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.
Slipping out from her covers, the oldest girl sits at the window. On mornings like this, she can see all the way across Brooklyn to the Empire State Building, the first New York skyscraper to reach 100 floors. Her gaze always stops at that iconic temple of stone, its tip pointed celestially, its facade lit with promise.
“It makes me feel like there’s something going on out there,” says the 11-year-old girl, never one for patience. This child of New York is always running before she walks. She likes being first — the first to be born, the first to go to school, the first to make the honor roll.
Even her name, Dasani, speaks of a certain reach. The bottled water had come to Brooklyn’s bodegas just before she was born, catching the fancy of her mother, who could not afford such indulgences. It hinted at a different, upwardly mobile clientele, a set of newcomers who over the next decade would transform the borough.
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.
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.
Her mornings begin with Baby Lele, whom she changes, dresses and feeds, checking that the formula distributed by the shelter is not, once again, expired. She then wipes down the family’s small refrigerator, stuffed with lukewarm milk, Tropicana grape juice and containers of leftover Chinese. After tidying the dresser drawers she shares with a sister, Dasani rushes her younger siblings onto the school bus.
“I have a lot on my plate,” she says, taking inventory: The fork and spoon are her parents and the macaroni, her siblings — except for Baby Lele, who is a plump chicken breast.
“So that’s a lot on my plate — with some corn bread,” she says. “That’s a lot on my plate.”
Dasani guards her feelings closely, dispensing with anger through humor. Beneath it all is a child whose existence is defined by her siblings. Her small scrub-worn hands are always tying shoelaces or doling out peanut butter sandwiches, taking the ends of the loaf for herself. The bond is inescapable. In the presence of her brothers and sisters, Dasani has no peace. Without them, she is incomplete.
Today, Dasani rides the creaky elevator to the lobby and walks past the guards, the metal detector and the tall, iron fence that envelops what she calls “the jail.” She steps into the light, and is met by the worn brick facade of the Walt Whitman projects across the street.
She heads east along Myrtle Avenue and, three blocks later, has crossed into another New York: the shaded, graceful abode of Fort Greene’s brownstones, which fetch millions of dollars.
“Black is beautiful, black is me,” she sings under her breath as her mother trails behind.
Dasani suddenly stops, puzzling at the pavement. Its condition, she notes, is clearly superior on this side of Myrtle.
“Worlds change real fast, don’t it?” her mother says.
In the short span of Dasani’s life, her city has been reborn. The skyline soars with luxury towers, beacons of a new gilded age. More than 200 miles of fresh bike lanes connect commuters to high-tech jobs, passing through upgraded parks and avant-garde projects like the High Line and Jane’s Carousel. Posh retail has spread from its Manhattan roots to the city’s other boroughs. These are the crown jewels of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s long reign, which began just seven months after Dasani was born.
In the shadows of this renewal, it is Dasani’s population who have been left behind. The ranks of the poor have risen, with almost half of New Yorkers living near or below the poverty line. Their traditional anchors — affordable housing and jobs that pay a living wage — have weakened as the city reorders itself around the whims of the wealthy.
Long before Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio rose to power by denouncing the city’s inequality, children like Dasani were being pushed further into the margins, and not just in New York. Cities across the nation have become flash points of polarization, as one population has bounced back from the recession while another continues to struggle. One in five American children is now living in poverty, giving the United States the highest child poverty rate of any developed nation except for Romania.
This bodes poorly for the future. Decades of research have shown the staggering societal costs of children in poverty. They grow up with less education and lower earning power. They are more likely to have drug addiction, psychological trauma and disease, or wind up in prison.
Dasani does not need the proof of abstract research. All of these plights run through her family. Her future is further threatened by the fact of her homelessness, which has been shown, even in short spells, to bring disastrous consequences.
Dasani’s circumstances are largely the outcome of parental dysfunction. While nearly one-third of New York’s homeless children are supported by a working adult, her mother and father are unemployed, have a history of arrests and are battling drug addiction.
Yet Dasani’s trials are not solely of her parents’ making. They are also the result of decisions made a world away, in the marble confines of City Hall. With the economy growing in 2004, the Bloomberg administration adopted sweeping new policies intended to push the homeless to become more self-reliant. They would no longer get priority access to public housing and other programs, but would receive short-term help with rent. Poor people would be empowered, the mayor argued, and homelessness would decline.
But the opposite happened. As rents steadily rose and low-income wages stagnated, chronically poor families like Dasani’s found themselves stuck in a shelter system with fewer exits. Families are now languishing there longer than ever — a development that Mr. Bloomberg explained by saying shelters offered “a much more pleasurable experience than they ever had before.”
Just three days before the mayor made that comment at a news conference in August 2012, an inspector at Auburn stopped by Dasani’s crowded room, noting that a mouse was “running around and going into the walls,” which had “many holes.”
“Please assist,” the inspector added. “There is infant in room.”
Dasani was about to start sixth grade at a promising new school. This would be a pivotal year of her childhood — one already marked by more longing and loss than most adults ever see.
A tangle of three dramas had yet to unspool.
There was the question of whether Dasani’s family would remain intact. Her mother had just been reunited with the children on the condition that she and her husband stay off drugs. The city’s Administration for Children’s Services was watching closely. Any slips, and the siblings could wind up in foster care, losing their parents and, most likely, one another.
The family’s need for a home was also growing desperate. The longer they stayed in that one room, the more they seemed to fall apart. Yet rents were impossibly high in the city, and a quarter-million people were waiting for the rare vacancy in public housing. Families like Dasani’s had been leaving the state. This was the year, then, that her parents made a promise: to save enough money to go somewhere else, maybe as far as the Pocono Mountains, in Pennsylvania.
Dasani could close her eyes and see it. “It’s quiet and it’s a lot of grass.”
In the absence of this long-awaited home, there was only school. But it remained to be seen whether Dasani’s new middle school, straining under budget cuts, could do enough to fill the voids of her life.
For children like Dasani, school is not just a place to cultivate a hungry mind. It is a refuge. The right school can provide routine, nourishment and the guiding hand of responsible adults.
But school also had its perils. Dasani was hitting the age when girls prove their worth through fighting. And she was her mother’s daughter, a fearless fighter.
She was also on the cusp of becoming something more, something she could feel but not yet see, if only the right things happened and the right people came along.
Dasani is a short, wiry girl whose proud posture overwhelms her 4-foot-8 frame. She has a delicate, oval face and luminous brown eyes that watch everything, owl-like. Her expression veers from wonder to mischief. Strangers often remark on her beauty — her high cheekbones and smooth skin — but the comments never seem to register.
What she knows is that she has been blessed with perfect teeth. In a family where braces are the stuff of fantasy, having good teeth is a lottery win.
On the subway, Dasani can blend in with children who are better off. It is an ironic fact of being poor in a rich city that the donated garments Dasani and her siblings wear lend them the veneer of affluence, at least from a distance. Used purple Uggs and Patagonia fleeces cover thinning socks and fraying jeans. A Phil & Teds rain cover, fished from a garbage bin, protects Baby Lele’s rickety stroller.
Dasani tells herself that brand names don’t matter. She knows such yearnings will go unanswered, so better not to have them. But once in a while, when by some miracle her mother produces a new pair of Michael Jordan sneakers, Dasani finds herself succumbing to the same exercise: She wears them sparingly, and only indoors, hoping to keep them spotless. It never works.
Best to try to blend in, she tells herself, while not caring when you don’t.
She likes being small because “I can slip through things.” In the blur of her city’s crowded streets, she is just another face. What people do not see is a homeless girl whose mother succumbed to crack more than once, whose father went to prison for selling drugs, and whose cousins and aunts have become the anonymous casualties of gang shootings, AIDS and domestic violence.
“That’s not gonna be me,” she says. “Nuh-uh. Nope.”
Dasani speaks with certainty. She often begins a sentence with “Mommy say” before reciting, verbatim, some new bit of learned wisdom, such as “camomile tea cures a bad stomach” or “that lady is a dope fiend.” She likes facts. She rarely wavers, or hints at doubt, even as her life is consumed by it.
When strangers are near, Dasani refers to Auburn as “that place.” It is separate from her, and distant. But in the company of her siblings, she calls it “the house,” transforming a crowded room into an imaginary home.
In reality, Auburn is neither. The forbidding, 10-story brick building, which dates back almost a century, was formerly Cumberland Hospital, one of seven public hospitals that closed because of the city’s 1970s fiscal crisis.
In 1985, the city repurposed the former hospital into a shelter for families. This was the dawn of the period known as “modern homelessness,” driven by wage stagnation, Reagan-era cutbacks and the rising cost of homes. By the time Mayor Bloomberg took office in 2002, New York’s homeless population had reached 31,063 — a record for the city, which is legally obligated to provide shelter.
Among the city’s 152 family shelters, Auburn became known as a place of last resort, a dreaded destination for the chronically homeless.
City and state inspectors have repeatedly cited the shelter for deplorable conditions, including sexual misconduct by staff members, spoiled food, asbestos exposure, lead paint and vermin. Auburn has no certificate of occupancy, as required by law, and lacks an operational plan that meets state regulations. Most of the shelter’s smoke detectors and alarms have been found to be inoperable.
There are few signs that children live at Auburn. Locked gates prevent them from setting foot on the front lawn. In a city that has invested millions of dollars in new “green spaces,” Auburn’s is often overrun with weeds.
Inside, prepackaged meals are served in a cafeteria where Dasani and her siblings wait in one line for their food before heading to another line to heat it in one of two microwaves that hundreds of residents share. Tempers fly and fights explode. The routine can last more than an hour before the children take their first bite.
The family’s room is the scene of debilitating chaos: stacks of dirty laundry, shoes stuffed under a mattress, bicycles and coats piled high. To the left of the door, beneath a decrepit sink where Baby Lele is bathed, the wall has rotted through, leaving a long, dark gap where mice congregate. A few feet away, Dasani’s legally blind, 10-year-old sister, Nijai, sleeps on a mattress that has come apart at the seams, its rusted coils splayed.
The family’s room is the scene of debilitating chaos: stacks of dirty laundry, shoes stuffed under a mattress, bicycles and coats piled high. To the left of the door, beneath a decrepit sink where Baby Lele is bathed, the wall has rotted through, leaving a long, dark gap where mice congregate.
A few feet away, Dasani’s legally blind, 10-year-old sister, Nijai, sleeps on a mattress that has come apart at the seams, its rusted coils splayed.
Hand-washed clothes line the guards on the windows, which are shaded by gray wool blankets strung from the ceiling. A sticky fly catcher dangles overhead, dotted with dead insects.
There is no desk or chair in the room — just a maze of mattresses and dressers. A flat-screen television rests on two orange milk crates.
To eat, the children sit on the cracked linoleum floor, which never feels clean no matter how much they mop. Homework is a challenge. The shelter’s one recreation room can hardly accommodate Auburn’s hundreds of children, leaving Dasani and her siblings to study, hunched over, on their mattresses.
Sometimes it feels like too many bodies sharing the same air. “There’s no space to breathe ’cause they breathe up all the oxygen,” Dasani says.
She carves out small, sacred spaces: a portion of the floor at mealtime, an upturned crate by the window, a bathroom stall.
The children spend hours at the playgrounds of the surrounding housing projects, where a subtle hierarchy is at work. If they are seen enough times emerging from Auburn, they are pegged as the neighborhood’s outliers, the so-called shelter boogies.
Nothing gnaws at Dasani more.
A mucus-stained nose suggests a certain degradation, not just the absence of tissues, but of a parent willing to wipe or a home so unclean that a runny nose makes no difference. Dasani and her siblings can get hungry enough to lose their concentration in school, but they are forever wiping one another’s noses.
When Dasani hears “shelter boogies,” all she can think to say is what her mother always tells her — that Auburn is “just a pit stop.”
“But you will live in the projects forever, as will your kids’ kids, and your kids’ kids’ kids.”
She knows the battle is asymmetrical.
The projects may represent all kinds of inertia. But to live at Auburn is to admit the ultimate failure: the inability of one’s parents to meet that most basic need.
Dasani ticks through their faces, the girls from the projects who might turn up at this new school. Some are kind enough not to gossip about where she lives.■The others might be distracted by the sheer noise of this first day — the start of sixth grade, the new uniform, the new faces. She will hopefully slip by those girls unseen.
She approaches the school’s steps on a clear September morning. Fresh braids fall to one side of her face, clipped by bright yellow bows. Her required polo and khakis have been pressed with a hair straightener, since Auburn forbids irons.
Her heart is pounding. She will be sure to take a circuitous route home. She will focus in class and mind her manners in the schoolyard. She only has to climb those steps.
“Come on, there’s nothing to be scared about,” her 34-year-old mother, Chanel, finally says, nudging Dasani up the stairs.
She passes through the metal detector, joining 507 other middle and high school students at the Susan S. McKinney Secondary School of the Arts.
Housed in a faded brick building two blocks from Auburn, McKinney is a poor-kids’ version of LaGuardia Arts, the elite Manhattan public school that inspired the television series “Fame.” Threadbare curtains adorn its theater. Stage props are salvaged from a nearby trash bin. Dance class is so crowded that students practice in intervals.
An air of possibility permeates the school, named after the first African-American woman to become a physician in New York State.
There is Officer Jamion Andrews, the security guard who moonlights as a rap lyricist, and Zakiya Harris, the dance teacher who runs a studio on the side. And there is Faith Hester, the comedic, eyelash-batting humanities teacher who wrote a self-help book titled “Create a Life You Love Living” and fancies her own reality show.
The children also strive. Among them is a voice that periodically lifts the school with a “Madama Butterfly” aria. When the students hear it, they know that Jasmine, a sublimely gifted junior, is singing in the office of the principal, Paula Holmes.
The school matriarch closes her eyes as she listens. It may be her only tranquil moment.
Miss Holmes is a towering woman, by turns steely and soft. She wears a Bluetooth like a permanent earring and tends toward power suits. She has been at McKinney’s helm for 15 years and runs the school like a naval ship, peering down its gleaming hallways as if searching the seas for enemy vessels.
Students stammer in her presence. She leaves her office door permanently open, like a giant, unblinking eye. A poster across the hall depicts a black man in sagging jeans standing before the White House, opposite President Obama. “To live in this crib,” the poster reads, “you have to look the part.”
Miss Holmes has no tolerance for sagging — sartorial, attitudinal or otherwise.
McKinney’s roots run deep. Dasani’s own grandmother studied there as a girl. Most of the middle school students are black, live in the surrounding projects and qualify for free or reduced meals. They eat in shifts in the school’s basement cafeteria, watched over by the avuncular Frank Heyward, who blasts oldies from a boombox, telling students, “I got shoes older than you.”
For all of McKinney’s pluck, its burdens are great. In the last six years, the city has cut the school’s budget by a quarter as its population declined. Fewer teachers share a greater load. After-school resources have thinned, but not the needs of students whose families are torn apart by gun violence and drug use. McKinney’s staff psychologist shuttles between three schools like a firefighter.
And now, a charter school is angling to move in. If successful, it will eventually claim McKinney’s treasured top floor, home to its theater class, dance studio and art lab. Teachers and parents are bracing for battle, announced by fliers warning against the “apartheid” effects of a charter co-location.
Dasani knows about charter schools. Her former school, P.S. 67, shared space with one. She never spoke to those children, whose classrooms were stocked with new computers. Dasani’s own school was failing by the time she left.
At McKinney, Dasani quickly draws the notice of the older students, and not because she is short, though the nickname “Shorty” sticks. It is her electricity. When they dote on her, she giggles. But say the wrong thing and she turns fierce, letting the four-letter words fly.
It is still September when Dasani’s temper lands her in the principal’s office.
“Please don’t call my mother,” Dasani whispers.
Miss Holmes is seated in a rolling pleather chair held together by duct tape. She stares at the anguished girl. She has been at McKinney long enough to know when a child’s transgressions at school might bring a beating at home.
The principal slowly scoots her chair up to Dasani and leans within inches of her face.
“O.K.,” she says softly. “Let’s make a deal.”
From that day forward, Dasani will be on her best behavior. In turn, Miss Holmes will keep what happens at school in school.
With that, she waves Dasani off, fighting the urge to smile. She can’t help but like this feisty little girl.
Dasani closes her eyes and tilts her head toward the ceiling of her classroom. She has missed breakfast again.■She tries to drift. She sees Florida. For a child who has never been to the beach, television ads are transporting. She is walking in the sand. She crashes into the waves.
“Dasaaaaaani!” her teacher sings out.
She opens her eyes.
There is Miss Hester, batting those lashes.
Both she and another teacher, Kenya Mabry, were raised in the projects. They dress and talk with a polish that impresses Dasani, who studies them.
Miss Hester is also watching Dasani. She does not yet know where Dasani lives, or how hungry she gets. But Miss Hester finds two things striking: how late she arrives some mornings and how capable this girl is in spite of it. Without even trying, she keeps up.
Dasani possesses what adults at McKinney consider an intuitive approach to learning, the kind that comes when rare smarts combine with extreme life circumstances. Her intelligence is “uncanny” and “far surpasses peers her age,” one counselor writes. “Student is continuously using critical analysis to reflect upon situations and interactions.”
Principal Holmes is also taking note. She can already see in this “precocious little button” the kind of girl who could be anything — even a Supreme Court justice — if only she harnesses her gifts early enough. “Dasani has something that hasn’t even been unleashed yet,” Miss Holmes says. “It’s still being cultivated.”
For now, Dasani’s most honed skill might be obfuscation. She works hard to hide her struggles, staying quiet as other children brag about their new cellphones or sleepovers with friends.
If there is one place she feels free, it is dance class. When she walks into McKinney’s studio, and the music starts, her body releases whatever she is feeling.
“When I’m happy I dance fast,” she says. “When I’m sad I dance slow. When I’m upset I dance both.”
Dasani has been dancing for as long as she can remember, well before she earned her first dollar a few years ago break-dancing in Times Square. But the study of dance, as something practiced rather than spontaneous, this is new. She is learning to point her toes like a ballerina, and to fall back into a graceful bridge.
Perhaps it is no accident that amid the bedlam of Dasani’s home life — the missed welfare appointments and piles of unwashed clothes — she is drawn to a craft of discipline.
Here, in this room, time is kept and routines are mapped with precision and focus. Dasani never tires of rehearsing the same moves, or scrutinizing more experienced dancers. Her gaze is often fixed on a tall, limber eighth grader named Sahai.
Here, in this room, time is kept and routines are mapped with precision and focus.
Dasani never tires of rehearsing the same moves, or scrutinizing more experienced dancers. Her gaze is often fixed on a tall, limber eighth grader named Sahai.
Sahai is the middle school’s valedictorian. A breathtaking dancer, she has long silky hair and carries herself like a newly crowned queen. She is a girl with enough means to accessorize elegantly. When Dasani looks at Sahai, she is taking the measure of all she is not.
You can be popular in one of three ways, Dasani’s mother always says. Dress fly. Do good in school. Fight.
