glove lobby’s cool marble cuts quickly through the heat.

Upstairs, all is ordered, calm, removed from the city blare. Filled with art and Central Park views, Anna Lou Dehavenon’s rambling apartment keeps the sticky streets comfortably distant. The notion of a night in the Bronx is not appealing.

But Anna Lou Dehavenon of the Upper East Side is also Dr. Dehavenon, a 66-year-old urban anthropologist. Tonight, as she’s done weekly for seven years, Anna Lou--as she’s known to most--will interview as many people as possible at one of the city’s notorious homeless intake centers, stifling places where clients refer to themselves as cattle.

These welfare offices are meant only as brief holding stations, where homeless families should pass swiftly through on their way to shelter. But in this city’s overburdened homeless system, people routinely end up stuck for days, or weeks.


“There are so many people trying to hang in in isolation,” Dehavenon says. “I’m looking at New York as a vision of the future of our wider country if we don’t address the housing, income, health care issues.”

Her manner is restrained, her voice measured, her clear blue eyes frankly unsentimental. Dehavenon looks a bit like Doris Day, her short hair tousled in shades of ash, her face gently lined, free of makeup, at once smiling and sad.

“Of course I get despondent,” she says. “Very despondent at times.”

Dehavenon looks at her watch. It’s long past time to go. The summer sun slants low through large windows. She grabs a bottle of water and heads for the uptown subway several blocks away.



“Anna Lou!”

“Aeyy! Annie Lou! Where you been?”

The noise is deafening--squalling children, thumping boom boxes, squawking loudspeaker announcements. Anna Lou will strain to speak over this cacophony for the next 8, 10, 12 hours.

She wades past a clot of people outside the squat, red-brick building, one of the city’s three Emergency Assistance Units. Inside, she takes quick stock of the general conditions, and the mood.

“For the first time,” she’d said earlier, “I’ve felt the potential for violence this year.”

Families hoard plastic chairs, clustering them around rolling cribs. The lucky ones have laid claim to sham leather couches, which pushed together and draped with cotton blankets make a bed. Others sleep on tables, or curl up directly on the scuffed linoleum floor.

Uniformed guards patrol corridors under harsh fluorescent lights that never dim, day or night. The rooms are airless, the few windows draped with drying laundry.


It’s all pretty horrendous, not least of all for the citywide staff who deal nightly with more people than the system can handle--hundreds of people, often surly and demanding, ashamed or in despair.

Dehavenon has recorded these conditions in annual reports that have formed the basis for expert testimony, some of which led a state judge to find the City of New York in contempt for failing to provide suitable shelter before morning.

“Among city officials there are those that respect her work and those that think she’s a pain in the neck for unveiling the brutal treatment dealt out to homeless families,” said Steven Banks, a Legal Aid lawyer.

Dehavenon may not be popular among some city officials. But to thousands of families in and out of the system over the years, she represents a ray of light. She takes time and asks questions. She listens.

“She’s cool. She sticks with a stressful situation and people take her information. They took it to a judge and the judge came to visit,” said Shimeka Mayes, 23, who has one eye on the extensions she’s braiding into her hair and the other on her toddler daughter. Nearby, a roach crawls slowly away from a half-eaten box of sugar cookies.

Mayes has been here two weeks already. Hers is among 62 families at the Bronx shelter this night. She seems to have settled in, made friends, gotten grudgingly used to the drill. Deborah Coleman has just arrived.

“You’re stripped of your pride,” explains Coleman, widowed mother of two well-mannered adolescent sons. “This right here is the last, the end of the road. I just broke down and cried coming here. And I don’t cry.”



When Dehavenon went back to school in 1967, she was a 40-year-old housewife and mother of six with no plans for a doctoral degree. She was dabbling, really, adding to an already full life.

Now, looking back, she sees herself wrapped in a chrysalis. And emerging.

As she got deeper into field work with low-income families, she moved further away from her second husband, a traditional man who had married a traditional wife.

