Poverty, Survival and Hope in an American City
By Andrea Elliott
Best we can tell, there are 1.38 million homeless schoolchildren in the United States. About one in 12 live in New York City. Several years ago, readers of this paper got to meet one, an 11-year-old Black girl with an unforgettable name: Dasani.
For five straight days in December 2013, the front page of The New York Times focused on a child who lived in the Auburn Family Residence, a homeless shelter in Brooklyn. She was named after the bottled water her mother would have never spent good money on, just as Chanel, Dasani’s mother, was named for the posh French perfume. Dasani did back flips at bus stops and could best the boys in a pull-up contest. At home, she looked after her siblings, changing diapers and making sandwiches, giving the other children the middle pieces of the loaf and taking the ends for herself. Even her formidable school principal called her a “precocious little button” and believed her potential to be limitless.
Dasani’s charm contrasted brutally with her degrading and dangerous surroundings. Her family — Chanel and her husband, Supreme, along with their eight children — lived in a single room at Auburn, their clothes and mattresses forming a helter-skelter patchwork over the linoleum floor. The shelter’s fire alarm system was inoperable; the heat cut off in the winter; and the family daily battled mice and roaches. Kids swiped janitors’ bleach bottles to scrub common bathrooms that went uncleaned. The staff failed to notify the police of sexual assaults.
Auburn was supported by public funds, but neither the public nor the press was allowed inside. So Andrea Elliott, an investigative reporter at The Times, stationed herself outside of the “heavily guarded” shelter, trying to talk to homeless mothers. That’s where she met Chanel, Dasani and the rest of the family. Elliott provided them with a cellphone and video cameras to document their living conditions and eventually sneaked into Auburn herself, climbing through a fire escape.
The story was an indictment of the city’s shelter system and of the Bloomberg administration, on whose watch the number of homeless families had increased by 80 percent. It was the kind of story you couldn’t shake. That winter, everyone was talking about Dasani, who started getting recognized on the street. Her schoolmates crowned her “homeless kid of the year.” The Times forwarded an outpouring of donations to the Legal Aid Society, which created a trust for the children, a decision that irked Chanel, who was barred from accessing the funds.
The story’s impact was amplified by the political moment in which it landed. Bloomberg was on his way out, 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 advocate, Letitia James, was sworn in. James took Dasani’s hand and called her “my new BFF.” It was a far cry from the days when Dasani had begged for food with Supreme outside a local Pathmark or fist-fought a classmate who had called her a “shelter boogie.”
So, what happened to Dasani? Elliott picks up the story in “Invisible Child,” a book that goes well beyond her original reporting in both journalistic excellence and depth of insight. Elliott spent eight years working on the book, following Dasani and her family virtually everywhere: at shelters, schools, courts, welfare offices, therapy sessions, parties. You move so seamlessly through different spaces that it’s easy to forget that each new institution came with its own barriers to access that Elliott managed to surmount. The reporting has an intimate, almost limitless feel to it, the firsthand observations backed up by some 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 unflinching, tenacious reporting is a rare and powerful work whose stories will live inside you long after you’ve read them.
A few months after de Blasio’s inauguration, Dasani, still homeless, was missing so much school on account of caring for younger siblings — even taking them to doctor’s appointments — that she didn’t know if she would pass seventh grade. We had all learned her name, but did it matter? Chanel wondered the same thing after Eric Garner, who used to sell Supreme loose cigarettes, was choked 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 simply speak a new world into existence. “Whatever power came from being in The Times,” Elliott writes, “was no match for the power of poverty in Dasani’s life.”
Chanel had been desperately poor for most of her life, as had her mother, who for years smoked crack cocaine. Chanel herself became hooked on opiates after a doctor prescribed OxyContin following a three-week stay in the hospital for pulmonary tuberculosis. Supreme soon began swallowing the numbing pills too. Heroin had been his parents’ drug of choice. When he was only 7, Supreme learned to fend for himself, making “wish” sandwiches by pouring sugar between two slices of bread and wishing for something more. Throughout the book, Chanel and Supreme battle addiction and submit to joblessness, yet they refuse to visit soup kitchens or apply for disability benefits, for which they and at least two of their children would likely have qualified. Many Americans believe welfare dependency to be rife among the poor, but research shows that the opposite trend — forgoing government aid you need — is much more common.
