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The human face of welfare

Yvette hasn't changed much since the last time I saw her. She's still working on her weight; she's still warm and optimistic, signs her letters "Fondly," with a big curly F.

It was hot and muggy, that day three years ago, and Yvette was telling me then that a job was right around the corner. And that's what she tells me now, as the snow turns smoke-gray outside the narrow, barred window of her living room, nearly five years after she first went on welfare.

Bashing women like Yvette Bell is an American sport almost as popular as baseball, with politicians signing on as captains of the team.

But before the president, the governors and the mayors talk about welfare reform, they had better face the truth: that reforming welfare is about the monumental tasks of reforming housing, the economy, child care, health care and schools as well.

Take Yvette, who worked for the phone company for years. She lost her job when she lost her home, and she lost her home because she moved out, she says, when she got tired of her husband messing up her face with his fist. She went into "the system," she calls it, and when she calls it that she makes it sound like the dark fun house at the public policy fair.

When I first met her, in Brooklyn in 1991, she had gotten an apartment and was looking for a job. She made jokes about the crackheads in the hallways.

She made jokes about her second-hand clothes, and how when she was working she used to give her own clothes away to the indigent, and now, whatta ya know, she was the indigent herself.

But she stopped laughing. The crackheads took over the top floor of the city-owned building in which she lived with her three daughters.

"The police running in and out, the crackheads running in and out, all hours," she says now. "I had to be with the kids all the time. I couldn't even think of going to work when I knew the girls would come home from school and all that was going on."

In October, the fear of who or what might come crashing through her door, the screams and yells and footfalls and shots, got to be too much. "I didn't want to come back into the shelter system," she said, "but I left that place with just what I had on my back."

Two days at a city office sleeping in a chair with a 3-year-old on her lap, several weeks in a transitional shelter. Now Yvette lives in a dark but clean one-bedroom apartment in a building in the Bronx called Seneca House, where 74 families stay until they can find housing elsewhere.

It has as much security as some prisons, with a big clanging metal gate, closed-circuit monitors, guards. Yvette loves that. It's to keep the world out, not to keep her in, and after the crackheads she would just as soon the world took its business elsewhere.

She pores over the Chief, the city civil service newspaper. She took the test for mental hygiene therapy aide and passed. She took the test for a job at the Human Resources administration, and passed that, too.

She's just waiting to be called back, waiting for a permanent apartment, to find day care for the baby, to shut off Sally Jesse and Montel Williams and get back into the loop. Outside her building, the out-of-work men shovel snow for a little extra cash.

"You get lazy doing nothing," she says sadly, six months shy of her 40th birthday. Still, she figures she's better off than others who live around her. There's a 14-year-old in one of the apartments who already has two children.

Responsibility, the talking heads yammer about women like Yvette Bell. But responsibilities are slippery things, depending on who's talking about them.

Is it more responsible for a poor woman who gets pregnant to have an abortion or a baby? Is it moreresponsible to care for your kids yourself, or to leave them in iffy situations while you work to support them? Is it irresponsible that Yvette stayed home with her kids when her building was lousy with drugs and violence?

When the president had his economic summit, he invited all sorts of business people to sit around a big table. When Hillary Rodham Clinton was cooking up a health care plan, she put together a panel of people from the industry.

And anyone who truly wants welfare reform has this responsibility: to get together a group of women who are in the system and ask them what keeps them there. The answers are complicated; the experts are poor. Yvette'll give them the story, unless, of course, she's found that job by then.

New York Times News Service