The first option is out of the question. While Dasani clings to her uniform, other students wear coveted Adidas hoodies and Doc Marten boots. In dance class, Dasani does not even have a leotard.
So she applies herself in school. “I have a lot of possibility,” she says. “I do.”
Her strongest subject is English, where a poem she writes is tacked to a teacher’s wall.
By October, she is on the honor roll, just as her life at Auburn is coming apart.
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.
Dasani shares a twin mattress and three dresser drawers with her mischievous and portly sister, Avianna, only one year her junior. Their 35-year-old stepfather, Supreme, has raised them as his own. They consider him their father and call him Daddy.
Supreme married Chanel nine years earlier, bringing two children from a previous marriage. The boy, Khaliq, had trouble speaking. He had been trapped with his dead, pregnant mother after she fell down a flight of stairs. The girl, Nijai, had a rare genetic eye disease and was going blind. They were the same tender ages as Dasani and Avianna, forming a homeless Brady Bunch as Supreme and Chanel had four more children.
Two of Dasani’s half-sisters, 7-year-old Maya and 6-year-old Hada, share the mattress to her right. The 5-year-old they call Papa sleeps by himself because he wets the bed. In the crib is Baby Lele, who is tended to by Dasani when her parents are listless from their daily dose of methadone.
Chanel and Supreme take the synthetic opioid as part of their drug treament program. It has essentially become a substitute addiction.
The more time they spend in this room, the smaller it feels. Nothing stays in order. Everything is exposed — marital spats, frayed underwear, the onset of puberty, the mischief other children hide behind closed doors. Supreme paces erratically. Chanel cannot check her temper. For Dasani and her siblings, to act like rambunctious children is to risk a beating.
By late fall, Chanel and Supreme are fighting daily about money.
It has been years since Supreme lost his job as a barber and Chanel stopped working as a janitor for the parks department. He cuts hair inside the shelter and sells pirated DVDs on the street while she hawks odds and ends from discount stores. In a good month, their combined efforts can bring in a few hundred dollars.
This is not one of those times. Supreme is keeping tight control of the family’s welfare income — $1,285 in food stamps and $1,122 in survivor benefits for his first wife’s death. He refuses to give Chanel cash for laundry.
Soon, all of Dasani’s uniforms are stained. At school, she is now wearing donated clothes and her hair is unkempt, inviting the dreaded designation of “nappy.” Rumors are circulating about where she lives. Only six of the middle school’s 157 students reside in shelters.
When the truth about Dasani emerges, she does nothing to contradict it. She is a proud girl. She must find a way to turn the truth, like other unforeseeable calamities, in her favor.
She begins calling herself “ghetto.” She dares the girls to fight her and challenges the boys to arm-wrestle, flexing the biceps she has built doing pull-ups in Fort Greene Park. The boys watch slack-jawed as Dasani demonstrates the push-ups she has also mastered, earning her the nickname “muscle girl.”
Her teachers are flummoxed. They assume that she has shed her uniform because she is trying to act tough. In fact, the reverse is true.
A chilly, November wind whips across Auburn Place, rustling the plastic cover of a soiled mattress in a trash bin outside the shelter.■Chanel and Supreme stand nearby, waiting for their children to come from school. They are still short on cash. The children had pitched in $5.05, from collecting cans and bottles over the weekend.
Chanel inspects the mattress. Clean, it might fetch $10. But it is stained with feces. Janitors wearing masks and gloves had removed it from a squalid room where three small children lived, defecating on the floor. Their mother rarely bathed them, and they had no shoes on the day she gathered them in a hurry and left.
“You can smell it?” Chanel asks Supreme.
“No, I can see it,” he says, curling his lip.
“Those are the people that they need to be calling A.C.S. on,” Chanel says. At the shelter, the abbreviation for the Administration for Children’s Services is uttered with the same kind of alarm that the C.I.A. can stoke overseas.
“Nasty girl,” Chanel says, scrunching her nose.
Everyone knows Chanel. She weighs 215 pounds and her face is a constellation of freckles lit by a gaptoothed smile.
Everyone knows Chanel. She weighs 215 pounds and her face is a constellation of freckles lit by a gaptoothed smile.
She wraps her copper-hued hair in a tubular scarf. The street is her domain. When she walks, people often step to the side — not in deference to her ample frame so much as her magisterial air.
Chanel is in everyone’s business, scoping out snitches, offering homeopathic remedies, tattling on a girl’s first kiss. A five-minute walk through Fulton Mall can take Chanel hours for all the greetings, gossip, recriminations and nostalgia. She has a remarkable nose for people, sniffing out phoniness in seconds. Those who smile too much are wearing “a frown turned upside down.”
She is often spoiling for a fight, or leaving people in the stitches of laughter. While others want the life of the music mogul Jay-Z, Chanel would settle for being his pet. “Just let me be the dog. I don’t care where you put me.” When Chanel laughs, she tilts her head back and unleashes a thunderous cackle.
Dasani can detect her mother’s laugh from blocks away. Today, she returns from school lugging a plastic bag of clothes donated by a security guard at McKinney.
Dasani begins rummaging through the bag. She pulls out a white Nautica ski jacket and holds it up to her shoulders. It is too wide, but she likes it. “It’s dirty,” she says forgivingly.
“Look, Mommy!” she says, modeling her new coat.
“That fits you real nice,” Chanel coos.
Suddenly, Supreme leaps into the air. His monthly benefits have arrived, announced by a recording on his prepaid welfare phone. He sets off to reclaim his gold teeth from the pawnshop and buy new boots for the children at Cookie’s, a favored discount store in Fulton Mall. The money will be gone by week’s end.
Supreme and Chanel have been scolded about their lack of financial discipline in countless meetings with the city agencies that monitor the family.
But when that monthly check arrives, Supreme and Chanel do not think about abstractions like “responsibility” and “self-reliance.” They lose themselves in the delirium that a round of ice creams brings. They feel the sudden, exquisite release born of wearing those gold fronts again — of appearing like a person who has rather than a person who lacks.
The next day, Dasani goes to school wearing her new Cookie’s boots. Feeling amped, she gets into a verbal spat with some boys in gym class and must spend her lunch hour in the principal’s office.
Miss Holmes glowers at Dasani, who tries to leaven the mood by bragging about her place on the honor roll. The principal is unmoved. Dasani still has a B average.
“I want the highest end of the honor roll,” Miss Holmes says. “I want more. You have to want more, too.”
Dasani stares at her tray. The discussion returns to her behavior in gym class.
“While we care for you, we’re not going to take any crap,” Miss Holmes says. “You understand?”
Trying not to cry, Dasani examines her food — a slice of cheese pizza, chocolate milk, a red apple. She wrinkles her nose. Miss Holmes has seen it before, the child too proud to show hunger.
“Can you hurry up?” Miss Holmes says. “The drama with the pizza is not working for me.”
“I’ll feed you,” Miss Holmes says. “I will feed you. You don’t think I’ll feed you? Bring the tray.”
Dasani slowly lifts the pizza slice to her mouth, cracking a smile.
Miss Holmes has seen plenty of distressed children, but few have both the depth of Dasani’s troubles and the height of her promise. There is not much Miss Holmes can do about life outside school. She knows this is a child who needs a sponsor, who “needs to see ‘The Nutcracker,’” who needs her own computer. There are many such children.
Here at school, Miss Holmes must work with what she has.
“Apples are very good for you,” she says, smiling. “Bananas are, too.”
“I don’t like those,” Dasani says.
“Pretend you like them.”
When Dasani is finished, she brings her empty tray to the principal for inspection. Miss Holmes gestures at Dasani’s milk-stained mouth.
“Fix it,” she says. “Go.”
The tree is covered in Christmas lights that mask the lack of ornaments.■The children gather around it inside a dilapidated, two-story rowhouse in East New York, Brooklyn — the closest thing they have to a home. It belongs to Chanel’s ailing godmother, Sherry, whom the children call Grandma.
Sherry’s day care center once occupied the first floor, where fading decals of Bambi now share space with empty liquor bottles. Chanel’s two unemployed brothers, 22-year-old Josh and 39-year-old Lamont, stay in the dark, musty basement. When the children visit, they spend most of their time upstairs, sleeping on a drafty wooden floor beneath a Roman-numeral clock that is permanently stopped at 2:47.
Sherry’s electricity has been cut, but the tree remains lit and the heat stays on, via a cable illicitly connected to a neighbor’s power supply. Christmas gifts are scarce: coloring books, a train set, stick-on tattoos, one doll for each girl.
Sherry’s electricity has been cut, but the tree remains lit and the heat stays on, via a cable illicitly connected to a neighbor’s power supply.
Christmas gifts are scarce: coloring books, a train set, stick-on tattoos, one doll for each girl.
A few nights later, the children are roused by shouts and a loud crash. Uncle Josh has punched his hand through a window and is threatening to kill Uncle Lamont.
Josh lunges at his brother with a knife. The men tumble to the floor as Chanel throws herself between them. Upstairs, the children cower and scream.
Dasani calls out orders: “Nobody move! Let the adults handle it!”
Sirens rattle the block. Josh is taken away in handcuffs as an ambulance races Lamont to the hospital with a battered eye. They had been fighting over a teenage girl.
January brings relief, but not because of the new year. It is the start of tax season, when Dasani’s parents — and everyone they seem to know — rush to file for the earned-income tax credit, a kind of bonanza for the poor.
Their tax refunds can bring several thousand dollars, which could be enough to put down a rent deposit and leave the shelter.
On Jan. 7, the family heads to Manhattan for a rare outing. They take the Q train, which barrels high across the East River. The city’s lights shimmer, making Chanel think of opportunity.
They will start looking for a home soon, she says.
“I wanna go somewhere where it’s quiet,” Dasani says.
“I wanna go somewhere where there’s trees,” Chanel says. “I just wanna see a bunch of trees and grass.”
“Daddy say that he gonna buy this house with a lot of land with grass,” Dasani says, “so that each of us would get a part, so that you can do whatever you want with that part of the land.”
Supreme sits far-off, listening to music on his phone. Baby Lele wails.
Suddenly, Chanel spots Chinatown. The children squeal. Dasani mentions a book she read about the Great Wall of China.
“That’s not this town,” Chanel says.
“It’s a big wall though,” Dasani says.
“That’s the real Chinatown,” Chanel says. “This is the New York Chinatown, where they got Chinese people in Popeyes.”
Dasani presses her forehead against the window and cups her hands around her eyes, as if preserving the view for herself.
Opportunity comes rarely, but Dasani is always waiting. She wakes early on Jan. 18, hours in advance of a track competition known for rescuing girls from the ghetto.■She has no running shoes, just a pair of imitation Converses. She is unknown in the rarefied world of athletic recruiters and private coaches. But ask anyone in her small corner of Brooklyn, from the crossing guards to the drunks, and they will say two things about this tiny girl with the wayward braids: She is strong like a boy and can run like the wind.
Dasani heads out in the icy cold with her mother and two of her sisters. They walk a mile before arriving at the manicured grounds of the Pratt Institute in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Clinton Hill, which is hosting the Colgate Women’s Games.
The amateur track and field series is a magnet for athletic recruiters, and some of its champions have gone as far as the Olympics. Dasani will compete in the 200-meter dash. She heads to the bathroom to change.
“She got shorts to put on?” one of the organizers asks.
Dasani reaches for her leggings.
“Those are the sneakers?” the woman frowns.
Wearing no socks, Dasani ties her rainbow laces and walks to the track. When her number is called, she takes her place among four other girls.
The blank fires and she is off, ahead of the pack.
Win, Dasani tells herself. Win.
At the first bend, she trips and falls behind.
By the second turn, Dasani has caught up with the lead runner.
“Run, Dasani!” Chanel screams. “Run!”
They are in a dead heat for the finish line.
Dasani comes in second. It hardly matters that her time is insufficient to make it past the preliminaries. They leave the stadium feeling euphoric.
“My baby’s going to the Olympics,” Chanel crows. As they walk west along Willoughby Avenue, they talk of finding a trainer. Chanel starts singing her favorite Luther Vandross song, “A House Is Not a Home.”
The girls have heard it enough times to sing along.
A chair is still a chair
Even when there’s no one sittin’ there
But a chair is not a house
And a house is not a home
When there’s no one there
to hold you tight.
They turn north on Carlton Avenue, passing a renovated brick townhouse with sleek, metal window frames.
A skinny brunette is unloading her station wagon. At the sight of Dasani’s family, she freezes. She smiles nervously and moves slowly to her car, grabbing an infant from the car seat.
The mood shifts.
“She thinks we gonna jump her,” Chanel says as she keeps walking. The shelter is only three blocks away.
“Why do they feel like they’re so apart? She’s just two steps away from us. If you got jumped out here, a black man would be the first to save your ass. That’s what I feel like telling her.”
When they reach Myrtle Avenue, Chanel goes searching for a beer at her favorite corner store. Dasani trails her.
Inside, the short-order cook, a Mexican girl, stares at Chanel suspiciously.
“Don’t look at me,” Chanel says.
“You so nice, that’s why I see you,” the girl responds cockily.
“You better watch that grill,” Chanel says. “I don’t want to scare you.”
“You think you scare me?” the girl yells.
“Let’s fight right now!” Chanel shouts.
“Wait for me outside!” the girl calls back.
Chanel moves toward her, reaching for a mop.
“Mommy!” Dasani screams.
The owner, Salim, races toward Chanel.
“I’ll crack her with a stick!” Chanel yells as Salim holds her back.
Dasani is frozen.
“I’ma wait for your ass when you come out,” Chanel says. “What time she get off?”
“You run your mouth,” Salim says, gently leading Chanel away, as he has done before.
As they leave, Dasani turns to the cook.
“She gonna knock you stupid, Chinese lady,” Dasani says.
“Don’t use those words,” Salim cries out. “You’re not supposed to turn out like your mother.”
Gracie Mansion is something of an oddity. In a city with a 2 percent vacancy rate and a shortage of public housing, the mayoral residence sits uninhabited on 11 pristine acres of the Upper East Side.■It has been more than a decade since Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg chose to remain in his opulent townhouse, consigning Gracie Mansion to the status of a museum and venue for civic events.
Dasani knows none of these particulars when she steps through Gracie’s doors on a school trip in February. She is looking for the mayor. She wants to see him up close, this mysterious “Wizard of Oz” figure who makes decisions about her life from behind a curtain of political power.
It never occurs to Dasani that the mayor does not live there. Who could have a mansion and not live in it?
“Look at that fireplace!” she marvels as her classmates step into the parlor where Mr. Bloomberg has given news conferences. The tour guide, a woman wearing gold-clasp earrings and tangerine lipstick, moves the children along, reminding them not to touch.
They shuffle into the library. Still no mayor. Dasani scans for clues like the F.B.I. agents of her favorite television show, “Criminal Minds.” She inspects a telephone. “His last call was at 11:15,” she whispers.
The tour guide opens French doors onto the veranda where New York’s mayors have entertained dignitaries from around the world. “It’s a very gracious way of living,” she says. “Very elegant.”
What impresses Dasani most are not the architectural details or the gold-bound volumes of Chaucer and Tolstoy, but the astonishing lack of dust. She runs her hand lightly over the top of a Steinway piano.
“I tell you,” she says. “This house is clean.”
Dasani was still an infant when Mr. Bloomberg took office in 2002. Declaring Gracie Mansion “the people’s house,” he gathered $7 million in private donations — much of it his own money — to rehabilitate the pale yellow 18th-century home, which overlooks the East River. In came new plumbing, floors, lighting and ventilation, along with exquisite touches like an 1820s chandelier and a four-poster mahogany bed.
Facing that same river, six miles away on the opposite side, is the Auburn Family Residence, the squalid city-run homeless shelter where Dasani has lived for more than two years.
She shares a crowded, mouse-infested room with her parents and seven siblings, who sleep doubled up on torn mattresses. Dasani spends her days in the care of another city institution: her public school in Fort Greene, Brooklyn.
She shares a crowded, mouse-infested room with her parents and seven siblings, who sleep doubled up on torn mattresses.
Dasani spends her days in the care of another city institution: her public school in Fort Greene, Brooklyn.
The Susan S. McKinney Secondary School of the Arts has suffered its own troubles under the Bloomberg administration: a shrinking budget and fewer teachers.
Dasani shuttles between Auburn and McKinney, just two blocks apart. They form the core of her life and the bedrock of her future, one that is in peril.
Adults who are homeless often speak of feeling “stuck.” For children, the experience is more like a free-fall. With each passing month, they slip further back in every category known to predict long-term well-being. They are less likely to graduate from the schools that anchor them, and more likely to end up like their parents, their lives circumscribed by teenage pregnancy or shortened by crime and illness.
In the absence of a steady home or a reliable parent, public institutions have an outsize influence on the destiny of children like Dasani. Whether she can transcend her circumstances rests greatly on the role, however big or small, that society opts to play in her life.
The question of public responsibility has gained urgency in recent decades. By the time Mr. Bloomberg was elected, children made up 40 percent of shelter residents.
“We’re not walking away from taking care of the homeless,” the mayor said early on. “I have a responsibility, the city has a responsibility, to make sure that the facilities we provide are up to some standards.”
The Bloomberg administration set out to revamp the shelter system, creating 7,500 units of temporary housing, a database to track the shelter population and a program intended to prevent homelessness with counseling, job training and short-term financial aid. The new system also made it harder for families to be found eligible for shelter.
For a time, the numbers went down. But in the wake of profound policy changes and a spiraling economy, more children wound up in shelters than at any time since the creation of the shelter system in the early 1980s.
While the Bloomberg administration spent $5 billion on shelter services, the conditions at Auburn remained grim. Dasani and her siblings have grown numb to life at the shelter, where knife fights break out and crack pipes are left on the bathroom floor. In the words of their mother, they have “become the place.” She has a verb for it: shelternized.
For Dasani, school is everything — the provider of meals, on-the-spot nursing care, security and substitute parenting. On the Gracie trip, Dasani wears the Nautica coat donated by a school security guard and matching white gloves bestowed to her that morning by the principal.
A school like McKinney can also provide a bridge to the wider world.
It does not matter that Dasani’s entire sixth grade must walk a mile to the subway in icy winds, take two trains, then walk another 10 minutes before arriving. This round-trip journey, which occupies much of the day, is a welcome escape.
As Dasani leaves Gracie that afternoon, she refastens her neon-pink snow hat. She has given up on the mayor.
“He lives somewhere else,” she says, waving an arm along East End Avenue before heading back to the subway.
There is no sign announcing the shelter at 39 Auburn Place, which rises over the neighboring Walt Whitman Houses like an accidental fortress. Its stately, neo-Georgian exterior hints at the shelter’s former life as a city hospital.
Two sweeping sycamores shade the entrance, where smokers linger under brick arches, flicking cigarette ashes onto an empty, untended lawn. A concrete walkway leads to the heavily guarded front door, where residents pass through a metal detector and their bags are searched for forbidden objects like canned food, hair dryers and irons.