“Emotionally and physically, I literally was moving every week between one social experience and another. All the shifting was a tremendous strain,” she says. The strain eventually won out. The couple divorced in the 1970s after 18 years of marriage.

It was the second time she was on her own, but this time she was armed with maturity and a mission. They were tools Dehavenon hadn’t had in 1953, when she was suddenly widowed with two young children.

The nation lost one of its finest pianists when William Kapell died in a plane crash outside San Francisco. Anna Lou Kapell, whose life had centered on her husband and his musical career, lost her anchor.

Looking back, she realizes she and her children might have slipped into poverty were it not for the support of family friends. Among other things, they introduced her to her second husband, who was a father of two. Together the couple had two more children and moved along with a comfortable, upper-middle-class life.

But Dehavenon never forgot she might have been one of so many women in poverty, rather than a scholar studying them. “It was an epiphany a few years ago when I realized the median age of women in the shelter is 26 and the median number of kids is two. That was me.”


Dehavenon pulls out a questionnaire for Vanessa, 18, her first subject tonight. Wrapped in a cotton blanket, Vanessa complains of itching, pinkeye, diarrhea in her 6-week-old baby. She’s heard that chicken pox are going around. She is shy and bewildered.

Like all the people Anna Lou will interview on a first-name-only basis through early morning, Vanessa is cooperative and forthcoming. She’s here because her mother kicked her out, and all her friends are already doubled up in cramped apartments. The infant’s father is in jail. Armed robbery.

Straining to be heard over the noise, Dehavenon guides Vanessa through an exhaustive series of questions about the guidance she was given by welfare workers (adequate), the amount of public assistance available to her (untapped), the number of meals she’s eaten (none; she believes the ham sandwiches are making people sick), the hours she’s slept (many; she’s bored and depressed), the ailments she’s diagnosed with (anemia).

“And I’m suicidal,” the freckle-faced girl volunteers.

Dehavenon, whose methodology has developed over the years since her graduate work at Columbia University in the late 1960s, asks about Vanessa’s last home (with her mother, who had a drug problem), about her upbringing (by a series of at least seven relatives and family friends).

Vanessa, like many of the women Dehavenon interviews, is a young, single parent. But Dehavenon is emphatic that the faces of poverty are more varied than the stereotype. Many have held jobs, housed themselves. Many have no drug or alcohol problems and are eager to work. Not all are black.

Each of the next two families she interviews includes two parents. The parents know their children’s medical histories in detail. They recall their trip through the serpentine welfare system with great specificity. And, like Vanessa, they thank Dehavenon for her advice and attention.

The interview with Vanessa ends with a question: “Is there anything else you want to say to me?”

“Get me out of here. Please,” Vanessa said. “I can’t get used to this.”


It’s overwhelming. Too many single mothers, deadbeat fathers, children rearing children, young adults milking the system, teen-agers with an attitude. More depressing still, though, are the others: the many people who are “as articulate and strong and bright and ambitious as you’ll find anywhere.”

They are the intact families on their last legs, parents who have tried every way they know to maintain dignity, the people--black, Latino, white--who have failed to find jobs that meet the cost of living.

“As an anthropologist, I’m looking to understand their poverty. I am documenting the income issues, housing issues, nutrition issues,” Dehavenon said. “I’m doing this work because even if I can draw only this tiny little picture, people will not be able to deny it.”

It’s nearing 11 p.m. Dehavenon, deep into an interview, hasn’t eaten or used the bathroom in hours. Her voice is a rasp, her sack of baby-blue informational pamphlets is depleted.

Ever more men and women hover edgily, trying to woo Dehavenon’s attention. “What about me?” interrupts a bony, gray-haired grandmother with the look of a woman who smokes too much. “Who’s going to help my family?”

Dehavenon looks up, smiling wanly. She nods at the woman, sympathetic but impassive, then turns back to questioning the couple at hand. Dawn is still hours away.