Dasani showed us what it’s like to be homeless. She is still struggling.

invisible child
Poverty, Survival and Hope in an American City
by Andrea Elliot

As best we can tell, there are 1.38 million homeless school children in the United States. About one in 12 lives in New York City. Many years ago, the readers of this letter had to meet a, 11-year-old black girl with an unforgettable name: Dasani.

For five straight days in December 2013, front page of The New York Times focus on a child Joe lived at the Auburn Family Residence, a homeless shelter in Brooklyn. She was named after bottled water her mother would never have spent good money on, as Chanel, Dasani’s mother, was named for the posh French perfume. Dasani did a back flip at the bus stop and was able to best the boys in the pull-up competition. At home, she looked after her siblings, changed diapers and made sandwiches, gave the middle pieces of bread to other children and took the ends for herself. Even her formidable school principal called her an “untimely little button” and believed her potential was limitless.

Dasani’s charm contrasted ruthlessly with her abusive and dangerous surroundings. Her family – Chanel and her husband, Supreme, along with their eight children – lived in the same room in Auburn, their clothes and mattresses forming a helter-skelter patchwork on the linoleum floor. Shelter’s fire alarm system was not working; Winter cut heat; And the family struggled with rats and cockroaches daily. Children swiped the bleach bottles from watchmen to scrub common bathrooms that had become unclean. The employees failed to report the sexual harassment to the police.

Auburn was supported by public funds, but neither the public nor the press were allowed in. So Andrea Elliott, an investigative reporter at The Times, stationed herself outside a “heavily guarded” shelter, trying to speak to homeless mothers. While there he met Chanel, Dasani and the rest of the family. Elliot provides them with a cellphone and video cameras to document their living conditions and eventually sneaks into Auburn himself, climbing to escape the fire.

The story was an indictment of the city’s shelter system and the Bloomberg administration, which oversaw an 80 percent increase in the number of homeless families. It was the kind of story you couldn’t shake. That winter everyone was talking about Dasani, who had become recognizable on the street. Her classmates crowned her the “homeless child of the year”. The Times sent a large portion of the donation to the Legal Aid Society, which created a trust for children, a decision that upset the channel, which was barred from accessing the fund.

The impact of the story was heightened by the political moment in which it landed. Bloomberg was out of his way, and the city’s incoming mayor Bill de Blasio was promising reform. On the first day of 2014, Dasani held a Bible at City Hall as de Blasio’s public counsel, Letitia James, took the oath. James took Dasani’s hand and called her “my new BFF”. This was a far cry from the days when Dasani begged for food with the Supreme outside a local pathmark or fought a classmate who called her a “shelter boogie”.

So what happened to Dasani? Elliot told the storyinvisible child,” a book that goes far beyond his original reporting in both journalistic excellence and depth of insight. Elliot spent eight years working on the book, following Dasani and his family almost everywhere: shelters, schools, courts. , wellness offices, therapy sessions, parties. You move through different locations so effortlessly that it’s easy to forget that each new institution has come with its own set of barriers that Elliot managed to overcome. One in reporting The intimate, virtually limitless experience is the direct observation backed by nearly 14,000 pages of official documents, from report cards to drug tests to city records, secured through freedom of information law requests. The result of this uncompromising, resolute reporting is a rare Another powerful piece whose stories will stay with you long after you read it.

A few months after de Blasio’s inauguration, Dasani, who was still homeless, was missing so much school that she had to take care of younger siblings – even taking them to the doctor – Didn’t know whether she would pass the seventh standard or not. We all knew his name, but did it matter? Chanel thought the same way after Eric Garner, who sold Supreme Loose cigarettes, was stabbed to death by a white police officer on Staten Island. When a story catches fire, we can easily mistake a cultural moment for concrete policy change, as if we could just speak of a new world in existence. Elliot writes, “The power that came from being in The Times was no match for the power of poverty in Dasani’s life.”