Visitors are restricted to the bleak lobby. Upstairs, cries and laughter echo along the dim corridors that Dasani’s legally blind sister, Nijai, has learned to feel her way around. The shelter is ill equipped to handle the needs of its numerous disabled residents, among them premature infants and severely autistic children.
Yet the manual given to incoming families boasts a “full complement of professional and support personnel” who are “available to assist you 24 hours a day, seven days per week.” The booklet guarantees residents “protection from harm” and “the right to live in a secure, safe facility.”
A starkly different Auburn — the one to which Dasani is witness — emerges from stacks of handwritten complaints, calls to 911, internal staff reports and dozens of inspections over the last decade. It is less a haven than a purgatory.
A complaint submitted by a resident who says she was threatened in the bathroom.
There is the 12-year-old boy who writes, on Oct. 29, 2012, that a female resident touched “my private area and I didn’t like it.” His mother also files a complaint, saying the woman was showing pornography to children.
The police are never notified.
Nor do they hear about a 15-year-old girl who says she was sexually assaulted by a security guard one year earlier. The complaint, written by her mother in Spanish, never appears to have been translated. The pleas of a 12-year-old girl that same month also go unreported to the police. She writes of a man who exposes his genitals in a girls’ bathroom, making her too afraid to go back without a parent: “I am still scared that someone will come in.”
It stands to reason that the complaints of children would be ignored, given how often the warnings of inspectors go nowhere.
Over the last decade, city and state inspectors have cited Auburn for more than 400 violations — many of them repeated — including for inadequate child care, faulty fire protection, insufficient heat, spoiled food, broken elevators, nonfunctioning bathrooms and the presence of mice, roaches, mold, bedbugs, lead and asbestos.
Dasani can pick out the inspectors by their clipboards and focused expressions. They work for the State Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance, which supervises homeless housing around the state. Given that Auburn is partly funded by the state, these inspectors should presumably hold sway.
Year after year, their reports read like a series of unheeded alarms. Responses by the city’s Department of Homeless Services attribute Auburn’s violations to a lack of money. To the state’s complaint, in 2003, that only one staff member is tending to 177 school-age children in the shelter’s recreation room, the agency responds: “We lack resources for teenagers!”
Auburn’s children have yet to assume their parents’ air of defeat. The children’s complaints recount their fear or discomfort as reason enough for action. The adults write as if no one is listening.
Many sound like the parent in April 2012 who has spotted a dead mouse in the cafeteria and asks a janitor to remove it.
The next day, the mouse is still there. “A child could have touched it,” the parent recounts telling the janitor, to which the janitor laughs and responds, “Well then you should have cleaned it up.”
There is no place on the inspection forms for the most common complaint: the disrespect accorded to residents by the shelter staff. Were there such a box to check, it could never capture how these encounters reverberate for days, reinforcing the rock-bottom failure that Auburn represents.
Even egregious incidents are sometimes mentioned in passing. One mother summarizes her grievance, at the top of the form, as “All of my belongs went in garbbage.” In explaining how her possessions were discarded, she mentions, tangentially, that her caseworker had “groped” her. She ends the complaint on a conciliatory note: “Peace.”
The signature at the bottom belongs to Dasani’s mother, Chanel. After she filed the complaint in September 2011, the worker was taken off her case, but kept his job and recently got a raise. Chanel never told Dasani, for fear of passing on the shame she feels whenever she sees the man.
Like most children, Dasani absorbs more than her mother would like. She can see how the shelter shrinks Chanel’s self-regard. Dasani is there when the guards rip through her mother’s carefully folded laundry in the name of “inspection,” or when a caseworker dresses her down like a cheeky adolescent. “Sometimes it feels like, ‘Why you guys messin’ with my mom?’”
Chanel is not the first woman to encounter sexual advances by an Auburn employee. Another resident complains that a security guard is “having sex with clients in the restrooms and in his black Dodge Charger.” A 2012 letter by state inspectors to the Department of Homeless Services mentions a security supervisor and guards having “improper sexual contact” with a resident.
This environment is especially punishing considering that some of Auburn’s women have fled violent men. After a caseworker touched his 46-year-old client on the breast in February 2012, another male employee smiled at her the next day and asked “if I was being good,” she wrote in a complaint, adding, “I walk around every day feeling violated.”
Auburn initially suspended the caseworker, Kenneth Durieux, for 30 days. But he kept his job for nearly a year, even after the police charged him with sexual abuse. He was dismissed last January, before pleading guilty to forcible touching.
Just this year, there have been some 350 calls to 911 from the shelter — including 24 reported assaults, four calls about possible child abuse and one reporting a rape.
City officials declined to comment on the reports of sexual abuse. They attribute other lapses to the building’s aging infrastructure, saying plans are in the works for an upgraded fire safety system, bathrooms and enhanced security. Since Mr. Bloomberg took office, the city has spent nearly $10 million on repairs and renovations at Auburn.
In the past decade, Auburn’s directors have fared well, receiving raises even as the shelter’s problems persisted. One former director, Susan Nayowith, was promoted to head of client advocacy at the Department of Homeless Services.
These kinds of facts are lost on the shelter’s children, who see only what is before them — like the Swedish meatballs that come frozen in prepackaged trays or the Cheerios served one night for dinner.
And then there are the elevators, which frequently break down. Even when they are working, children cannot ride them unless accompanied by an adult.
A month before the trip to Gracie Mansion, when Dasani’s sister Avianna walks into the shelter gasping from an asthma attack, a guard refuses to take her up in the elevator. Dasani lifts her wheezing sister, twice her girth, and carries her up four flights of stairs to their room.
Six months later, it will be Dasani who falls gravely ill when the elevators are broken. She rocks and vomits bile one evening, trying to distract herself by watching television. At 3:02 a.m., Chanel calls 911.
She helps Dasani down four sets of stairs before she collapses on a row of chairs in the lobby. There is no ambulance, so Chanel calls again. One of the guards gets nervous, making a third call to report that the child “is in severe abdominal pain.” Two more calls are placed.
At 4:02 a.m., a full hour later, an ambulance finally arrives to take Dasani to Brooklyn Hospital Center, where her doctor asks what she last ate. Her answer: a shelter dinner of spinach lasagna.
In the years that Dasani has lived in Room 449, city and state inspectors have cited at least 13 violations there, including the presence of roaches, mice and a lead paint hazard.
Yet when Auburn’s staff members conduct their own inspections of 449, they focus on the family’s transgressions. The room is found to be chaotic and insufficiently clean. There are few mentions of Auburn’s own lapses — the absence of dividers for privacy or assistance with permanent housing. Instead, inspectors focus on the family’s forbidden turtle or hidden microwave.
Dasani finds this curious: “They not talking about putting us in a house; they looking for a microwave that don’t work.”
Lately, it is the family’s sink, with its rotting wall and leaky pipe, that fails to get fixed. For weeks, the pipe drips through the night. Finally, Dasani is fed up. She crouches down and examines the pipe as her siblings watch. “Nobody thought about pushing it in and twisting it,” she says in her cocksure manner. A few quick jerks and she triumphs. The children squeal.
It goes unremarked that here, in this shelter with a $9 million annual budget, operated by an agency with more than 100 times those funds, the plumbing has fallen to an 11-year-old girl.
Dasani’s homeroom at McKinney is a cozy haven of book-lined shelves and inspirational words scrawled in chalk, like “Success does not come without sacrifice and struggle.” ■Every morning, she quietly tucks her coat and backpack in the classroom closet, a precious ritual for a girl who has no other closet. She then slips into her small wooden desk, opposite her humanities teacher, Faith Hester.
Miss Hester can best be described as electric. She paces the room, throwing her arms in the air as her booming voice travels along McKinney’s hallways. Long after she gave up dreams of acting, her class is the stage and her students, a rapt audience.
Sometimes she arrives in an Audrey Hepburn updo; other days, she dons the brightly patterned prints procured in Senegal on a trip to “learn the truth about my motherland.” She favors expressions like “Oh my gooney goo hoo!” and “Okie pokie dokie shmokie!” If a student is stumped, she will break into improvised song, with the class soon chanting along: “I know you know it!” — clap, clap — “I know you know it!” — clap, clap.
Sometimes she arrives in an Audrey Hepburn updo; other days, she dons the brightly patterned prints procured in Senegal on a trip to “learn the truth about my motherland.”
She favors expressions like “Oh my gooney goo hoo!” and “Okie pokie dokie shmokie!”
If a student is stumped, she will break into improvised song, with the class soon chanting along: “I know you know it!” — clap, clap — “I know you know it!” — clap, clap.
Miss Hester knows that students learn when they get excited. It bothers her that McKinney lacks the sophisticated equipment of other public schools. She shelled out more than $1,000 of her own money, as a single mother, to give her classroom a projector and document camera.
When Miss Hester looks around her classroom, she sees a glimpse of her younger self. She was raised by a single mother in the Marcy projects of Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, a monotonous spread of 27 brick buildings with the singular distinction of being where Jay-Z grew up. She could never quite numb herself, like other children did, to the addicts shooting up in the elevator or the dead bodies on gurneys. Her salvation came at church and school.
In 1979, Miss Hester was one of the first black students to be bused from Marcy to the predominantly white Edward R. Murrow High School in Midwood, Brooklyn. Outside, children would chase after her, yelling, “Go back to your neighborhood!” Inside the school, she applied herself fastidiously. A teacher made all the difference, guiding her to college applications. She was only 16 when she graduated, bound for SUNY Cortland.
Thirty-three years and two master’s degrees later, it is Miss Hester who searches for the student in need of saving.
She sees promise in Dasani, who landed on the honor roll last fall. But lately, she is skipping homework and arriving moody and tired, if she makes it to school at all.
New York’s homeless children have an abysmal average attendance rate of 82 percent, well below what is typically needed to advance to the next grade. Since the start of the school year, Dasani has already missed a week of class and arrived late 13 times.
Her attendance is being closely tracked by a social worker in the school whose nonprofit organization, Partnership With Children, offers counseling and other services to some of the city’s most vulnerable students.
Miss Hester told Partnership about Dasani. She saw no point in turning to the school’s guidance counselor or psychologist, who serves two other schools. They jump from crisis to crisis, like E.R. doctors in triage, treating problems that have become acute or irreversible.
Prevention is a luxury reserved for schools with enough counselors. In their absence, McKinney turns to Partnership, which has weathered its own post-recession budget cuts and layoffs. Graduate students are filling in as interns.
This is how Dasani finds herself sitting across from Roxanne, who is pursuing a master’s degree in social work at Fordham University. She has been assigned to lead one-on-one counseling sessions with Dasani.
Dasani has never had a counselor. They meet once a week, passing the time playing Mancala as Roxanne tries to draw Dasani out, which proves far more difficult than any board game. Dasani knows how to deflect questions with humor, avoiding talk about her family and the shelter.
She is also studying Roxanne. There is something soft about this Minnesota native, who uses words like “sweetie” and melts into giggles. Dasani is puzzled by Roxanne’s attire — the rumpled shirts and distressed boots that pass for hip in other Brooklyn quarters. Nothing she wears seems to match, and yet her clothes are spotless.
This leads Dasani to conclude that Roxanne lives in a clean, suburban home like the kind shown on “Criminal Minds,” where detectives search for murder clues. It is not the murders themselves that intrigue Dasani so much as the enormous, orderly closets of the crime scenes — closets big enough to live in.
Miss Hester wonders about these counseling sessions. She finds Roxanne bright and devoted, but worries that Dasani will run circles around the intern, whose overriding quality is sweetness.
“I don’t need ‘sweet,’” Miss Hester says. “I need a Ph.D.”
Back at the shelter, Dasani spends countless hours with her siblings playing games on a Nintendo Wii.■If Dasani could design her own video game, she would call it “Live or Die.” The protagonist would be an 11-year-old girl fighting for her own salvation.
In the first round, she confronts the easy villains — her chores — scrambling to bathe, dress and feed her siblings. She cannot find Baby Lele, who is crying. The baby’s tears turn into lethal rocks that fall from the sky, which the girl must dodge.
Next, she encounters her parents battling social workers in the guise of angry pirates. Chanel tosses magical powers to the girl, who defeats the pirates, melting them to the ground.
In the third round, she goes to school, finding danger and deliverance. Her math teacher is a supervillain whose weapon is numbers. “Ten” turns into 10 charging porcupines. Down the hall, the girl must rescue Miss Hester from giant, rolling cans. “If she dies, all the kids die, too.”
Finally, the girl faces off against her longtime rival from the projects, a purple hulk who picks up cars and hurls them. If the girl survives, she reaches the queen — the principal, Paula Holmes — who decides her future. Winning brings the prize of a new house. Losing means returning to the shelter, “which is death.”
“My goal is to make it to the end, but I keep dying,” Dasani says.
It is easier for Dasani to think of Auburn as the worst possible outcome because the alternative — winding up on the street — is unfathomable. She knows that if she and her siblings were to lose the shelter, they might land in foster care, losing one another.
So as bad as it is, the children try to make the place their own. When the lights are on, their room is flatly fluorescent, which prompts them to climb a dresser, remove the plastic lamp cover from the ceiling and color it in with crayons the shades of a rainbow.
When the lights are off, the room assumes a gray aura not unlike, Dasani imagines, the hospital ward it once was. “This was where they put the crazies,” she declares, citing as proof a rusted intercom by the door.
The communal bathroom closest to Dasani is, indeed, reminiscent of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” Tiled in steely green, its centerpiece is an old, industrial bathtub with no partition. A limp plastic curtain divides the sole shower from the rest of the bathroom, which is marked by vulgar graffiti and shared by dozens of women and girls, though men sometimes intrude.
The floor is filthy. The children routinely wipe it down with bleach stolen from the janitors, as residents are forbidden to bring the cleaning solvent into Auburn. A changing table hangs off its hinge, pointing to the floor like a slide.
The floor is filthy. The children routinely wipe it down with bleach stolen from the janitors, as residents are forbidden to bring the cleaning solvent into Auburn. A changing table hangs off its hinge, pointing to the floor like a slide.
At night, the children hear noises. They are sure Auburn is haunted. Five-year-old Papa calls the ghost in their room “I-it.” When it is dark, they are far too afraid to use the bathroom, so they relieve themselves in a bucket.
Yet that bathroom has become Dasani’s makeshift sanctuary. She practices hip-hop routines across the floor. She sits alone in the toilet stall, the lid closed beneath her. Sometimes she reads, or just closes her eyes. Her mind feels crowded anywhere else.
Lately, she is worried about her mother, who has been summoned on Feb. 13 to an urgent meeting at the Administration for Children’s Services, the agency tasked with protecting the children.
Photographs of smiling children line the walls of the agency’s lobby in Bedford-Stuyvesant, where Chanel is greeted by her caseworker, who uses the nickname “Mr. James.”
“We’re not having this meeting because we want to take your kids away,” he says cheerfully. “We’re having this meeting because we want you to move to an apartment.”
Chanel stares at him.
“Why don’t you ever tell my lawyer about these meetings?” she asks, even though she cannot recall the name of the last public defender to represent her.
“You don’t need a lawyer to attend an A.C.S. meeting,” he responds.
They ride the elevator up to a conference room, where Chanel is jarred to find the director of Auburn, Derrick Aiken, waiting. He is there to issue a warning: If Chanel and her husband, Supreme, do not comply with the Department of Homeless Services’ requirements, the family may be forced to leave the shelter system. At issue is their public assistance case, which has closed because Supreme failed to report to a job placement program, one of dozens of such lapses in the past decade. Currently, the family receives only food stamps and survivor benefits.
An open public assistance case allows the agency to be reimbursed with federal funds, while also making the family eligible for child care and job training — the kind of supports that could help in finding a home.
But the problem for Chanel and Supreme comes down to basic math: Even with two full-time jobs, on minimum wage, they would have combined salaries of only $2,300 per month — just enough to cover the average rent for a studio in Brooklyn.
New York, it often strikes Chanel, has no place for the poor.
Auburn offers plenty of proof. Residents like Jenedra, a home health aide, and her daughter, who works at a Pinkberry in Park Slope, Brooklyn, cannot afford city prices.
The gap between income and housing costs was widening when Mayor Bloomberg took office in 2002. The homeless population was also growing. For decades, the city had tried to stem the numbers by giving homeless families priority access to public housing, Section 8 vouchers and subsidized city apartments. While the policy was in place, only 11.5 percent of the families returned to shelters within five years.
To Mr. Bloomberg, priority referrals were an incentive to enter the shelter system. “Our own policies needlessly encourage entry and prolong dependence on shelters,” he said in 2004.
Mr. Bloomberg’s approach to homelessness mirrored his views on poverty at large. The mayor’s best-known effort was the Center for Economic Opportunity, which spent $662 million on poverty prevention programs that emphasized education and job training as a means to self-reliance.
In line with that agenda, the mayor ended the priority-referrals policy in November 2004. Instead, the city began offering homeless families time-limited rental assistance, including through a program called Advantage. Yet more than a quarter of them wound up back in shelters once their subsidies ran out.
Among them was Dasani’s family. After their $1,481 rent subsidy expired in 2010, they returned to a shelter system that spends roughly $3,000 per month on every family. It would end up costing the city $400,000 to house Dasani’s family over a decade.
In 2011, Mr. Bloomberg ended Advantage after the state withdrew its funding. Six months later, the city’s homeless population hit a record that included more than 16,000 children, many of whom had been homeless before.
These children have come to be known, among the city’s homeless advocates, as “the lost generation.”
Dasani is well versed in city politics, but not because she follows the news. She is simply forced to notice what other children miss.■When Mr. Bloomberg tried to ban the sale of large, sugary drinks, Dasani began calculating what two sodas would cost in place of the supersize cup that, in her family, is typically passed among eight small mouths.
Now it is the citywide bus strike that has called Dasani’s attention, by virtue of the fact that she must walk three of her younger siblings to school.
It is no small feat to corral Papa, Hada and Maya, who form a tempestuous gaggle of untied shoelaces, short tempers and yogurt-stained mouths.
Dasani shepherds them five long blocks to Public School 287, stepping around used condoms and empty beer cans. “Double up!” she yells in the manner of her mother.
The children go silent and reach for each other’s hands, waiting for the traffic to pause. Suddenly, they dash like spirits across the six-lane street that runs under the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. The strike has worn on for a month when, on Valentine’s Day, Dasani stops into a corner store outside McKinney.
The children go silent and reach for each other’s hands, waiting for the traffic to pause. Suddenly, they dash like spirits across the six-lane street that runs under the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway.
The strike has worn on for a month when, on Valentine’s Day, Dasani stops into a corner store outside McKinney.
She scans the aisles before settling on an iced honey bun, a bag of nacho-flavored sunflower seeds and some red gummy bears — a rare $3 breakfast earned as part of her allowance for watching Baby Lele all weekend.
She glides into class only a few minutes late.
Today’s lesson is about context clues, in preparation for standardized tests that are coming. “You come across an unfamiliar word,” Miss Hester explains. “You look at the surrounding words and ideas and you unpack that word.”
