Best we can tell, there are 1.38 million homeless school children in the U.S. About one in 12 people live in New York City. A few years ago, readers of this newspaper met an 11-year-old Black girl with an unforgettable name: Dasani.
For five days in December 2013, the front page of The New York Times was all about a child living in the Auburn Family Residence, a homeless shelter in Brooklyn. She was named after the bottled water her mother would never have spent good money on, just as Chanel, Dasani's mother, was named after the posh French perfume. Dasani did backflips at bus stops and could beat the boys in a pull-up contest. At home, she cared for her siblings, changing diapers and making sandwiches, giving the other children the middle pieces of bread and taking the ends. Even her impressionable school principal called her a "precocious little button" and believed her potential was limitless.
Dasani's charm contrasted brutally with her demeaning and dangerous environment. Her family – Chanel and her husband Supreme along with their eight children – lived in a single room in Auburn, their clothes and mattresses forming a spidery patchwork across the linoleum floor. The shelter's fire alarm system was inoperable; the heat was turned off in the winter; and the family battled mice and roaches daily. Children stole bleach bottles from janitors to scrub uncleaned shared bathrooms. Staff failed to report sexual assault to police.
Auburn was supported by public funds, but neither the public nor the press were allowed in. So Andrea Elliott, an investigative reporter for the Times, set up outside the "heavily guarded" shelter and tried to talk to homeless mothers. That's where she met Chanel, Dasani and the rest of the family. Elliott provided them with a cell phone and video cameras to document their living conditions, and eventually snuck herself into Auburn by climbing through a fire escape.
The story was an indictment of the city's emergency shelter system and the Bloomberg administration, under whose watch the number of homeless families had increased by 80 percent. It was the kind of story that couldn't be shaken off. That winter, everyone was talking about Dasani, who was recognized on the street. Her classmates crowned her "homeless kid of the year". The Times forwarded a flood of donations to the Legal Aid Society, which created a foundation for the children, a decision that angered Chanel, which was denied access to the funds.
The impact of the story was amplified by the political moment in which it landed. Bloomberg was on his way out, and the city's new mayor, Bill de Blasio, promised reforms. 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 fought out of hand with a classmate she had labeled a "shelter boogie".
What happened to Dasani? Elliott picks up the story in "Invisible Child," a book that goes far beyond her original reporting in both journalistic excellence and deep insight. Elliott worked on the book for eight years, following Dasani and her family virtually everywhere: shelters, schools, courts, social service agencies, therapy sessions, parties. They move so seamlessly through different spaces that it is easy to forget that each new institution had its own barriers to entry, which Elliott overcame. The reporting has an intimate, almost no-holds-barred feel to it, with firsthand observations supported by some 14.000 pages of official documents supported, from testimonials to drug tests to city records secured through Freedom of Information Act requests. The result of this intrepid, persistent reporting is a rare and powerful work whose stories will live in you long after you read them.
A few months after de Blasio's inauguration, Dasani, still homeless, was absent from school so often – even to doctor's appointments – because of caring for younger siblings that she didn't know if she would make it through 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 a concrete political change, as if we could simply bring a new world into being. "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 most of her life, as was her mother, who smoked crack cocaine for years. Chanel herself became addicted to opiates after a doctor prescribed OxyContin following a three-week hospitalization for pulmonary tuberculosis. Supreme soon began swallowing the numbing pills, too. Heroin had been his parents' drug of choice. When he was only 7 years old, 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 unemployment, but 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 that welfare dependency is widespread among the poor, but research shows that the opposite trend – going without the government assistance you need – is much more common.
The family is a picture of chaos and love. When Chanel receives a housing voucher that subsidizes rent, the family moves into a Staten Island apartment with multiple bedrooms. But at night, the kids drag their mattresses into the living room and sleep like they're in a shelter: like an intertwined pile of. Elliott tunes in to the frequency of the family and notices what teachers and social workers often miss: the secret language of the sisters, the subtle ways Dasani pushes herself around to uplift her mother. One lively scene follows another, written in the present tense (like the original series). Sometimes this can lead to awkward syntax, but overall it works and adds moral urgency to the prose. Finally, any of the events in the book could be playing out right now for an untold number of American children.
Elliott registers echoes across generations, the phrase "the same" serves as the book's steady cadence. When Chanel and Supreme sign up to meet with Child Protective Services, it is in the same office where Supreme was treated as a boy. When Dasani's stepbrother is arrested for assaulting a middle-aged woman, he is booked at the same police station that Supreme once was. Chanel is reminded of the tired, repetitive rhythms of poverty every time she enters a homeless shelter and sees a familiar face. "It's a cycle," she tells Dasani. "It's already happened. It's just coming back."
But will it return for Dasani? Her best chance to break the cycle comes when she is accepted into the Milton Hershey School, a boarding school for low-income children in Pennsylvania founded by the chocolate magnate. Because of its great trust, Hershey invests nearly 85 every year.000 U.S. dollars in 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 houseparents who reassure their charges that they no longer have to watch their food at dinner time.
As Dasani begins to thrive in Hershey, her family in New York begins to fall apart. Dasani makes track team. Her 7-year-old brother runs away. Her Hershey house father introduces Dasani to the concept of "code-switching". Child Protective Services locks Chanel out of the family home primarily on suspicion of drug use and begins sleeping outside. For technology training, Dasani is editing a film with her new best friend. After running out of food, Supreme gets a new roll of paper towels from his apartment, goes to a nearby store, and tells the clerk, "I'll kill you if you don't buy these paper towels." He gets arrested. Social workers send the children to three different foster homes.
Dasani blames herself. She punches, bleeds a girl's nose and risks expulsion. Chanel implores daughter to graduate from Hershey, where good grades and behavior are rewarded with a college scholarship. "There is no home for you," says Chanel. "There is no going back." At Hershey, Dasani lacks nothing but what she values most: her family.
Why all this scarcity in a city of abundance? Elliott often points to the role of a dysfunctional welfare state. Exhibit A: It took four months for the city to transfer food stamps to Supreme and the kids after Chanel was evicted from the house, leading to a situation that resulted in his botched 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 during World War II, but after the war ended, racism kept him from securing a union job or buying a home. The federal government effectively canceled his veteran's mortgage by remodeling his neighborhood. "The exclusion of African Americans from real estate," Elliott writes, "laid the groundwork for a lasting poverty that Dasani would inherit."
Several other events are chronicled without much explanation, especially episodes of violence. (Why did Chanel punch that social worker in the face? Why did Supreme beat Chanel once?) But we can't understand what we refuse to see, and Elliott forces us to look, to reckon with Chanel's full humanity, to endure Dasani's pain and beauty – to watch her grow up.
"What are we supposed to say to the American poor after we see them?" asked Michael Harrington more than half a century ago in "The Other America," a book that helped drive the war on poverty. "I want to tell every well-fed and optimistic American that it is intolerable that so many millions are being maimed in body and mind." What if the city's next mayor shared that conviction? What if we all did it?