Chanel was extremely poor for most of her life, as was her mother, who smoked crack cocaine for years. Chanel herself became addicted to opium after a doctor prescribed OxyContin after a three-week stay in the hospital for pulmonary tuberculosis. Supreme soon began swallowing numbing pills as well. Heroin was her parents’ drug of choice. When he was only 7, Supreme learned to make a “wish” sandwich by pouring sugar between two slices of bread and wishing for something else. Throughout the book, Chanel and Supreme battle addiction and submit to unemployment, yet they refuse to go to the soup kitchen or apply for disability benefits, for which they and their at least two children would qualify. Many Americans believe welfare dependence is rampant among the poor, but research shows that the opposite trend—you need government assistance—is much more common.

Family is the picture of chaos and love. When Chanel secures a rent-subsidized housing voucher, the family moves to a multiple-bedroom Staten Island apartment. But at night, babies drag their mattresses into the living room and sleep like they would in a shelter: as a pile of sleigh. Elliot associates himself with family frequency, observing what teachers and social workers often miss: the secret language of the sisters, Dasani tramples herself to her mother’s upbringing. One vivid scene follows another, written in the present tense (like the original series). At times, this can result in some awkward syntax, but overall it works, lending the prose moral immediacy. After all, any single event in the book could be going on for an untold number of American children right now.

Elliot records echoes across generations, with the phrase “the same” serving as the book’s steady cadence. When Chanel and Supreme sign on for a meeting with Child Protective Services, it is in the same office where Supreme was processed as a boy. When Dasani’s half-brother was arrested for assaulting a middle-aged woman, he was booked in the same police compound that was once the Supreme Court. Chanel is reminded of the tired, rumbling rhythms of poverty every time she steps into a homeless meal and sees a familiar face. “It’s a circle,” she tells Dasani. “It’s already happened. It’s just coming back.”

But will it be back for Dasani? Her best shot at breaking the cycle comes when she is admitted to the Milton Hershey School, a Pennsylvania boarding school for low-income children founded by a chocolate magnate. Attracted by its large trust, Hershey invests approximately $85,000 per year into each of its students, providing them with housing, medical and dental care, clothing and food, and a large support staff. In Hershey, Dasani lives in a large house with a dozen other girls and two boys, as well as two housewives, who reassure their accusers that they no longer need to protect their food at mealtimes. is not needed.

As Dasani begins to flourish in Hershey, her family begins to move back to New York. Dasani forms the track team. His 7-year-old brother ran away. His father at Hershey’s home introduced Dasani to the concept of “code-switching”. Child Protective Services bans Chanel from the family home, mainly because of suspected drug use, and she begins sleeping outside. For technical education, Dasani edits a film with her new best friend. After running out of food, Supreme grabs a new roll of paper towels from his apartment, walks into a nearby store, and tells the clerk, “I’ll kill you if you don’t buy these paper towels.” Give.” He has been arrested. Social workers send the children to three different foster homes.

Dasani blames herself. She screams, bleeding a girl’s nose and risks expulsion. Chanel asks her daughter to graduate from Hershey’s, where good grades and behavior are rewarded with a college scholarship. “There’s no home for you,” says Chanel. “There’s no return from there.” At Hershey, Dasani lacks the one thing she values ​​most: her family.

Why all this scarcity in the city of excess? Elliot often points to the role of a passive welfare state. Exhibit A: It took four months for the city to transfer the Food Stamps to Supreme and the children after they were barred from Chanel’s home, creating the situation that led to her failed robbery (if you can even call it that) . The past also haunts the present. Dasani’s great-grandfather earned three Bronze Service Stars as an auto mechanic in World War II, but after the war ended, racism prevented him from securing a union job or buying a home. The federal government effectively revoked his veteran’s mortgage by redecorating his neighborhood. “Getting African Americans out of real estate,” Elliot writes, “laid the foundation for an enduring poverty that Dasani would inherit.

Many other incidents are recorded without any explanation, especially episodes of violence. (Why did Chanel punch that shelter worker in the face? Why did Supreme hit Chanel once?) But we can’t understand what we refuse to see, and Elliot forces us to watch, Chanel’s To take on Dasani’s pain, with all humanity. And beauty – to watch her grow up.

“Once we’ve seen them, what shall we say to the American poor?” Michael Harrington wrote a book in “The Other America” ​​half a century ago that helped activate the war on poverty. “I want to tell every cherished and hopeful American that it is unbearable that so many millions become crippled in body and spirit.” What if the city’s next mayor shared that conviction? What if we all did?

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