The theatrics begin.
“Flabbergasted,” she says. “I was flabbergasted when I found a million dollars in my purse.”
The class erupts in laughter.
“A million dollars!” Miss Hester hoots. “I know that that’s a lot of money. And it’s in my purse. And I’m supposed to be broke,” she says, batting her long lashes. “‘Flabbergasted’ means ‘delightfully surprised.’”
Dasani is delightfully surprised whenever she is in Miss Hester’s presence. It does not matter that her mother finds the teacher “weird.” She makes Dasani want to learn.
One can only imagine the heights Dasani might reach at a school like Packer Collegiate Institute, just 12 blocks west of the shelter. Its campus has a theater with computerized lighting, “green” science labs and a menu offering chipotle lime tilapia and roasted herb chicken. Its middle school cultivates the interests of the “whole child,” for whom doors will open to the “public arenas of the world.”
Packer’s students might learn something from Dasani, too. Parents from five private Brooklyn schools recently filed into Packer, where tuition is over $35,000, to hear a clinical psychologist give a talk on how to raise “self-reliant, appreciative children in a nervous and entitled world.”
That world is unlikely to become Dasani’s. She is not the kind of child to land a coveted scholarship to private school, which would require a parent with the wherewithal to seek out such opportunities and see them through. For the same reason, Dasani does not belong to New York’s fast-growing population of charter school students.
In fact, the reverse is happening: a charter school is coming to McKinney. Approved last December by the Education Department, Success Academy Fort Greene will soon claim half of McKinney’s third floor. This kind of co-location arrangement has played out in schools across the city, stoking deep resentments in poor communities.
The guiding ethos of the charter school movement has been “choice” — the power to choose a school rather than capitulate to a flawed education system and a muscular teachers’ union. But in communities like McKinney’s, the experience can feel like a lack of choice.
Dasani watched, wide-eyed, during a protest last December as McKinney’s parents and teachers held up signs comparing the co-location to apartheid. Charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately operated, serve fewer students with special needs, and are sometimes perceived as exclusive.
A web posting for Success Academy Fort Greene does little to counter that notion. Parents, it says, “shouldn’t have to trek to other Brooklyn neighborhoods or spend $30,000+ on a private school in order to find excellence and rigor.”
By late February, Dasani’s grades have plummeted. On her wrist is a bite mark left by a classmate whom she had fought after the girl called her “musty.”
The next day, Dasani lunges at a girl in gym class. Miss Hester has had enough.
“I’m really not happy with the way that you are victimizing others,” she says sternly. “I need it to stop immediately. Do you understand me?”
She nods at Miss Hester, her eyes dropping.
For Dasani, school and life are indistinguishable. When school goes well, she is whole. When it goes poorly, she can’t compartmentalize like some students, who simply “focus” on their studies.
It is a place to love or leave.
Minutes later, Dasani is sitting in McKinney’s packed auditorium for an assembly on Black History Month.
She hates Black History Month.
“It’s always the same poems,” she says.
The new honor roll is called out. Dasani’s name is missing. It must be a mistake, she tells herself. But when she hears all the other names, the truth sinks in.
She slumps in her chair as a group of boys takes the stage to recite Langston Hughes.
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Dasani knows this poem well. They read it every year. She stares blankly at the stage.
Maybe it just sags
Like a heavy load
Or does it explode?
On the Brooklyn block that is Dasani’s dominion, shoppers can buy a $3 malt liquor in an airless deli where food stamps are traded for cigarettes. Or they can cross the street for a $740 bottle of chardonnay at an industrial wine shop accented with modern art.
It is a sign outside that locale, Gnarly Vines, that catches Dasani’s notice one spring afternoon: “Wine Tasting Tonight 5-8.”
Dasani is hardly conversant in the subject of libations, but this much she knows: A little drink will take off her mother’s edge. Without further ado, Chanel heads into the wine shop on Myrtle Avenue, trailed by four of her eight children. They are lugging two greasy boxes of pizza and a jumbo pack of diapers from Target.
The cashier pauses. The sommelier smiles.
“Wanna try a little rosé?” she asks brightly, pouring from a 2012 bottle of Mas de Gourgonnier. “I would describe it as definitely fruit forward at the beginning.”
Chanel polishes it.
“But really crisp, dry, refreshing ——”
“Not refreshing,” Chanel says. “I just think dry.”
“No, it’s very dry,” says the sommelier, a peppy blonde in wire-rim glasses. “It’s high acid, a little citrusy.”
Chanel sticks out her tongue. She finds the woman’s choice of words unappetizing. To the side of the wine display is a large, silver vase that recalls the family urn, prompting Chanel’s son Khaliq to ask if it contains the ashes of a dead person.
“Oh my gosh, for cremation?” the sommelier asks, shaking her head. “We just use it for spitting in.”
“For spitting?” Chanel says with horror.
“Yeah, it’s got rejected wine in it,” the sommelier says.
Chanel scoffs. She might not like the wine, but she sees no reason to spit it out. She moves on to a Tuscan sangiovese.
Ignoring the spectacle, Dasani scans the room, frowning at a sign on the wall: Liqueur. “They got liquor spelled wrong,” she yelps victoriously.
Actually, the sommelier interjects, that is the French word for the delicate, liquid spirits derived from fruits such as pomegranates and raspberries. “But you’re very right,” she offers sweetly. “That is not how you spell liquor.”
“Not the hood liquor,” Chanel says.
Dasani’s neighborhood is one of the most unequal pockets of New York City, the most unequal metropolis in America.■Fort Greene occupies less than one square mile. On the map, its boundaries form the shape of a pitcher tilting at the northwestern edge of Brooklyn.
Just north of Fort Greene Park are the projects and, among them, the homeless shelter where Dasani lives.
Just south of the park are some of Brooklyn’s finest townhouses and cultural gems, including the Brooklyn Academy of Music, where theatergoers were lining up to see “Julius Caesar” on the day that Dasani led her mother to the wine shop.
If one thing distinguishes Dasani’s New York from that of her antecedents, it is a striking proximity to the wealth that eludes her.
She routinely walks past a boho-chic boutique on Lafayette Avenue where calfskin boots command $845. Heading north, she passes French bulldogs on leashes and infants riding like elevated genies in Uppababy strollers with shock-absorbing wheels. Three blocks away is an ice cream parlor where $6 buys two salted-caramel scoops.
Like most children, Dasani is oblivious to the precise cost of such extravagances. She only knows that they are beyond her reach.
Nor can this 11-year-old girl be expected to grasp the subtle gradations of Fort Greene’s elite, whose creative class feels pushed out of a neighborhood it once considered more gritty than tony.
Dasani sees the chasms of Fort Greene more plainly, reasoning that wealth belongs to “the whites” because “they save their money and don’t spend it on drinking and smoking.”
Such perceptions are fed by the contrasts of this neighborhood, where the top 5 percent of residents earn 76 times as much as the bottom quintile. Dasani spots addicts gathering outside a food pantry a block from $2 million brownstones. She notes that few people in the projects use the Citi Bikes stationed nearby. The celebrated bike sharing program, unveiled this year, requires a credit or debit card for a $101 security deposit.
Dasani also knows that not everyone in the projects is poor. Her Uncle Waverly, who lives in the Walt Whitman Houses across from her shelter, the Auburn Family Residence, works as a supervisor for the parks department and has a Lexus S.U.V. When he drives past Dasani and her siblings, he pretends not to know them.
Dasani charts the patterns of Fort Greene Park by skin color. The basketball courts are closest to the projects, drawing black children to that northwestern corner. On the rare occasion when Dasani ventures to the opposite quadrant, she sees white women sunbathing in bikinis or playing tennis near a water fountain outfitted for dogs.
She never finds those women at the nearby Bravo Supermarket for Values, where thieves are photographed in Polaroids that fill the store’s “Wall of Shame.” Wearing naked expressions, they are forced to pose with their stolen items — things like Goya beans and Kraft cheese. A woman named Mary holds a can of tuna in a photograph titled “Catch of the Day.”
Dasani is more likely to encounter shoppers of another stratum at the local Target, where they can save on items that for her family represent a splurge.
Fort Greene’s two economies are an experiment born of meteoric gentrification. In the last decade, the neighborhood has been remade, with the portion of white residents jumping by 80 percent as real estate prices more than doubled despite the recession.
Just the word “gentrification” is remarkably divisive. It derives from the Middle English word “gentrise,” which means “of noble descent.” The word has become shorthand for an urban neighborhood where muggings are down and espresso is roasted — a place that has been “discovered,” as though no one had been living there.
Dasani’s Fort Greene reaches deep into the last century. Her grandmother Joanie grew up in the Raymond V. Ingersoll Houses, next to the Walt Whitman Houses. Both projects opened in 1944, an era of New Deal reforms that gave rise to white flight and urban decay. Fort Greene, like other black areas, was redlined, allowing banks to disinvest and property values to plummet.
The neighborhood’s prospects started to change in 1978, after the city declared part of Fort Greene a historic district. By the time Dasani was born there in 2001, a billionaire was preparing to run for mayor. A year after taking office, Michael R. Bloomberg announced an ambitious redevelopment plan for Downtown Brooklyn.
Fort Greene’s transformation came swiftly. Through aggressive rezoning and generous subsidies, the city drew developers who, in the span of three years, built 19 luxury buildings in the surrounding area that catered — across racial lines — to the educated elite.
Dasani and her siblings routinely pass the Toren, a glistening, 38-story glass tower on Myrtle Avenue offering a 24-hour concierge, gymnasium, pool and movie theater. In June, a condominium there sold for $1.4 million.
Just blocks away stand the Ingersoll and Whitman projects, which engulf Dasani’s shelter and, like Auburn, have fallen into disrepair.
It is the juxtaposition of these neglected time capsules to Fort Greene’s luxury towers that seems to mock the neighborhood’s effort at ascension. For the arriviste investor, the projects present a rude visual interruption, an inconvenient thing to walk around, but never through.
For Dasani, these faded buildings hold a legacy so intricate and rich it could fill volumes were it ever told.
The homeless shelter where she lives is the very building where Grandma Joanie had been born, back when it was Cumberland Hospital. Just across the way is the fifth-story apartment where Joanie grew up, helping her own mother raise seven other children in the clasp of poverty.
Three generations later, little has changed. Even as the fortunes of this neighborhood rose, Dasani’s matrilineal line, from her great-grandmother to her mother, has followed a trajectory of teenage pregnancy, addiction and violence.
Fort Greene is now a marker. For one set of people, arriving signals triumph. For another, remaining means defeat.
Dasani will do better, she tells herself. “People don’t go nowhere in Brooklyn,” she says. Chanel promises they will move this spring, after the tax refunds arrive.
Yet as Dasani walks through her grandmother’s streets, it is not with the sense of imminent departure so much as melancholic return.
Chanel was 8 when she found her mother’s crack pipe in a jewelry box. She held it up to the light and showed it to her brother.■We gonna toss it, he said.■They opened the window and watched as the brown glass vial soared through the air, crashing onto the sidewalk.
It was the mid-1980s, and crack had swept the streets of Brownsville, Brooklyn, where Chanel’s mother, Joanie, now lived. Chanel visited on weekends. The rest of the time, she stayed with her godmother, Sherry, who had been the common-law wife of Chanel’s father. Chanel’s mother was his lover.
Stranger things had happened in Brownsville, and now that Chanel’s father was dead, the two women made peace, despite their differences. Joanie relied on welfare to support her habit. Sherry ran a day care center and shunned drugs.
“It was like two different people trying to raise one kid,” Chanel says.
At Sherry’s rowhouse in East New York, Brooklyn, Chanel minded her chores and did her homework.
At Joanie’s, the child watched dance parties meld into a predawn haze.
Worried that Joanie would unduly influence Chanel, Sherry sent the 10-year-old girl to live with a relative in Pittsburgh and attend Catholic school. But Chanel longed for her birth mother and began to act out. Within a few years, she returned to New York and moved in with Joanie. They soon wound up in a shelter in Queens, where both were exposed to tuberculosis.
Over the next few years, they drifted apart.
Joanie turned her life around after President Bill Clinton signed legislation in 1996 to end “welfare as we know it,” placing time limits and work restrictions on recipients of government aid. She got clean and joined a welfare-to-work program, landing a $22,000-a-year job cleaning subway cars for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. “This is the happiest day of my life,” she told Chanel.
By then, Chanel had dropped out of high school and was addicted to crack. She had joined a sect of the violent Bloods gang, tattooing her street name, Lady Red, in curly letters across her right arm. She was a regular in the crack dens of Bedford-Stuyvesant.
Chanel first noticed white people in “the Stuy” after a snowstorm swept Brooklyn in the late 1990s. Out of nowhere, two cross-country skiers appeared along Franklin Avenue like “a pair of aliens.” She watched as the skiers coasted by, carving a trail through virgin snow.
She sensed that Brooklyn was on the cusp of change. But she could not have imagined that just five blocks from that spot, people would one day line up to buy blood orange and hibiscus doughnuts at an artisanal shop called Dough.
The first commercial signs of Brooklyn’s transition were simpler. In 2001, Chanel spotted a new brand of bottled water — Dasani — on the shelves of her corner store. She was pregnant again, but unlike the miscarriages of her teens, this baby was surviving. Chanel needed a name.
For a 23-year-old Brooklyn native who had spent summers cooling in the gush of hydrants, the name “Dasani” held a certain appeal. It sounded as special as Chanel’s name had sounded to her own mother, when she saw the perfume advertised in a magazine. It grasped at something better.
Dasani was born on May 26 at Brooklyn Hospital Center in Fort Greene. The doll-faced infant weighed only 5 pounds 6 ounces. She was strikingly alert and had, the nurse noted, a “vigorous cry.” Three days later, Chanel left her with Joanie and took off.
Even as a baby, Dasani was awake to the world. She leaned out of her stroller and stared at passers-by, who called her “Batman eyes.” She was tiny, but never frail, and began walking at only 8 months.
Chanel would surface from time to time, but Dasani latched on to Joanie. A year later, Chanel had a second daughter by the same man, naming her Avianna, inspired by the more expensive brand of Evian water.
Joanie had hit her limit, so Chanel turned to the city’s shelter system. With both babies, she reported to the Department of Homeless Services intake office in the Bronx. They were sent to 30 Hamilton Place, a family shelter in Harlem.
Down the hall, a single father had moved in with his own two children. He called himself Supreme. He had sad, knowing eyes that made him look older than his 26 years. He never talked about the past.
Supreme was born to heroin addicts in the Cypress Hills projects of East New York. By age 7, he knew how to shop with his mother’s food stamps and cook grits for his four younger siblings. When the pantry was empty, he made sugar sandwiches.
He was 9 when he came upon the lifeless body of his baby sister. She had been left near the entrance of the projects, wrapped in a blanket. Supreme stroked her head and kept saying her name, Precious. “She didn’t wake up,” he says.
Investigators for Child Protective Services thought the 2-year-old girl had swallowed sleeping pills, though the medical examiner concluded that she had died of sudden infant death syndrome. The father had left Precious alone when she died. When her mother found her, Supreme recalled, she panicked, leaving the girl’s body outside as she ran for help.
Later that day, the agency’s workers removed Supreme and his siblings from the home. For the next three years, Supreme bounced from foster care to group homes. He soon dropped out of school and left for North Carolina to join the crack trade. By 17, Supreme had a felony drug conviction and was serving time at a maximum-security prison in Walpole, Mass.
It was there that he discovered the Five Percent Nation, a growing movement whose followers believe they are the chosen “5 percent” of humanity. The Five Percenters were shaping urban culture and music, while spreading the word that the black man is God.
That message — that God was within him — filled Supreme with a sense of power over his destiny, one that until now had been steered by outsiders.
Supreme left prison in 1997 with a high school equivalency diploma. He married and moved to Washington, finding work as a barber. Six years later, his wife — pregnant with their third child — had a heart attack and fell down a flight of stairs to her death.
Chanel took pity on this solemn widower, who came to the shelter a few months after his wife’s passing. Dasani and Avianna were the exact same ages as his children. He seemed different from the other men. He was always reading, and had a way with words.
“I fell in love with his brains,” Chanel says.
Two incomplete families soon became one.
Chanel embraced the Five Percent, wrapping her head in a scarf and vowing to stay off drugs. They married at the city clerk’s office on Feb. 4, 2004.
For Chanel, it was a moment of triumph. Women in her family almost never married.
“We were the product of split-up families,” she says. “We always wanted a big family. One family. One full family.”
But Supreme and Chanel had a temperamental love. Their biggest fights led to brief separations, even as three more children were born. Chanel could not stay off drugs for long. When she gave birth to Papa in 2007, the hospital detected marijuana in his blood.
But Supreme and Chanel had a temperamental love. Their biggest fights led to brief separations, even as three more children were born.
Chanel could not stay off drugs for long. When she gave birth to Papa in 2007, the hospital detected marijuana in his blood.
In an instant, everything changed.
Chanel and Supreme were summoned to the Administration for Children’s Services office in Bedford-Stuyvesant — the same brick building where Supreme had been escorted as a child.
Standing there, in the lobby, the memory came rushing back. Supreme was 9 again, losing his sister, then his parents, then his other siblings, all in the course of a day.
Soon his own children became accustomed to knocks at the door as the agency’s caseworkers, responding to a handful of complaints about possible neglect, began to monitor the family. They inspected the children from head to toe, searching for signs of abuse.
Dasani learned to spot a social worker on the street by the person’s bag (large enough to hold files). She became expert at the complex psychic task of managing strangers — of reading facial expressions and interpreting intonations, of knowing when to say the right thing or to avoid the wrong one.
“They can use that in a court of law against the parent,” she says, back in the voice of “Criminal Minds.”
“I love my parents. They’re tough, but I should not be taken away from them.”
Dasani remained tethered to Grandma Joanie, who had proudly kept her job as a sanitation worker. She now lived in a cozy apartment in Bedford-Stuyvesant. On weekends, Joanie would fix the children B.L.T. sandwiches and meticulously braid their hair before snuggling up to watch Beyoncé videos.
Dasani was Joanie’s favorite. With this child, Joanie could finally be a mother. With Joanie, Dasani could be a child.
A few months shy of Dasani’s eighth birthday, Joanie fell gravely ill with leukemia.
On March 7, 2008, she died in the same hospital where Dasani had been born. She was 55.
“Why she had to go away so quickly?” Dasani asks.
At the funeral, mourners gasped as the tiny girl flung herself on the open coffin. Dasani kicked and wailed as Chanel tore her away.
Joanie was cremated and her ashes placed in a black and silver urn that remained with Dasani’s family, accompanying them like a talisman.
Her death brought a rebirth. Chanel inherited $49,000 of Joanie’s pension savings.
At the time, the family had been renting a small apartment in East New York through a city program offering time-limited subsidies to the homeless.
That month, the family’s subsidy expired.
