She wakes to the sound of breathing. The smaller children lie tangled beside her, their chests rising and falling under winter coats and wool blankets. A few feet away, their mother and father sleep near the mop bucket they use as a toilet. Two other children share a mattress by the rotting wall where the mice live, opposite the baby, whose crib is warmed by a hair dryer perched on a milk crate.That is the opening graf of a powerful piece on the website of the New York Times. The complete title is Invisible Child Girl in the Shadows: Dasani’s Homeless Life. It is written by Andrea Elliott and has photographs by Ruth Fremson. And it will tear your heart out as you grasp the real meaning of what it is for a child to be homeless.
But this is not just a story of homelessness equaling hopelessness. It is the story of a determined little girl, a loving if dysfunctional family, and the travails of what it really means to be homeless.
If I may, allow me to offer 3 more paragraphs from the first of five sections of this powerful iece:
Dasani’s own neighborhood, Fort Greene, is now one of gentrification’s gems. Her family lives in the Auburn Family Residence, a decrepit city-run shelter for the homeless. It is a place where mold creeps up walls and roaches swarm, where feces and vomit plug communal toilets, where sexual predators have roamed and small children stand guard for their single mothers outside filthy showers.Please keep reading.
It is no place for children. Yet Dasani is among 280 children at the shelter. Beyond its walls, she belongs to a vast and invisible tribe of more than 22,000 homeless children in New York, the highest number since the Great Depression, in the most unequal metropolis in America.
Nearly a quarter of Dasani’s childhood has unfolded at Auburn, where she shares a 520-square-foot room with her parents and seven siblings. As they begin to stir on this frigid January day, Dasani sets about her chores.
The piece is long, but I assure you it is worth the time to read it, to ponder it, to examine the picture.
Dasani is an enchanting young lady.
The circumstances in which she lives are partly a result of family dysfunction, but also a product of government policies.
Of greater importance, a piece like this helps one understand the impact of poverty, the reality that too many of our people must encounter each day.
I have taught homeless students. I remember a young man from a few years ago, Phillip, very polite and well-mannered, but who would miss at least two days out of each week because he had only one set of clothes and would not come to school if he could not wash himself and them.
I have taught students who were with their families living in cars. As local governments became financially stressed and began curtailing the hours of rec centers and libraries, these students lost the only places to which they could go to read, to do their school work. Some might find a mall and use its public spaces, except in large stretches of America there are no easily accessible malls.
Let me share some more about Dasani, so we remember that this is about real people, not just statistics, remembering the axiom of Stalin that the death of a single man is a tragedy but the death of millions merely a statistic:
It is something of an art to sleep among nine other people. One learns not to hear certain sounds or smell certain smells. ■ But some things still intrude on Dasani’s sleep. There is the ceaseless drip of that decaying sink, and the scratching of hungry mice. It makes no difference when the family lays out traps and hangs its food from the ceiling in a plastic bag. Auburn’s mice always return, as stubborn as the “ghetto squirrels,” in Chanel’s lingo, that forage the trash for Chinese fried chicken.Look at the pictures.
Dasani shares a twin mattress and three dresser drawers with her mischievous and portly sister, Avianna, only one year her junior.
Imagine living in such a place, and yet trying to learn, to develop, to make something of oneself.
Ask yourself if you could maintain hope in such a situation.
Yes, there are clearly problems in the family. One can argue that the adults have too many children. Even if you grant that they bear a major responsibility for the poverty in which they leave, is it fair to impose the results of that upon the children?
There is so much more to this piece. Even with a two hour delay at school because of weather and my ability to read very quickly, I have only fully read the first of the five parts.
As I did, as I looked at the pictures, I thought of the journalism of another era, when an immigrant forced New Yorkers and others to recognize the conditions in which many new Americans were forced to live. Jacob Riis stirred consciences with How The Other Half Lives. Below is a relatively short video (9+ minutes) with images over which is superimposed narration of Riis's text. Listen to the beginning and think how those words are increasingly true in our own time:
Above the fold I said this piece is about more than hopelessness, because Dasani is determined. You will experience the struggles, but also the triumphs. You will see determination that is able to break through what otherwise might be depression and despair.
I have as I finish this quickly skimmed the other parts, and read the conclusion of the piece.
I think back to mother's family, her mother's family coming as immigrants fleeing pogroms and arriving on the Lower East Side in the 1st decade of the last century. They lived among those about whom Riis wrote. My family and the families of many of those with whom I just celebrated our 50th anniversary of high school graduation managed to survive, to get through the problems. Yet they were the beneficiaries, if not directly of government assistance, of the Settlement House program, of communal organizations like Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society.
I look at the obscene wealth of some in this nation, and how the system is perverted to enable them to maintain and expand their wealth and our unwillingness to use taxes to provide the resources so that all of our people have the opportunity to meaningful lives. Some Dasanis will make it. Too many will fall through the cracks, or be denied the opportunities that can provide them with a meaningful future.
The inequity applies to housing and homelessness - some have gold-plated bathroom fixtures in 60,000 square foot mansions, others live 11 to a room in a homeless shelter.
The inequity applies to nutrition - some can spend hundreds or thousands on a bottle of wine at a single meal, others are lucky when school is open so that the children at least get one good meal.
The inequity applies to health care, including dental - some get concierge medicine where the doctor might fly to visit you while you are skiing overseas, others must wait until it is a medical crisis to get stabilized in a hospital emergency room if they can get there.
The inequity applies to education - some have public schools with facilities that match the best independent schools, others are subject to narrow curricular materials and drill and kill for tests without regard for meaningful learning.
The title of the Times piece is "Invisible Child" because the Dasanis of the world are not seen by those making policy, nor are they included when so many bloviate about grand bargains and what this country needs.
Dasani and all the other homeless children are part of We the People of the United States.
They should be included.
Too often they are not.
Take the time, maybe not all in one sitting.
Read the piece.
Think how lucky WE are.
And then decide how it speaks to you - what difference it will make in what you do, and whom you support politically.
Now if you will excuse me, even though it is a two hour delay, I must leave and drive to the school at which I teach, 45 miles from here.
Many of our students are poor.
Some are homeless.
And all are deserving of my respect, my best efforts as a teacher, my political commitment on their behalf, my love.