The family is a picture of chaos and love. When Chanel secures a housing voucher that subsidizes rent, the family moves into a Staten Island apartment with multiple bedrooms. But at night, the children drag their mattresses into the living room and sleep as they did in the shelter: as one intertwined heap. Elliott attunes herself to the family’s frequency, noticing what teachers and social workers often miss: the secret language of sisters, the subtle ways Dasani trammels herself to uplift her mother. 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 urgency. After all, any one of the book’s events could be playing out right now for an untold number of American children.
Elliott registers echoes across generations, the phrase “the same” serving as the book’s steady cadence. When Chanel and Supreme sign in for a meeting with child protective services, it happens in the same office where Supreme was processed as a boy. When Dasani’s stepbrother is arrested for assaulting a middle-aged woman, he’s booked at the same police precinct Supreme once was. Chanel is reminded of the weary, looping rhythms of poverty every time she steps into a homeless intake and sees a familiar face. “It’s a cycle,” she tells Dasani. “It already happened. It’s just coming back around.”
But will it come back around for Dasani? Her best shot to break the cycle arrives when she is admitted to the Milton Hershey School, a Pennsylvania boarding school for low-income children founded by the chocolate magnate. Drawing from its large trust, Hershey invests nearly $85,000 a year in each of its students, providing them with housing, medical and dental care, clothing and food, and a large support staff. At Hershey, Dasani lives in a large home with a dozen other girls and two boys, as well as two house parents, who reassure their charges that they no longer need to guard their food at dinnertime.
As Dasani begins to thrive at Hershey, her family back in New York begins to unravel. Dasani makes the track team. Her 7-year-old brother runs away. Her house father at Hershey introduces Dasani to the concept of “code-switching.” Child protective services bars Chanel from the family home, mainly on account of suspected drug use, and she begins sleeping outside. For technology education, Dasani edits a movie with her new best friend. Having run out of food, Supreme grabs a new roll of paper towels from his apartment, heads to a nearby store, and tells the clerk, “I will kill you if you don’t buy these paper towels.” He is arrested. Social workers send the children to three different foster homes.
Dasani blames herself. She lashes out, bloodying a girl’s nose and risking expulsion. Chanel begs her daughter to graduate from Hershey, where good grades and behavior are rewarded with a college scholarship. “There’s no home for you,” Chanel says. “There’s no turning back.” At Hershey, Dasani lacks for nothing save the one thing she values most: her family.
Why all this scarcity in a city of excess? Elliott often points to the role of a dysfunctional welfare state. Exhibit A: It took the city four months to transfer food stamps to Supreme and the children after Chanel was barred from the home, creating the situation that led to his botched robbery (if you can even call it that). The past, too, 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 kept him from securing a union job or buying a home. The federal government effectively nullified his veteran’s mortgage by redlining his neighborhood. “The exclusion of African Americans from real estate,” Elliott writes, “laid the foundations of a lasting poverty that Dasani would inherit.”
Several other events are recorded without much explanation, particularly episodes of violence. (Why did Chanel punch that shelter caseworker in the face? Why did Supreme once hit Chanel?) But we cannot understand that which we refuse to see, and Elliott forces us to look, to reckon with Chanel’s full humanity, to take in Dasani’s pain and beauty — to watch her grow up.
“What shall we tell the American poor, once we have seen them?” Michael Harrington asked over a half-century ago in “The Other America,” a book that helped to energize the War on Poverty. “I want to tell every well-fed and optimistic American that it is intolerable that so many millions should be maimed in body and spirit.” What if the city’s next mayor shared that conviction? What if we all did?