Chanel’s inheritance saved them from homelessness. Months later, the city began a new rent subsidy program called Advantage. With its help, Chanel leased a duplex on Staten Island, and in summer 2008, boarded the Staten Island Ferry with Supreme and the children. It was their first time on a boat. They raced to the back and leaned into the salty mist.
Staten Island was quiet and green. In their new apartment on North Burgher Avenue, the children rolled around on the wall-to-wall carpet. There they lay, pressed together, that first night.
It was their first real home. The children’s euphoria steadily rose with that of their parents.
“When they’re happy, I’m happy,” Dasani says. “When they’re sad, I’m sad. It’s like I have a connection, like I’m stuck to them like glue.”
Chanel and Supreme talked giddily of starting a youth center that would teach the Five Percent ethos known as the “Five P’s”: proper planning prevents poor performance.
Supreme landed a job at Heavenly Cuts, a barbershop a few blocks away. Chanel bought a used, cherry-red Dodge Durango and a rolling kitchen island at Home Depot. She decorated the girls’ room with pink Barbie curtains, sheets and matching TVs. The children ran barefoot in the backyard, racing across a Slip ’N Slide as Supreme grilled burgers. Joanie’s urn occupied a place of honor in the living room.
This was, without question, the high point of their collective life.
It would take years for Chanel to understand why things so quickly fell apart. It was not obvious, in that blinding moment, that money could be useful only if they knew how to spend it. To think it would bring salvation was as quixotic as expecting a set of keys to drive a car.
Money was not going to heal a father who had never been a child. When customers took a seat in Supreme’s chair at the barbershop, they saw a pair of hands expertly at work. They did not see the boy who, at age 7, had learned that very skill by cutting his brothers’ hair while his parents were strung out on heroin.
What money brought was a quick escape from all that. Over the next two years, Supreme and Chanel bobbed and wove through a fog of addiction. Supreme started doing heroin. Chanel became hooked on painkillers during an extended stay at Staten Island Hospital, where she was being treated for a recurrence of the tuberculosis she contracted in a shelter.
Children’s Services hovered over the family, ensuring that Chanel and Supreme submit to random drug tests. Eventually, Supreme and Chanel stopped working.
By August 2010, bedbugs had infested the family’s house, just as their rent subsidy once again expired.
The city’s shelters were filling with former Advantage recipients — families who had been homeless before taking the rent subsidy, only to become homeless again.
On Aug. 20, Dasani’s family boarded the ferry to Manhattan, where they headed to the Department of Homeless Services’s intake office in the South Bronx.
As Dasani’s family approached the entrance, Chanel spotted two abandoned baby turtles in a cardboard box. She stuffed them in her pockets.
Six days later, the family arrived at Auburn, along with its two forbidden pet turtles and Joanie’s urn.
Children are said to be adaptable. On outward appearances, Dasani and her siblings became inured to the dehumanizing ways of Auburn — the security checks at the entrance, the grimy bathrooms, the long waits for rancid food.
Yet nothing prepared them for what happened on Sept. 7, 2011, a year after they arrived.
Chanel and the children had been “logged out” of Auburn, the official description of what happens when residents who have been absent for more than 48 hours are sent to the Bronx intake office to fill out forms and answer questions. The entire family must make this onerous trip, even on school days.
That evening, tired and hungry, they returned to their room. It looked ransacked. Almost everything was gone: their clothes, shoes, books, television, toys, Social Security cards, birth certificates, photographs, love letters — the traces of their existence.
Joanie’s urn had also vanished.
Chanel raced down to the security guards, Dasani chasing after her.
“Where are my mother’s ashes?” she screamed. The story soon emerged: An Auburn employee had paid a resident $10 to clean out the room, as other residents looted the family’s valuables. Everything else was tossed in the garbage.
Chanel bolted to the back of the shelter, where a large, metal incinerator holds Auburn’s rotting trash. She waded in, the garbage reaching her waist. She searched frantically. This could not be Joanie’s final resting place, she kept telling herself.
She cursed. She wept aloud.
Finally, she stopped. The truth was setting in. Fifty-seven years after Joanie had been born, here in this very building, her remains were dumped in the garbage.
Upstairs, the room felt cursed.
Joanie had always protected the children, in life and in death. Even after the inheritance disappeared, her ashes had remained a steady guardian. But now Joanie was gone. In her absence, a devastating chain of events unfolded.
Chanel paced the room that evening, desperate and broke. Supreme was gone after another fight. She expected no help from Auburn. Still, she had gone to the trouble of filing a complaint, writing in hurried print, “I don’t know what to do my kid start school tomorrow and I have nothing.”
Complaint filed by Chanel.
The next day, Chanel left the children alone in the room, defying the shelter’s rules, and hit the streets in search of cash. A man approached her on Myrtle Avenue asking where he could buy drugs. He did not look like an undercover officer, so she steered him to the projects. She was arrested and later pleaded guilty to drug possession charges, though Chanel maintains she was innocent.
When Chanel did not return that night, Dasani felt something in the air. There was a knock at the door. Dasani shushed the kids. They pretended to be asleep. Then the door opened as an Auburn supervisor and Homeless Services police told the children to get dressed.
The Administration for Children’s Services had known for months that Chanel was getting high on opiates, but had been trying to keep the family together. After her arrest, a family judge ordered new drug tests for both parents, revealing that Supreme had also been smoking marijuana.
With that, the agency went to court to have the children removed. In a hearing on Sept. 20, the children’s lawyer objected, arguing that to divide them among foster homes “who knows where in the city” would “present a greater imminent risk to the children than remaining where they are.”
The judge struck a compromise: Both parents needed to comply with a drug treatment program. The children were to remain with Supreme, but Chanel temporarily lost custody.
She had suffered all kinds of losses, but nothing compared with this. Who was she if not a mother? She had always tried to be there, rarely missing a school play or a parent-teacher conference. On Sunday afternoons she would braid hair until her fingers turned numb. At bedtime each night, she flipped through the family dictionary to teach her children a new “word of the day.”
Now, Chanel would be living with Sherry, only seeing the children on supervised visits. She broke the news to the children on a park bench.
“Take care of your siblings,” she instructed Dasani.
Dasani was silent.
Supreme ruled by fear. If the children laughed too loud, he only had to yell “Shut up!” and they froze, a silent dread passing among them. He had an old-fashioned approach to child rearing: Break the rules and you get the belt. Chanel’s presence had tempered him.
When she left, Supreme wrote two words on the wall in black marker: “King Me!”
Under the agency’s supervision, both Chanel and Supreme made steady progress in a treatment program that required taking daily doses of methadone, a synthetic drug meant to control addiction.
Nearly a year later, on Aug. 2, 2012, the judge allowed Chanel to return to her family at Auburn under supervision from the Administration for Children’s Services. She came with a promise: They would save enough money to leave.
Chanel spreads the cash across her bed, all $2,800. The children stare in awe.■“I don’t know why I feel so happy,” Avianna says.
Chanel quickly stashes it, announcing no intention of spending her long-awaited tax refund, which arrived Feb. 13.
“Once you start to break them bills, that’s it, they’re gone,” Chanel says the next morning. She is walking through the projects, the money bulging from her pocket. She does not know where to put it, so she holds onto it and, more than anything, the feeling of having it.
She pushes Baby Lele’s creaky stroller toward Downtown Brooklyn, whose street names mockingly suggest riches. Gold. Tillary. Bond. She takes an inventory of all the things she could — but won’t — buy: a new stroller, sneakers, a hair-braiding session for the girls.
Chanel knows that unless she finds a way to save her money, and persuades Supreme not to spend his own tax refund, they will never leave Auburn.
And yet, planning has never been their way. “To plan something is to plan to fail,” she says. “My plan is to do some goddamn laundry.”
Tax season brings a sudden reprieve for a family that, with food stamps, has about $75 a day to spend. This amounts to $7.50 per person in a city where three subway trips cost as much. They survive because they live rent-free and have access to three meals a day.
Chanel is reminded of this when she stops to look at listings in the window of a real estate office near her methadone clinic. A one-bedroom in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, is going for $1,300 a month.
She sees no option but to leave New York. In a show of commitment, Chanel gives $800 of her tax refund to Grandma Sherry in exchange for a used Chevrolet minivan, which is sitting in the driveway with no permit.
Now they must wait for Supreme’s tax refund.
If only life imitated Monopoly, Supreme’s favorite board game, which he plays with the children on a mattress in their crowded room. “I like building up property and collecting rent,” he says.
But becoming a real renter, he finds, is far more challenging than claiming Park Place on a cardboard square.
Auburn no longer has a housing specialist on staff — the last one died four years ago and was never replaced. Supreme has learned to navigate the web on his prepaid Android from Boost Mobile, but the phone is often disconnected. Chanel feels like a fumbling fool on the shelter’s computers.
And then there is the problem of Baby Lele. Investigators have repeatedly cited Auburn for providing no on-site child care, which hinders residents from searching for jobs or housing. Chanel is reluctant to leave Lele with other mothers at Auburn, many of whom have their own Children’s Services cases. If anything were to happen, Chanel’s custody could be in jeopardy.
Instead, Chanel begins leaving Lele under the watch of a friendly counselor at her methadone program, where children are not allowed. The counselor stands outside with Lele as Chanel darts in to swallow her orange liquid dose.
When a clinic supervisor discovers the arrangement, Chanel is exposed. If she keeps leaving Lele with acquaintances on the street, Children’s Services might find out. So Chanel stops going, and the clinic alerts the agency that she has fallen out of treatment. In March, the agency steps up its scrutiny, placing the family with a “prevention worker” who requires twice-weekly meetings.
By now, Supreme has learned that his tax refund was seized by the government for child support owed to two other children he had before meeting Chanel.
Dasani knows before her mother says a word.
They will not be leaving.
Dasani has learned to let disappointments pass in silence. Objecting does nothing to change the facts.■But she reveals herself through the questions she asks.
“Mommy, if these projects was your only choice, would you take it?” she asks Chanel one day in March as they are out walking. Chanel nods reluctantly.
Dasani lets it go. She knows not to push.
Spring has brought a new set of worries. For the wealthier children in Fort Greene, it is a season to show off new wardrobes. For Dasani’s family, it is a time of scrambling. Appearances are more easily kept when the same coat is all that people see.
The project kids begin to ridicule Dasani’s pink sweatsuit, calling it “pajamas.” On March 19, she agrees to fight a girl from school at nearby Commodore Barry Park. A crowd gathers as they establish the rules: No one can film it or tell a parent. They pull back their hair and Dasani punches her rival as they tumble to the ground. A man walking his dog pulls them apart.
That evening, Chanel inspects the cut on Dasani’s lip.
Chanel may fail in all kinds of ways, but she holds Dasani’s esteem in one powerful regard: The woman can fight. Dasani has grown up hearing her mother’s stories of street-battle glory, and watching her in the throes of countless slug matches with anyone who crosses her, including the owner of a local laundromat.
Chanel dismisses Dasani’s tussles at school as “kitty-cat fighting.” Back in her day, girls cracked one another over the head with bottles. No one wasted time pulling back their hair.
“You gotta keep your hood credit up,” she tells Dasani. “You take the biggest, baddest one down first and the rest of ’em will back up off of you. That’s just how it works.”
The next day, Chanel and Dasani wander up their favorite block of Myrtle Avenue, passing the Red Lantern, a bike repair shop that sells vegan cookies. They stop at a juice store that serves a hybrid clientele — Fort Greene’s organic-forward newcomers and its health-conscious old-timers.
There, Chanel spots an old flame. He wears a long leather jacket and dark shades. She wonders if he is still dealing.
“Whassup, Red?” he says.
Dasani eyes him closely.
“That was her name from back when she was in the hood,” she says, forever cataloging the details of her mother’s past, even as Chanel tries to part with it.
“I’m good now, see?” Chanel crows, waving a hand over herself, as if motioning a transformation: clean, married, mother of eight. She nods proudly at her children.
It is Dasani’s belief that she and her siblings are the cause of her mother’s ruin. It never occurs to her that, for Chanel, the children represent her only accomplishment.
The next day, Chanel escorts Dasani to school. In the hallway, she spots the girl Dasani fought in the park. “You can fight my kid,” she says hotly, taking the girl by surprise. “I’m with that.”
Minutes later, the principal, Paula Holmes, sits Dasani down. “I believe you can change, but you’re not showing me that,” she says.
Dasani returns to class feeling jaunty. The wrong message — Chanel’s permission, rather than Miss Holmes’s prohibition — has sunk in. “I’ma fight you,” she tells another girl. “My mother said she’ll let me fight.”
With that, Dasani is suspended.
Miss Holmes knows it is a risky move, but nothing else has worked. The girl needs to be shocked out of her behavior. The alternative is to fail in school and beyond.
“Get your things and leave,” Miss Holmes tells her.
Dasani will be out of school for a whole week. She cannot speak.
To be suspended is to be truly homeless.
Children are not the face of New York’s homeless. They rarely figure among the panhandlers and bag ladies, war vets and untreated schizophrenics who have long been stock characters in this city of contrasts.■Their homelessness is hidden. They spend their days in school, their nights in shelters. They are seen only in glimpses — pulling overstuffed suitcases in the shadow of a tired parent, passing for tourists rather than residents without a home.
Their numbers have risen above anything in the city’s modern history, to a staggering 22,091 this month. If all of the city’s homeless children were to file into Madison Square Garden for a hockey game, more than 4,800 would not have a seat.
Yet it is the adult population that drives debates on poverty and homelessness, with city officials and others citing “personal responsibility” as the central culprit. Children are bystanders in this discourse, no more to blame for their homelessness than for their existence.
Dasani works to keep her homelessness hidden. She has spent years of her childhood in the punishing confines of the Auburn shelter in Brooklyn, where to be homeless is to be powerless. She and her seven siblings are at the mercy of forces beyond their control: parents who cannot provide, agencies that fall short, a metropolis rived by inequality and indifference.
The experience has left Dasani internally adrift, for the losses of the homeless child only begin with the home itself. She has had to part with privacy and space — the kind of quiet that nurtures the mind. She has lost the dignity that comes with living free of vermin and chronic illness. She has fallen behind in school, despite her crackling intelligence.
She has lost the simplest things that for other children are givens: the freedom of riding a bicycle, the safety of a bathroom not shared with strangers, the ease of being in school without stigma. And from all of these losses has come the departure of faith itself.
God “is somewhere around,” she says. “We just can’t find him.”
To trust is to be caught off guard.
Dasani is unmoored by her recent suspension from the Susan S. McKinney Secondary School of the Arts. For months, this new school was her only haven. She had grown so attached to her principal, Paula Holmes, that she expected a measure of tolerance despite her outbursts, the kind of forgiveness she never gets at home.
Her forced departure from school overlaps with spring break, plunging Dasani further into the morass of her family’s troubles. Her parents’ resolve to leave Auburn has vanished now that their savings plan fell apart, yet the shelter is pressing the family to leave while offering no assistance in finding a home. Meanwhile, the Administration for Children’s Services has stepped up its scrutiny of Dasani’s parents, who are increasingly despondent.
As pressure mounts from all sides, Dasani braces herself. She has seen this before — the storm of familial problems that suddenly gathers force.
“It’s a tsunami, just spinning around, nothing going right,” she says. “And I’m like, ‘Put my life back together!’ and it doesn’t happen. Your life doesn’t go the way you want it to go.”
On April 3, Dasani climbs up the steps of McKinney wearing her best cardigan. She lingers in the hallway, keeping an eye on Principal Holmes’s door. She is eager to try out the script her mother has drilled into her.■How was your spring break, Miss Holmes?
(Pause, wait for Miss Holmes to ask the same question.)
Oh, it was good. I’m staying out of trouble!
(Wait for Miss Holmes to laugh and then head for the door, showing new determination.)
Gotta get to class!
Instead, Dasani hangs back. Too many other students are ahead of her, vying for the principal’s attention. In class, she is quiet and focused. “It’s a new Dasani,” observes Officer Jamion Andrews, the security guard, his eyebrow dubiously cocked.
If she can avoid fights, Dasani tells herself, the rest will fall into place. It is the taunts that she cannot resist. Her body gets “hyped.” She loses control. And that is precisely the behavior that Roxanne, her counselor at school, is trying to disrupt.
In those moments, Dasani must learn to breathe in for 10 seconds through her nose and then breathe out for 10 seconds through her mouth. Roxanne demonstrates.
Dasani practices on her walk home from school.
The two blocks of sidewalk between McKinney and the shelter can be a minefield. This week, one of Dasani’s classmates, Sunita, begins to stalk her along the way. Sunita is a foot taller than Dasani and easily twice her 70 pounds. Their rivalry dates back three years to fourth grade, when Sunita, who lives in the projects, began teasing Dasani about living at Auburn, prompting Dasani, then 9, to throw her first punch.
For days, rumors have been flying that the two will fight again.
As school lets out on April 9, Dasani steps onto the sidewalk and is surrounded by a sea of girls.
“You gonna fight her?” one of them asks breathlessly.
“No!” Dasani yells loud enough for Sunita to hear. “Miss Holmes says if I get in another fight I get suspended.”
Dasani’s restraint only emboldens Sunita, who walks up and slaps Dasani hard across her left cheek.
The crowd is hushed. Dasani tries to breathe.
“You think that hurt? I eat those,” Dasani says, using one of her mother’s put-downs.
The girl glares at Dasani.
Breathe in 10 seconds.
Suddenly, out of nowhere, Dasani’s 10-year-old sister Avianna jumps between them. “You better back up off my sister’s face before I hurt you,” Avianna yells.
The girls might as well be twins. They share the same pillow, the same dresser, the same absent, biological father. It is usually Dasani who comes to Avianna’s rescue, carrying her up four flights of stairs to their room when her asthma strikes.
But today, Avianna rises to the occasion, mouthing off fiercely at Sunita as the crowd disperses.
Dasani is soon surrounded by all of her siblings, a familial force field. Their bond presents itself physically. When they walk, ride the bus, switch trains, climb steps, jump puddles, cross highways and file into Auburn, they move as a single being. In all things, they are one.
The sheer size of the family draws the notice of strangers, who shoot looks of recrimination at the mother, Chanel.
Yet she sees fortitude in this small army of siblings, something she and her husband, Supreme, never had growing up. “That’s why the street became our family,” she says. “I didn’t want the street to become their family, too.”
The children’s solidarity is striking enough that social workers frequently make note of it. “Family close knit,” reads one social worker’s report in March.
They live in dread of the Administration for Children’s Services. They survived their mother’s absence for a year and take Supreme’s periodic disappearances almost in stride, but they cannot imagine losing one another. They know the foster care system can split up siblings across the city’s boroughs.
Dasani is haunted by the thought of losing her baby sister, Lele, who just turned 1 and sometimes calls her Mommy. All the children dote on Lele, but Dasani speaks her language, discerning hunger or a wet diaper in the baby’s cries.
Dasani is haunted by the thought of losing her baby sister, Lele, who just turned 1 and sometimes calls her Mommy.
All the children dote on Lele, but Dasani speaks her language, discerning hunger or a wet diaper in the baby’s cries.
The 11-year-old girl responds with the instinct of a mother but not the training. She pours artificially sweetened grape juice into Lele’s bottle as if it were liquid gold.
What would happen to Lele in the hands of strangers?
“Some people don’t know how to take care of babies,” she says.
The children have heard their father’s story — how Supreme was torn from his siblings and years passed before he was reunited with them in the Marcy projects, in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. Supreme soon left home to join the crack trade.
By then, another child of the Marcy projects had also escaped. She chose an alternate path.
“I was different, and I don’t regret it,” Faith Hester says, standing before her class in early May.■She is not one to dwell on the past. But today, a student prompts Miss Hester to talk about her education. She was only 16 and living in the Marcy projects when she won a scholarship to SUNY Cortland.
She packed a large orange suitcase. Her mother refused to take her to the train station. Girls married their way out of the projects. Going to college, the neighbors sneered, was trying to “be white.”
So Miss Hester left alone that day, dragging her suitcase along Park Avenue. In college, she cleaned houses to help pay her way. Her mother did not speak to her for six months. “Sometimes you have to be alone,” she says, looking around the room.
“I don’t regret it for one second,” she says, slamming her hand down on a desk. “That was the path!”
The class is motionless.
“Do you understand what I’m saying?” Miss Hester continues, her voice trembling. “There are going to be some places in your life where you feel bizarre. You feel outstanding. And remain that way. Stay just as you are.”
Dasani stares at her teacher, mesmerized.
“It takes a lot of courage to be different,” Miss Hester says.
When Dasani looks into the future, she sees who she won’t be. She won’t be a dropout. She won’t do drugs or smoke or drink. She won’t get married, unless she finds “a gentle man, not a harsh man.”
She won’t have children unless she can support them. She won’t end up on the street.
“Spare some change?” she says, mocking a panhandler. “Nuh-uh. Not me.”
It is harder for Dasani to imagine who she might become. She has been told she must reach for college if she wants a life of choices, but who will pay? Her mother is quick to ask that question whenever Grandma Sherry tries to encourage Dasani with the shining example of a niece who graduated from Bates College in Maine on scholarship.
Other children talk of becoming rap stars or athletes, escaping their world with one good break. Dasani subscribes to the logic of those fantasies. Her life is defined by extremes. In order to transcend extreme poverty, it follows that she must become extremely rich or extremely something. What exactly she cannot see. To dream is, after all, an act of faith.
“I don’t dream at all,” she says. “Even when I try.”
She believes in what she can see, and Miss Hester is real. Her lecture that day leaves Dasani feeling uplifted.
As she walks home with a classmate later that afternoon, they talk about a coming history project on ancient Egypt. Dasani does not see Sunita coming.
“I’m gonna fight you!” Sunita calls out from the underpass, shedding her sweatshirt.
Dasani pivots and starts walking against the traffic along Tillary Street. This time there are no siblings to come to her rescue.
Get back on school property, she tells herself. She crosses over toward McKinney as Sunita charges up behind her.
“Move before I punch you!” Dasani says. But Sunita grabs Dasani’s shirt and pulls as Dasani takes a roundhouse swing. They fall to the ground, biting and scratching.
Suddenly, another big girl piles on, kicking Dasani in the face and laughing while Sunita holds her down. Somehow Dasani manages to throw Sunita off balance, scrambling on top and pummeling her face before they pull apart, bleeding and crying.
Suddenly, another big girl piles on, kicking Dasani in the face and laughing while Sunita holds her down.
Somehow Dasani manages to throw Sunita off balance, scrambling on top and pummeling her face before they pull apart, bleeding and crying.
“I’m saying it right in front of your face,” Dasani yells, her chest heaving. “You wanna fight me some more ——”
“I’m ready!” Sunita yells.
“I will jump you in your face!”
“I want you to! I want you to!”
Sunita’s brother orders her to retreat. “Take your ass in the house!” he yells.
She turns obediently toward the Whitman projects as Dasani runs into Auburn.
Minutes later, Dasani emerges with Chanel, who heads to the projects ready to go. She will wait for Sunita’s mother all night if needed, and they can settle this themselves.
But as Chanel presses for details, she learns that Dasani is hardly innocent: She had thrown Sunita’s book bag on the floor earlier that day and commented unfavorably on her “$2.99 sweater.”
Chanel cools down and decides to handle the matter at school. The next morning, the two mothers and their daughters meet with Karen Best, an assistant principal who cuts to the chase.
“Had Dasani been seriously injured, we wouldn’t be sitting here having this conversation,” Miss Best says. “And that’s what you need to understand: Children as young as you go to jail. O.K.? Real simple.”
The mothers nod. The girls stare at the floor.
“She could have had a concussion,” Miss Best says. “You want to do something? Prove how smart you are.”
“There you go,” Chanel says approvingly.
“Everyone knows the negativity,” Miss Best says, looking at both girls. “You got that down pat. Show the brains.”
Back at Auburn, nothing is going well. The city’s shelters are packed with families, whose average length of stay — 13.5 months — is longer than ever. ■Dasani’s family is among the outliers. It will soon be three years since they landed at Auburn. While the Department of Homeless Services cannot limit a family’s time in the shelter system, the agency can resort to punitive measures when residents are found to be uncooperative.
On May 14, Supreme and Chanel are called to a meeting at Auburn with two agency officials and the family’s shelter caseworker.
“I’m asking you: What have you been doing to move out?” one of the officials asks Chanel and Supreme in a recording they made of the meeting.
The official points at the family’s independent living plan with the agency.
“You both signed it, O.K.?” the official says. “It says, ‘This shelter is temporary housing.’ You must look for permanent housing for yourselves.”
Violating the plan enough times means a family can be given an “involuntary discharge,” barring them from returning to the city’s shelters for 30 days.
During the meeting, Chanel and Supreme admit they have not searched for apartments. They say there is no point, since they cannot afford city rents without the kind of subsidy that the department once offered. They complain that their room is miserable and ask if they can be transferred to a better shelter.
“It’s really hard,” one of the officials says. “Listen, you are not the only family in shelter.”
“I know that,” Supreme says. “Thousands.”
“Tens of thousands,” the official says.
“Right, well, I have a different question,” Supreme says. “Do y’all fall under the guidelines of the New York City Housing standards?”
“Excuse me?” one of the officials says.
A few weeks earlier, the family had been walking the elegant streets south of Fort Greene Park, searching “white folks’ trash” for discarded books and clothes. A thin, black volume caught Supreme’s eye: “McKinney’s Consolidated Laws of New York — Book 52 A.”
He began leafing through hundreds of pages of laws, noting the violations that his living arrangement presents: the lack of hygienic conditions, dividers for privacy and sufficient living space.
“I think it’s inhumane,” Supreme mumbles. “I think one of you all need to try it. Your husband, eight children, all in one room. No bathroom. I want to see how you all manage that for three years.”
He might as well be talking to himself.
“With the documentation we can move forward, O.K.?” one of the officials says.
Supreme seems not to hear her either.
“You never got no peace of mind. You and your husband can never have a moment because your children are always in your face. You’d go crazy!”
The meeting is wrapping up.
“Even now, they got the bathrooms closed, so where you gotta go? All the way to the next floor,” Supreme continues. “I got a child who is legally blind. I gotta monitor her every time she go to the bathroom. It’s, like, bananas. It’s really bananas.”
The children’s birthdays come in a mad springtime rush: Lele’s in March, Avianna’s in April, the remaining six in the span of three and a half weeks. ■Expectations are calibrated based on where a birthday falls in the monthly cash flow. Those at the start of the month bring hope, while those at the end of the month are luckless. So it goes for Avianna.
Supreme hands her $11, one for each year of her life, but the next day, he asks for $5 back. She waits for a cake. Days pass. Finally, the children give up and light two small candles. Like carolers, they hold them beneath Avianna’s face and sing.
Avianna savors everything. While her siblings inhale their food, she will linger over each French fry.
She spends her $6 slowly. A week later, she takes her last dollar bill and folds it delicately, like a Japanese fan. She then places it inside a homemade card that Chanel opens on Mother’s Day.
They pass that afternoon at the laundromat. There is only $190 left on Chanel’s debit card, the balance of a tax refund that was supposed to rescue them from the shelter.
In times like these, Chanel sees fit to steal groceries. She tells the children to wait for her at a store’s entrance. She hides the habit from them. They hide their knowingness from her.
Except for Papa, a gaptoothed 5-year-old buzzing with energy.
“You stealin’!” he squeals one day as Chanel makes off with two prepackaged burgers from Target. “You crazy!”
“Shut up, man!” Chanel says, before composing herself.
“Look,” she tries more softly. “It’s not right to steal. But God knows when it’s for a good reason.”
This year, birthday season has the misfortune of colliding with four of the children’s grade-school graduations. They need new outfits, and money for class photos and parties. Chanel is accustomed to saying no when she has to, but she also recognizes the small luxuries that will separate her children from their peers.
By the time Dasani’s birthday arrives at the end of May, she knows better than to expect $1 for each of her 12 years.
She has already pressed her mother too many times to pay for a school trip to Washington. Dasani has never been farther than Pennsylvania. She will hold out for that and let the birthday pass quietly.
Chanel has no such intention. Dasani is her jewel.
Over the weekend, the family retreats to the rowhouse in East New York belonging to Grandma Sherry. The mood is light. The children skip about as Supreme stands over the stove, tending to his honey-barbecue wings.
The time has come to sing. Chanel gently lifts a vanilla sheet cake out of its plastic casing as Dasani stares in wonder. The top of the cake is still blank, awaiting inscription. Her mother covers it with candles and dims the lights.
Dasani closes her eyes.
If I could grant you three wishes, what would they be? her school counselor once asked her.
A house of our own, a lot of money and three more wishes, was Dasani’s answer.
She blows out the candles as the children clap. Chanel fetches a long, serrated knife. “Let me show you how to cut a cake,” she says, gingerly placing her hand over Dasani’s. Together, they move the knife through the buttercream frosting. “Doesn’t have to be perfect,” Chanel says. Dasani bestows a sugar-flowered slice on each of her siblings, taking a plain piece for herself. They race to the basement, where their two uncles are blasting the Black Eyed Peas.
She blows out the candles as the children clap.
Chanel fetches a long, serrated knife. “Let me show you how to cut a cake,” she says, gingerly placing her hand over Dasani’s. Together, they move the knife through the buttercream frosting. “Doesn’t have to be perfect,” Chanel says.
Dasani bestows a sugar-flowered slice on each of her siblings, taking a plain piece for herself.
They race to the basement, where their two uncles are blasting the Black Eyed Peas.
Screaming in delight, Dasani and her sisters leap onto a rickety, wooden platform and dance beneath a disco ball to “I Gotta Feeling” as Papa bounces around them.
They barely register the hard-faced young men shuffling through the basement, exchanging elaborate handshakes, their heads hung low. Some play video games. Others mill about with girls in their teens wearing too much makeup and too little clothing.
One of these girls, a baby-faced Dominican who works at the supermarket across the street, hangs on Uncle Josh, flashing braces when she smiles. To curry favor, she hands Dasani a $20 bill as a birthday present.
Like other things in her life, Dasani could not have predicted such luck. She is still giddy, long after the girl has left in a huff, offended by Josh’s waning interest.
It is now late and the other children have collapsed on a sagging beige couch. Dasani is dancing to Alicia Keys.
She’s living in a world and it’s on fire
Filled with catastrophe
But she knows she can fly away
Dasani reaches up, her arms bathed in blinking lights, as if saluting an imaginary audience.
Oh, she got her head in the clouds
And she’s not backing down
This girl is on fire.
Dasani has never had a better birthday. It feels like perfection.
It hardly matters that the cake was stolen from Pathmark.
Three days later, it is raining as the children spill down Sherry’s steps. They are hungry and short on sleep.■In theory, they are heading to the thing they most need — psychotherapy. Chanel signed them up after learning that she can reap $10 per child in carfare through Medicaid, at a clinic in the Kensington section of Brooklyn.
Chanel needs the cash. She is still hoping to find a way to send Dasani on her school trip to Washington, and the $75 deposit is due tomorrow. So despite the pelting rain, Chanel instructs the children to meet her at a subway station.
Only Hada is wearing a raincoat. Papa’s hoodie slips off as he tips back to catch raindrops on his tongue. The children cross Lincoln Avenue holding hands.
Dasani is in a foul mood. There is no telling how her anger will reveal itself today. Sometimes it comes as a quiet kind of rage. She will stare at an indefinite point, her eyes blinking, her mouth set. Other times, it bursts like thunder.
“Move it!” she screams.
Nijai trails behind, her glasses fogging over. She has always been the odd orchid in this bunch of daisies, the most delicate and sensitive child, made more frail by her advancing blindness.
She can make out only vague shapes and colors. Soon she will have to use a cane, but for now she often rests a hand on Lele’s stroller to guide her. Today, Lele and the stroller have been left at Sherry’s.
“I said move it!” Dasani yells at Nijai.
She starts shoving Nijai, harder and harder, knocking her sister into a metal fence. Then she punches her in the arm. “You stupid!” Dasani screams. “You think you smart, but you stupid! Now keep walking!”
Nijai begins to sob as Khaliq yells, “Double up!”
In pairs, they sprint across a six-lane highway and enter the Grant Avenue subway station, ducking under the turnstile to meet their mother. After they board the A train, she hands them a bag of lukewarm Popeyes chicken, furnished by a stranger.
By the time they get off at Jay Street, their stomachs are full and the mood is lifted. Dasani spots an umbrella on the ground. It still works, opening to reveal an intricate pattern of white and black flecks. She twirls it around and, when the 103 bus pulls up, carefully closes it.
Dasani and Nijai race to the back of the bus, where the motor keeps the seats warm. They sit pressed together, newly reconciled. Dasani is soon asleep. The little ones watch, thumbs in mouth, as their mother closes her eyes. Every time the bus slows, she snaps awake.
At Church Avenue, the children and their mother pile off. The street looks familiar, but Chanel is unsure.
“We got off at the wrong stop,” Dasani announces.
Chanel fixes her gaze on Dasani.
“Shut the fuck up,” she says. “You know, that’s one thing I don’t like about you — your negativity. You always talkin’ about the problem. You got a solution?”
Dasani carries a singular burden among her siblings. Chanel has vested enormous authority in Dasani. Her competence, agility and strength — the attributes that could rescue Dasani from her life’s miseries — also threaten to keep her mired in the problems that her mother cannot meet alone.
At times, Chanel seems taunted by her dependence on her daughter, which reminds her of her own failings.
They walk single file toward Coney Island Avenue.
Dasani tries to recover.
“It’s this way, Mommy,” she says, gesturing hopefully toward a florist shop. They take a few steps before Chanel turns on her heel, remembering the way.
“If you want to go somewhere, don’t listen to Dasani,” she says.
Dasani freezes under her new umbrella.
“I’m sick of your attitude,” she seethes. “There’s only like 15 kids going on this trip because people can’t pay. And me, who got nothing, is trying to send you and you gonna give me attitude?”
Dasani keeps walking.
Chanel’s fury mounts. She reaches for the same words every time, the kind that echo for days in Dasani’s head.
Dasani always gotta have the answer.
She think she special.
She think she some-fucking-body.
Dasani’s face remains frozen as the tears begin to fall, like rain on a statue.
“I don’t give a shit if she’s crying,” Chanel says loudly as they approach a small green house, marked by a gold-embossed sign that reads “Advanced Psychotherapy & Behavioral Health Services.”
“It’s only one goddamn chief,” Chanel says. “I’m the only chief.”
Inside, the children file into their fourth “group therapy” session with a woman who asks vague questions like, “What are your hobbies?” She sounds more like a distant aunt than a counselor.
Khaliq knows the difference. Earlier in the year, a Children’s Services caseworker had sent him to a therapist after he acted erratically in school. That therapist had asked questions like, “Do you want to kill yourself?” Those sessions felt like they never ended; these lasted only 20 minutes — roughly two and a half minutes per child.
At the door, Chanel collects her $80 in carfare and the children head back into the rain. The cash instantly settles the family, leaving the children calm and Chanel introspective.
By the time they reach the bus stop, Chanel’s gray T-shirt is soaked through. She is thinking about Supreme, whom she could not rouse from bed this morning.
“What gets me down is the responsibility,” she says. “They got shoes on but no socks. I come all this way, on the bus, in the rain, to get the money so she can go on her trip.”
She is shivering now.
“Those are the things you are supposed to provide,” she scolds her absent husband. “You are the man. You made this family, but you don’t provide.”
Dasani watches her mother silently. She wants to fix it.
She can only feel empty. The day’s weight has passed from her sister to herself and now to their mother, who is weeping in the rain.
A mob of spectators presses in, trying to see the tiny girl. Rap stars circle. The cameras roll. The crowd chants her name.■“Da-Sa-Neee!” ■Her heart is racing. She looks up at the sky and extends her fingers, but cannot reach high enough to grasp the metal bar. A powerful man hoists her up by the waist.
In an instant, she is midair, pulling and twisting acrobatically as the audience gasps at the might of this 12-year-old girl.
“She’s a giantess,” the man had announced to the audience. “She’s tomorrow’s success, I’m telling you right now.”
Dasani blinks, looking out at the smiling faces. She cannot make sense of the serendipity that has brought her here to Harlem, on this sparkling July day, to make her debut as a member of an urban fitness group teamed up with Nike.
But there is her beaming mother, Chanel; her father, Supreme; and all seven siblings. They are cheering and clapping as well.
“I thought it was a dream — make believe — like this wasn’t happening,” she says. “You know, like in movies, people pinch themselves like this ain’t real.”
It was only two months earlier that Dasani stood at the bus stop as her mother wept in the rain. Summer was fast approaching, a season that, in this family, always brings change.
The markers of Dasani’s life — her first months in the care of Grandma Joanie, the day her family moved into their first real home, the loss of that home two years later, when they landed in the Auburn shelter — these all came in summertime.
There was no telling what this summer might bring. Dasani could no sooner predict landing a spot on the Harlem team than she could foretell the abrupt changes that still lay ahead.
Already, the court-mandated supervision of the family by child protection workers had run its course. Chanel’s nine-month trial period was suddenly over, leaving her custody secure, just as new problems came along.
School was winding down when the children learned that their only other refuge — Grandma Sherry’s rowhouse in East New York, Brooklyn — had gone into foreclosure. Sherry could end up homeless as well, at a time when New York’s shelter population had surpassed a historic 50,000.
As the days grew hotter, Dasani and her family remained stuck in the same miserable room at Auburn.
And yet summer, no matter how stifling, also carried a certain promise, the kind that comes of chance encounters on the street.
It is a muggy night in Harlem, but the children do not care. They savor any chance to visit.■This is the place where, a decade earlier, Chanel and Supreme fell in love. They have returned over the years, pulled by the Five Percent Nation, the movement spawned 50 years ago by a contemporary of Malcolm X who broke from the Nation of Islam.
Tonight, people swarm into the Harriet Tubman Learning Center on West 127th Street for the organization’s annual gathering, pushing past security guards and a vendor with pins that declare, “I ♥ being God.” Supreme mills about in the foyer, greeting old friends with tight hugs.
Chanel trails him, her chin high, her daughters’ hair freshly braided. It is a rare moment of belonging in a year of rootlessness.
Chanel trails him, her chin high, her daughters’ hair freshly braided.
It is a rare moment of belonging in a year of rootlessness.
As the sun sets, Dasani and her family step out for some air. A man brushes past them, walking along West 127th Street. His hooded sweatshirt is pulled low over his face, which is dusted by a salt-and-pepper beard. He moves with the purposeful air of a celebrity in hiding.
“I seen your videos,” Chanel says, stopping him in his tracks.
For years, Dasani’s family had been watching the DVDs of this former convict turned fitness guru who calls himself Giant. His team, Bartendaz, combines pull-up acrobatics on city playgrounds with a militaristic message of self-improvement, steering followers away from drugs and alcohol to “the bars of health.”
Giant looks Chanel up and down, noting the open beer she has sheathed in a brown paper bag.
“Bud don’t make you wiser,” he observes, flashing a smile that reveals a perfect row of teeth.
Chanel ignores the comment. She is already thinking through the possibilities presented by this accidental meeting. She steers Dasani to some empty pull-up bars at a nearby playground.
“Show him what ya got!” she calls out.
Giant, whose name is Hassan Yasin-Bradley, accepts the impromptu audition the way a famous film director takes the waiter’s latest screenplay. While Giant remains on the fringe of prime-time America, he has his share of acolytes in Harlem.
Dasani springs to the bars and begins to knock out an impressive set of pull-ups, her shoulders popping with the muscles of an action figure.
Giant is still chatting with Chanel when he looks over and pauses.
“Whoa,” he says.
Chanel senses that she may be on to something. She explains that Dasani has been doing pull-ups in Fort Greene Park for years. She can also dance, do gymnastics, run track. All she lacks is training — of any kind.
Now it is Giant’s mind that races through the possibilities. The girl is uncommonly strong. She has a telegenic smile. She’s spunky.
“She seems like just the kind of girl we could use on our team,” he says, grinning at Dasani, who grins back.
Giant quickly explains how his team works: It has a limited partnership with Nike that will hopefully lead to bigger things. In the meantime, the team earns modest pay in exchange for holding training clinics, and performing at concerts and other events.
At the very least, he concludes, Dasani merits a proper tryout.
“Meet me at the park next Saturday,” he says, leaving his number before disappearing.
Dasani lies awake that night.
It is the first time in her life she can see a path to something else. What exactly, she is not sure. She has not even had her tryout. But for a girl who has spent her life tempering expectations, she cannot stop herself from dreaming just a little.
“I’ma save all my money so we can get a house,” she tells her mother.
“Use your money for you,” Chanel says. “We’ll be O.K.”
“No,” Dasani insists. “I’ma save all my money.”
Money is especially tight. This might explain why, in Dasani’s words, Mommy goes “loco” during an inspection of the family’s room at Auburn.■There is a knock at the door. Chanel lets in the inspector, who promptly demands that she surrender the family’s forbidden microwave oven.
Chanel refuses. She cannot afford to buy a new one, nor can she fathom having to wait in line every night to reheat 10 dinner trays in one of the shelter’s two microwaves. The inspector leaves, and by the time two security officers with the Department of Homeless Services arrive to confiscate the microwave, Chanel has hidden it in a friend’s room.
As for the inspector, Chanel offers to “punch that bitch in the face.”
Dasani believes that her mother’s biggest problem is her mouth.
She reflects on this as her homeroom teacher, Faith Hester, delivers a lesson that week on personal responsibility.
“I don’t ever wanna hear, ‘Well, my mother told me to do this,’ unless you know that that’s the right thing,” Miss Hester tells the class.
The teacher has shimmied into an empty desk next to Dasani.
“I am telling you, as sure as I’m sitting here,” Miss Hester says, her arm resting across Dasani’s desk, “you’re gonna be held responsible for the choices you make.”
Hands shoot up in the air.
“Yes, Miss Dasani?”
Dasani recounts how her longtime rival, Sunita, began following her after school, and slapped her. “And so, my mom is a violent parent, so you can’t tell her anything about fights because then she gonna want to get a stick and tell you to knock the chick out.”
Miss Hester arches her brows.
“O.K.,” Miss Hester says. “Now, let me ask you: Do you think that was the right thing to do?”
The class erupts in chaos.
“O.K., O.K.!” Miss Hester yells. “I’ma tell you what I would have told my kid.”
They fall silent.
“Not everybody has something to lose,” Miss Hester says.
“You care about your life,” she continues. “There are people out there who are so hurt they don’t care about leaving here. They are looking for an opportunity to do something crazy and ridiculous. They have nothing to live for.”
Dasani ponders this.
“I am telling you to listen to your internal barometer,” Miss Hester says. “Think about your next move before you make your next move.”
Dasani is still in bed the next morning when her mother rises from a fitful sleep and heads to the corner store with her sister Avianna. All around, men are leaving the projects to report to early work shifts. Chanel stands in the cold, watching them. “Your father should be doing that,” she says.
Just that week she had stopped a flag waver at a construction site. It seemed like a job that Chanel could perform beautifully. The woman told her about an organization that helps people with G.E.D.’s find work.
For Chanel, words like “G.E.D.” end a conversation. It has been 20 years since she sat in a high school classroom. She can feel like a foreigner in her own country, unable to speak the language of bank accounts and loan applications. When filling out medical forms, she stops at the box requiring a work number, frozen by its blankness.
“I want my kids to be able to come see me at my job, pick up my paycheck,” she says that afternoon, standing with Dasani outside Au Bon Pain, where the day’s pastries will soon sell at a discount. “Just be reliant on my money, you know what I’m sayin’?”
Dasani stares at her mother anxiously.
“I’m tired of my kids seeing me dull,” Chanel says. “It’s my time to shine.”
“I don’t see you dull,” Dasani says quietly. “I see you shine.”
Dasani spends the week before her tryout for Bartendaz in focused preparation, training on the fitness bars next to the basketball court in Fort Greene Park in Brooklyn. At night, she replays the team’s DVDs over and over, studying the members closely.
At school, she tells no one.
This new dream is carried on practical terms. It is less about helping herself than about making her parents whole. In the meantime, Dasani worries about the most immediate challenge, which is to get to Harlem on time. Punctuality is a miracle in her family.
On Saturday morning, there is no sign of Dasani as the Bartendaz start to warm up at the playground at 144th Street and Lenox Avenue.
Soon they are causing a commotion that slows the traffic. One after another, they fly onto the bars, whipping through moves that seem to defy gravity. Some of them wear black T-shirts with the logo of a man bending a bar, his brain lit by a bulb.
“Salute that mind!” Giant calls out to his followers.
There is Cinderblock, Honey Bee, Sky, Earth, Water, Blaq Ninja, Salubrious and Mel Matrix. Giant’s second in command is Dr. Good Body, a self-described athletic alchemist (“the library is my alma mater”) who transforms the “base metal” of a person’s character into “gold.”
Giant orbits around his team, issuing commands in a lyrical code that is impenetrable to outsiders. He is especially fond of abbreviations. A favorite is “C.A.P.” — Character, Attitude and Personality. His nickname, Giant, stands for Growing Is a Noble Thing.
It is a bold name for a man who stands just 5-foot-7. Born Warren Hassan Bradley, he grew up in the Baruch projects on the Lower East Side, where in his teens he became known as a D.J. and street fighter skilled at hiding razors in his mouth and spitting them out in combat. He started selling drugs, and was sent to prison in 1989 on two felony drug charges.
Like Dasani’s father, Giant left prison transformed. He had earned a high school equivalency diploma and devoted himself to Islam. (He looks askance at the teachings of the Five Percent.) He also found a way to capitalize on the pull-up bar routines that he taught himself in prison yards. By the time he started Bartendaz in 2003, he was already drawing crowds to Harlem’s playgrounds.
Dasani finally arrives, her mother and two siblings in tow, as the team’s practice winds down. Dressed in bright-pink shorts and matching flip-flops, she is a dwarf among titans.
“What’s your name again?” Giant says.
“Dasani with a D?”
“Like the water,” Chanel says.
He turns to the group.
“Everyone say, ‘Peace, Queen.’”
“Peace, Queen!” they shout.
The tryout begins with a set of pull-ups, demonstrated by Blaq Ninja and Sky. Dasani coasts through the exercise.
“Damn!” a team member says as the others whistle. Giant remains cool to the newcomer, telling Dasani “stay there, breathe” as she pedals her feet in the air while holding her head level with the bar.
Her next test comes on the parallel bars, where she knocks out a set of dips in good form, and then pedals again as Giant counts aloud, shaking his head incredulously. Next, they hit the floor for push-ups.
“Do some diamonds!” Chanel calls out. Dasani connects her hands in the shape of a diamond as she dives into a set of flawless push-ups.
Then she goes for broke, clapping her hands behind her back, mid-push-up. Honey Bee captures the image on the team’s iPad before Dasani comes crashing to the ground, promptly dusting herself off.
“Look at this! Look at this!” Giant says, running over to show Dasani the iPad photo. “You tellin’ me I can’t sell this poster for $100?”
He turns to Chanel: “She’s in.”
A young boy sidles up. The team has drawn spectators who live as far away as Norway and Japan. This one is a local.
“Excuse me,” he says to Dasani. “Can you do a pull-up again?”
She nods gamely as he calls out to his friends: “Yo! Come here! She about to do it!”
“Wait till they see you in three weeks,” he says.
The family is ecstatic.
Supreme runs to the corner store for a dozen roses. He hands them to Chanel.
“Dag, I love it here,” he says, looking at her tenderly. “We should come back to Harlem.”
Chanel soon finds reason to be suspicious of Giant. He is charming, she thinks, but confusing on details like payment and a promised contract. Giant, too, can spot a hustler, and he seems wary of Chanel.■On the day of the tryout, he treats her children to lunch at a local bodega, joined by Malcolm X’s grandson Malik, a friend of the team. Malik congratulates Dasani, handing her a bottle of peach-flavored Snapple. She carries the bottle with both hands, later writing “Malcolm X grandson” on the label before stashing it in her dresser at Auburn.
The next day, when Dasani’s siblings tag along to practice again, Giant senses that Chanel expects him to repeat the invitation.
He skips the meal, but reassures Chanel that her daughter, like his other team members, will be compensated for events. The first one is a training clinic this Thursday. All Chanel needs to do is bring Dasani. The rest is Dasani’s job.
“That’s why we got the word ‘responsibility,’” Giant tells Dasani in front of Chanel. “Response” — he holds up his right hand — “Ability” — then his left hand. “So respond to what? Your ability. Not your mom’s ability.”
On Thursday afternoon, Dasani asks if her mother has heard from Giant. Chanel is tired after a long day and cannot imagine taking Dasani all the way to Harlem.
“He never called,” Chanel tells Dasani.
Up in Harlem, Giant had been calling repeatedly. He checks his phone, looking for a response. He shakes his head.
Dasani goes to sleep feeling crushed.
She wakes at 5 a.m. for the long-awaited school trip to Washington. Still feeling glum, she boards the bus on an empty stomach, sitting alone with a thin blue blanket laid carefully across her legs. Five hours later, as they approach the Capitol, Dasani presses her face to the window.
It looks different here. People walk slower. There is space everywhere — trees, monuments, water. She can see off into the distance, her view unobstructed by skyscrapers.
She is paying special attention, trying to record what she sees so she can describe it later to her sister Nijai.
Remember every single detail, Nijai had implored. It is not just that her blindness prevents her from seeing it herself. It is that Washington represents Nijai’s roots, the city where she was born and last saw her mother alive.
After a tour of the memorials, the bus stops near the White House. Dasani runs to the tall, wrought-iron gate and looks between the bars. On the sidewalk, a group of protesters wearing orange suits and black hoods are chanting foreign-sounding names.
“Obama, close Guantánamo!” they yell.
Dasani has never heard of Guantánamo. But she knows what a jail uniform looks like from visiting her Uncle Carnell. These people, she concludes, are supposed to be prisoners, and they want President Obama to close their jail. She shakes her head.
“I don’t know why they protesting in front of Obama’s house like he gonna be in here,” she says.
There is hardly a trace of the child who had once scoured Gracie Mansion for a glimpse of the mayor.
A week has passed with no word from Giant. Dasani keeps doing her pull-ups. Tucked in the top drawer of her dresser is the empty Snapple bottle given to her by Malcolm X’s grandson. ■“It’s all right,” Dasani tells her mother. “I didn’t get attached.”
Detachment is as much a rite of Dasani’s summers as sunbaked afternoons in the park. She bids farewell to Miss Hester and the principal, Paula Holmes, bracing herself for a 10-week absence from the Susan S. McKinney Secondary School of the Arts.
Summers also bring more regular visits to Grandma Sherry’s, where the children can ride up and down Lincoln Avenue on rusted bikes. But this year, Sherry has bad news. The bank is coming for her house. In another month, a court marshal will see her out the door if she is not gone.
Sherry has two bad choices: She can enter the shelter system or she can leave her children and grandchildren behind in New York and move in with her sister in Pittsburgh. If Sherry leaves, Chanel will have lost her only support, the woman who partly raised her.
Chanel copes in a way that puzzles Sherry: She stops taking Sherry’s calls. It is Chanel’s way of detaching, of leaving a relationship before it leaves her. Sherry finally decides to go to Pittsburgh. When she does get the children on the phone, she tells them that she is not sure when she is leaving, but that “the Lord will take care of you.”
In the midst of this, Dasani finds herself thinking about Bartendaz. A month after her tryout, she resolves to give it another chance: She will report to practice by herself, as if nothing has changed. But as she announces her departure one morning, Supreme stops her at the door.
“Not before this place is straightened up,” he says. By the time Dasani finishes, practice is over.
The next morning, she gets up feeling defiant. She looks at Supreme, who is still asleep. How you gonna take my destiny away from me? she thinks. Dasani turns to her mother, and Chanel waves at her to leave before he wakes.
Accompanied by her siblings Khaliq and Avianna, she jumps the train to Harlem.
“Long time no see,” Giant says by way of a greeting. He gives Dasani a stern lecture: “If you know you’re not gonna be consistent, then I need to know so I can invest in someone else.”
Dasani is confused. Her parents say that he never called. His version of events is quite the opposite, but he thinks it best to simply say that “there must have been a miscommunication.”
Dasani does not know what to believe, but she begins training with Giant every weekend, accompanied by her twin in all things, Avianna.
They are in Harlem on the day a moving truck pulls up to Sherry’s house. Alerted by phone, Chanel arrives moments before Sherry’s departure.
“I’ma hide in the truck,” 8-year-old Maya says.
Chanel walks through the house she has known since she was born. She pauses at the bathroom’s worn wooden door, which reminds her of her father.
He is there at that door, some flicker of a memory. Those are the things one loses with a house, not the shelter itself but the irretrievable belonging it brings.
On the stoop, Sherry and Chanel hold each other for a long time.
Dasani does not get to say goodbye.
The sadness of Sherry’s departure is eclipsed a week later when Dasani makes her big Bartendaz debut. Her routine is captured on video for the opening sequence of Giant’s forthcoming DVD, and Dasani receives her first earnings: $70.
She is too excited to think twice when Supreme asks if he can borrow some of it. He buys pizza for the children and keeps the rest. Dasani is distracted by the day’s other gifts — the cheering crowd, the chance to pose with the rappers Jadakiss and Styles P.
She is still floating two days later, when Giant summons her to a basketball clinic for boys. He wants her to “mentor” them. It seems like an odd request for a girl who was recently suspended from school. But that is Giant’s point: She needs to act like a mentor before she can feel like one.
She soon takes to the task, guiding boys several inches taller as they struggle into feeble pull-ups. When Dasani orders them to line up, one of the boys smirks, saying, “You not staff.”
“Oh yes I am,” Dasani shoots back.
She is bonding with her team — most of all with Sky, a nursing student, and Earth, who just got her bachelor’s degree in psychology at Queens College.
“I’ma take all of Sky’s moves,” Dasani says jauntily as she hits the low bars. They laugh and laugh, never ceasing to delight in their youngest member. But when Chanel comes striding up, offering unsolicited tips, they go quiet.
Later that afternoon, Dasani tells Giant about her loan to Supreme. Long after she leaves practice, he is still livid. Can this even work, he wonders. “You’re fixing a child to send back to broken parents.”
Summer’s end marks the third anniversary of Dasani’s arrival at Auburn, on Aug. 26, 2010.■Three years — a quarter of her life — most of it spent in one room. She has gotten so used to the smallness of it that she can scarcely recall how to live with more space.
To Dasani, sometimes it seems like only tragedy brings change.
The next morning, on Aug. 27, she wakes to a high-pitched scream. It is her neighbor in Room 445, a single mother named Aisha. Her 3-month-old daughter, Casshanae, has turned blue.
“My baby’s not breathing!” she wails.
A petite 27-year-old from Pennsylvania, Aisha had come to Auburn in early May, seven months pregnant with Casshanae. She was born premature with respiratory distress syndrome and developed feeding problems, all of which was noted in the records that Auburn received.
The infant’s problems were serious enough that a hospital social worker asked the Department of Homeless Services to transfer the baby, Aisha and her 1-year-old son to another shelter equipped to handle medical needs.
The agency declined to do so, even after Aisha filed a complaint that a male resident had sexually assaulted her in her room at Auburn on June 18.
Nor did the shelter’s staff members heed Aisha’s repeated complaints when they gave her a damaged metal crib for the infant, with a loosefitting sheet and a mattress permanently stuck in the lowest position.
But now she is screaming, and everyone hears her.
A security guard calls 911. None of the staff members try to resuscitate the baby, even though they are certified in CPR. Aisha fumbles to breathe air into her baby’s lungs as paramedics rush into the lobby.
They race to Brooklyn Hospital Center, where a doctor pronounces Casshanae dead at 8:10 a.m.
Later that morning, Aisha returns to the fourth floor to pack her things. Her screams rattle the shelter again.
As she leaves, Dasani lingers by the door. She hears a security guard telling a superior that Aisha left the children alone the previous night. The official asks the guard to file a report. Dasani shudders and closes the door. That will never happen to Baby Lele, she tells herself.
The next day, the Administration for Children’s Services takes custody of Aisha’s son pending the results of an investigation into the baby’s death. Soon after, Dasani sees inspectors walking through the shelter as new cribs are delivered to residents and crib-safety posters are slipped under doors.
Aisha is summoned back to Auburn by investigators from the medical examiner’s office. At their request, she re-enacts the morning of her baby’s death, when she says she found Casshanae lifeless in the crib. They take pictures of the crib, its sheet still crumpled. An autopsy was unable to determine the cause of death.
Dasani tries not to think about the dead baby.■Her room is sweltering. The children want nothing more than to get out and cool off. They put on their bathing suits. They have gone swimming only once this summer.
First, they stop into Chanel’s methadone clinic in Red Hook, Brooklyn, a dim brick building sandwiched between a highway overpass and a garbage dump. Chanel waves at Dasani to come inside.
She has been bragging to the staff about Giant, who continues to work with Dasani on the condition that she is paid in kind, not cash. “No one can take a pair of sneakers,” he reasons. “He just stingy,” Chanel says. But she has gone along with it, proud as a stage mother.
“So look out for Dasani, man,” Chanel tells a woman behind the desk. “She gonna be out soon.”
“I believe I am already out,” Dasani says.
Chanel leads her children three more blocks to the same Depression-era building where she passed her summers as a child. They carry one thin towel to share. Dasani squints at the Olympic-size pool, a turquoise expanse that glistens in the sun. She dives in first. All is cool and silent. She comes up for air, releasing a rapturous cry.
Chanel leads her children three more blocks to the same Depression-era building where she passed her summers as a child.
They carry one thin towel to share.
Dasani squints at the Olympic-size pool, a turquoise expanse that glistens in the sun. She dives in first. All is cool and silent.
She comes up for air, releasing a rapturous cry.
The uncertainty of Dasani’s life is deepening. Supreme is now gone, having checked into a residential treatment program to try to get off methadone.
Right before school starts in September, Chanel uproots Dasani from McKinney, reasoning that she will be less likely to fight in the company of Avianna and Nijai at a neighboring school.
Dasani is unsettled. Every afternoon, the three sisters turn up at McKinney like stray puppies, passing the time with Miss Holmes and Miss Hester. The principal offers to enroll all of them. Finally, on Sept. 25, Chanel relents.
“Oh my gooney goo hoo,” Miss Hester squeals as Dasani, Avianna and Nijai skip up the hallway. “I’ve been praying on this.”
Back at Auburn, residents begin to notice small changes. In the wake of Casshanae’s death, the shelter is providing a steadier supply of formula, diapers and other items to mothers, and the cafeteria has a few more items on its menu.
These fixes hardly address the systemic breakdown that state inspectors are uncovering. On Oct. 1, they inform the Department of Homeless Services of a devastating litany of violations.
State letter to Department of Homeless Services.
The fire safety system is virtually inoperable. The shelter has no certificate of occupancy. Its record-keeping is a mess. The registration cards of 25 of its security guards are expired or missing. Black mold is spreading in the shelter’s bathrooms, many of which spew exhaust thick with dust and debris.
During one visit, inspectors see an asthmatic 3-year-old child coughing and vomiting so much that 911 is called. With no air-conditioning, the rooms reach dangerously high temperatures. A month before she died, Casshanae was living in a room where temperatures reached 102 degrees.
The state’s conclusion: No child with chronic breathing problems should be at the shelter, and no children under age 2 should live there at all “due to the lack of amenities for this young and vulnerable population.”
State inspection of Auburn.
In other words, Dasani’s family — with a 1-year-old, two asthmatic children and another who is legally blind — should never have been living at Auburn in the first place.
In the early afternoon of Oct. 17, Chanel is summoned to the office of the shelter’s administrators.■They have stunning news: The family can finally leave Auburn. A space has opened at another shelter — an apartment with a kitchen. But they must go today. They have a few hours to pack. Other families are also moving, and the Department of Homeless Services has arranged for vans.
Chanel has longed for this moment. But now that it is here, she feels wholly unprepared.
Supreme is still in rehab. Her food stamps have been stolen. She has $9 in cash. How will she instantly produce three meals a day for eight children? She has no frying pans, dishes, utensils or toilet paper. She does not even have the address of this new shelter.
“I don’t know what to do,” Chanel says.
She returns to Room 449 and tells the children.
Dasani is in shock. Chanel rushes them off to therapy. Whatever happens, she needs the cash.
It is drizzling out, and Dasani’s head is spinning. All she can think about is her school. Just after willing her way back to McKinney, she is poised to lose it again.
It is strange, this feeling of heading toward an address they don’t yet have, while having to say goodbye — in the span of a few hours — to the place where they have lived for years.
After therapy, it is getting dark. The shelter’s lights blaze from within. Chanel orders the children to pack only the most essential things. Auburn has given them 20 clear plastic bags. That is the limit. They will have to come back for Turtle.
At 9:26 p.m., Chanel and her children board the last van just before it pulls away. An hour later, the van approaches their new residence.
They are in Harlem.
Of the 152 shelters where Dasani’s family could have landed, they have somehow wound up at a six-story brick building on West 145th Street.
It is one block from the Bartendaz base.
“I am right next to the park,” Dasani tells Giant on the phone, enunciating each word. “I’m here! I’m in Harlem!”
Chanel grabs the phone, eager to hear his reaction.
“You see?” Giant tells Chanel. “The Lord sent you right here next to me.”
The children wait on the front steps as Chanel fills out paperwork in the office.
It feels different here. The block is awash in streetlights and teeming with pedestrians. There are fewer trees. But in other ways, Harlem is like Fort Greene. Nearby is a new bistro called Mountain Bird that offers a foie gras soup and a shrimp-bisque mac and cheese.
One by one, the children peek in on their mother, anxious for updates.
They will be living on the third floor, Avianna announces. She locates the silver button on the intercom, gently running her finger over it. Finally, Chanel appears with the keys. They climb three flights and step inside. It is a real apartment, with clean, beige walls and hardwood floors.
They will be living on the third floor, Avianna announces. She locates the silver button on the intercom, gently running her finger over it.
Finally, Chanel appears with the keys. They climb three flights and step inside.
It is a real apartment, with clean, beige walls and hardwood floors.
There are two bedrooms, a full bathroom and a kitchen joined to a living room. Metal blinds hang from the windows, and clean sheets are folded on the bunk beds.
Fresh, home-cooked meals again, Dasani thinks to herself as the children race about maniacally. Hada opens a closet to find a diaper on the floor. Chanel smells it, declares it clean and stashes it for Lele.
She inspects the mattresses, which are in good condition. She opens the refrigerator, looks at the stove and sink, and then turns toward the living room. She clasps her hands in front of her face, as if in prayer.
“Oh, man, I’m happy!” she says, her eyes shining. “I thank God for this. Thank you.”
Chanel cannot sleep that first night.■She keeps checking the locks as her children lie deep in slumber. The five older girls share two bunk beds alongside Lele’s crib. The boys sleep in the living room. Chanel reserves one bedroom for herself and Supreme. It will be their first privacy in years, whenever he comes back.
Chanel is feeling more panicked than celebratory.
“I got to make sure I provide,” she says.
The move has plunged Chanel into the ice-cold waters of independence.
She now has $39, counting the money gleaned from therapy. It will be more than two weeks before her next food-stamp allotment arrives.
When the children wake, Chanel drags a rolling cart onto the subway and returns to Auburn to retrieve more of their belongings. Thankfully, the room has still not been cleared. Chanel leaves with Turtle hidden in an empty baby-wipes container.
By the next morning, Supreme has left rehab and rejoined the family. Now they are almost broke. Chanel can think of only one solution. She heads downtown to Macy’s, where she tries to steal a stack of men’s Polo briefs and undershirts, planning to sell them on the street for quick cash.
A security guard intervenes, leading Chanel to the store’s private jail, along with Nijai, Avianna and Baby Lele, who toddles about the small, enclosed cell saying, “Out, out.” After Supreme collects the children, Chanel is arrested by the police and spends the night in jail.
When she comes home, Supreme declares that the stealing is over. If they have to, they can beg.
“Better to ask than take,” he says.
It doesn’t quite feel like “begging” to Dasani, the way she has seen it in the movies, with peasants holding out hands for coins. It is a little more dignified, how Supreme stands outside the local Pathmark, his children silently lined up next to him.
As shoppers enter the store, he asks them to buy a few extra groceries “so I can feed my babies.” Dasani runs in with a woman who pays for Froot Loops and Corn Flakes. And so it goes, until a particularly generous man tells them to just “get what you need,” and they fill up the cart.
Back in the apartment, the family’s spirits begin to lift. It is easy to forget they are still homeless as Supreme hovers at the stove, making corn bread from scratch, popcorn shrimp, honey-barbecue wings and glazed turkey bacon. He has joined a new methadone program in Harlem.
“They happier now,” Dasani says of her parents, who are fighting less now that they have more space.
Miss Holmes is worried.■Dasani and her sisters have been absent for days. Under federal legislation, homeless children are granted the right to stay in one school even as their families move around. But in practice, there are no guarantees.
Even if the girls were old enough to ride the subway alone, the trek from Dasani’s new shelter to McKinney takes at least an hour. When Chanel requests a bus pickup, only Nijai is approved because of her blindness.
Chanel has already found new schools for four of her other children. She thinks it best that Dasani and her sisters switch to a Harlem school.
If this happens, Dasani will be starting her third school in six weeks.
“No, Mommy,” she protests.
Her sisters also plead. They are learning to play an instrument at McKinney. If they make enough progress, Avianna can keep her trombone, and Nijai, her clarinet. She shows her mother the march she is learning for the school band, holding her invisible clarinet aloft as she stomps her feet.
Chanel is persuaded when she hears that Miss Holmes and Joshua Goldfein, a lawyer for Legal Aid, are pressing the Education Department to approve a bus for all three sisters.
In the meantime, Chanel decides that she will take the girls herself.
Early on Nov. 4, they board the No. 2 train, hurtling back to Brooklyn. In Fort Greene, the children walk along North Portland Avenue, passing Auburn and the projects, where they used to be called “shelter boogies.”
See? Dasani thinks to herself. I’m gone and you are still in the projects.
Minutes later, they enter the warm corridors of McKinney.
“Hi, Miss Holmes,” Chanel squeaks to the woman who always makes her feel like a schoolgirl again, back in the principal’s office.
Dasani flies into Miss Holmes’s arms. She feels safe again, “like I was made to be there.”
The principal is shocked to see them. She did not think it would happen without the bus. As the girls are handed new backpacks and sent to class, Miss Holmes makes Chanel an offer: She can volunteer at the school during the day, whenever she needs shelter. She can even bring Baby Lele.
“We always need plenty of help,” Miss Holmes says.
“That will work out nice,” Chanel says.
“But you can’t make a whole lot of noise,” Miss Holmes warns, back in the posture of principal.
At the end of the day, the girls gather in Miss Holmes’s office to wait for their mother.
“You have come home,” Miss Holmes says. “Everybody here is fighting to get you girls back here. There are certain things you have to do. Homework.”
Soon, Chanel has arrived and is chiming in with the principal. No more bad behavior, she tells her daughters.
“We not gonna have that, you understand?” Chanel says. “Because soon I’m about to be volunteering here.”
The girls are silent.
“So it’s gonna be a totally different song this year,” Chanel says.
As they leave, Dasani turns and races back into Miss Holmes’s office. She leans in for another hug before darting out.
“Goodbye, Dasani,” Miss Holmes calls after her. “And do your homework.”
“Yes!” Dasani shouts over her shoulder.
The child skips down the hallway toward her mother and sisters. The front door swings open, bringing a rush of air. Together, they step out into the cold.
Summary of Reporting
Andrea Elliott, an investigative reporter with The New York Times, began following Dasani and her family in September 2012. The series is written in the present tense, based on real-time reporting by Ms. Elliott and Ruth Fremson, a photographer with The Times, both of whom used audio and video tools.
Throughout the year, Dasani’s family also documented their lives in video dispatches from the Auburn Family Residence, which does not allow visitors beyond the lobby. Ms. Elliott and Ms. Fremson gained access to the shelter to record conditions there.
The reporting also drew from court documents, city and state inspection reports, police records, the family’s case files at city agencies and dozens of interviews with shelter residents. Most scenes were reported firsthand; others were reconstructed based on interviews and video and audio recordings.
The Times is withholding the last names of Dasani and her siblings to protect their identities. The nicknames of some of Dasani’s siblings are used in place of their birth names.
By Andrea Elliott
Photographs by Ruth Fremson
Design, graphics and production by Troy Griggs, Jon Huang, Meghan Louttit, Jacky Myint, John Niedermeyer, David Nolen, Graham Roberts, Mark Suppes, Archie Tse, Tim Wallace and Josh Williams.
Reporting was contributed by Rebecca R. Ruiz, Joseph Goldstein and Ruth Fremson, and research by Ms. Ruiz, Joseph Burgess, Alain Delaquérière and Ramsey Merritt.
What happens when trying to escape poverty means separating from your family at 13?
All three things are owed to Milton S. Hershey, the Pennsylvania native who survived bouts of poverty as a child to become the candy magnate known as America’s “Henry Ford of Chocolate.” Before he died in 1945, Hershey (who had no children) left the bulk of his fortune to a school he created in 1909 to “educate children in need.” By the time Dasani enrolled, in 2015, 9,000 students had graduated.. Dasani and Chanel at the Milton Hershey School in 2016.Credit...Andrea Elliott/The New York Times. They have already discussed Dasani’s “four-week adjustment plan.” Chanel is allowed one weekly phone call to Dasani, at a predesignated time.. The old Dasani did everything.. records, “the child” begins “to cry.” The caseworkers stop talking to give Dasani “a minute to release her feelings.” The next thing Dasani remembers is saying, “If anything — if you split them up — put the baby with one of them.” About 90 minutes later, she returns to the movie and sits down as if nothing happened.. Nothing offends Dasani’s 14-year-old ego like hearing that she sounds “white.” She wants to tell her sisters that they sound “stupid” because “they don’t know how to talk,” though Dasani can feel that way at Hershey sometimes.. A few days later, Dasani leaves Valoczki a note: “This is Dasani.. Dasani would be the first.. “You don’t gotta like Hershey,” Chanel keeps telling Dasani.. “All you gotta do is smile until you walk across that stage.” She tries to scare Dasani: “You are on thin ice and it’s gonna crack and you gonna drown.” But Dasani cannot see past this moment.. “I was trying to do it for you,” Dasani says.
For nine years, Andrea Elliott followed the fortunes of one family. In this extract from her book we meet Dasani, 11, living in a shelter in Brooklyn
The family’s room at the Brooklyn shelter, with Dasani, right, sitting on the bed.. If danger comes, Dasani will kick them awake, tell them to shut up “It makes me feel like there’s something going on out there,” she says.. She is a child of New York City.. She counts her siblings in pairs, just like her mother said.. This is usually the sound that breaks Dasani’s trance, causing her to leave the window and fetch Lee-Lee’s bottle.. The only way to do this is to leave the room, which brings its own dangers.. Dasani ticks through their faces, the girls from the projects who know where she lives.. Children are not the face of New York’s homeless.. She is among 432 homeless children and parents living at Auburn.. Photograph: Ruth Fremson/New York Times/Redux/eyevineThere is no separating Dasani’s childhood from that of her matriarchs: her grandmother Joanie and her mother, Chanel.. It was in Brooklyn that Chanel was also named after a fancy-sounding bottle, spotted in a magazine in 1978.
Author and journalist Andrea Elliott followed Dasani and her family for nearly 10 years, chronicling Dasani's life and growth.
The journalist will never forget the first time she saw the family unit traveling in a single file line, with mother Chanel Sykes leading the way as she pushed a stroller.. That’s what “Invisible Child” is about, Elliott says, the tension between “what is” and “what was” for Dasani, whose life is remarkable, compelling and horrifying in many ways.. “By the time most schoolchildren in New York City are waking up to go to school, Dasani had been working for probably two hours,” Elliott says.. But Dasani’s story isn’t about an extraordinary child who made it out of poverty.. We see a story of a girl who’s trying to not escape,” she says.. It’s the point Elliott says she wants to get across in “Invisible Child”: We need to focus less on escaping problems of poverty and pivot attention to finding the causes and solutions to those problems.. After Dasani’s family left the homeless shelter, she was accepted to the Milton Hershey School, a tuition-free boarding school for low-income children in Pennsylvania.. The Child Protection Agency began monitoring Dasani’s parents on suspicion of parental neglect, Elliott says.. After nearly a decade of reporting, Elliott wants readers to remember the girl at her windowsill every morning who believed “something better was out there waiting for her.”
Author and journalist Andrea Elliott followed Dasani and her family for nearly 10 years, chronicling Dasani's life and growth.
In 2013, the story of a young girl named Dasani Coates took up five front pages in The New York Times.. The oldest of eight kids, Dasani and her family lived in one room in a dilapidated, city-run homeless shelter in Brooklyn.. (Ruth Fremson/The New York Times)Elliott first met Dasani, her parents and her siblings in Brooklyn’s Fort Greene neighborhood in 2012.. Elliott says she was immediately drawn to 11-year-old Dasani — not only because of the girl’s ability to articulate injustices in her life, but how Desani held so much promise for herself.. Dasani described the family’s living quarters as so cramped, “it was like 10 people trying to breathe in the same room and they only give you five windows,” Elliott recalls.. A young Dasani at school.. (Ruth Fremson/The New York Times)That’s what “Invisible Child” is about, Elliott says, the tension between “what is” and “what was” for Dasani, whose life is remarkable, compelling and horrifying in many ways.. “By the time most schoolchildren in New York City are waking up to go to school, Dasani had been working for probably two hours,” Elliott says.. But Dasani’s story isn’t about an extraordinary child who made it out of poverty.. “By the time most schoolchildren in New York City are waking up to go to school, Dasani had been working for probably two hours.". Andrea Elliott “I think if we look at Dasani's trajectory, we see a different kind of story.. It’s the point Elliott says she wants to get across in “Invisible Child”: We need to focus less on escaping problems of poverty and pivot attention to finding the causes and solutions to those problems.. After Dasani’s family left the homeless shelter, she was accepted to the Milton Hershey School, a tuition-free boarding school for low-income children in Pennsylvania.. (Ruth Fremson/ The New York Times)The Child Protection Agency began monitoring Dasani’s parents on suspicion of parental neglect, Elliott says.. “The material reality of Dasani's life — her homelessness, her family's lack of money — is merely the point of departure for understanding her human condition,” she says.
“Invisible Child,” by the New York Times reporter Andrea Elliott, expands on her much-admired 2013 series, following the lives of a New York City child and her family, as they strive to stay together and make ends meet.
INVISIBLE CHILD Poverty, Survival and Hope in an American City By Andrea Elliott. “Whatever power came from being in The Times,” Elliott writes, “was no match for the power of poverty in Dasani’s life.”. But will it come back around for Dasani?. 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.. “There’s no home for you,” Chanel says.. 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).. Why did Supreme once hit Chanel?). “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.
Andrea Elliott, a Pulitzer Prize winning writer, talks to our partners from Amanpour & Company about her latest book “Invisible Child: Poverty, Survival and Hope in an American City.”
Eight years later, Elliott’s out with a new book called “Invisible Child: Poverty, Survival and Hope in an American City.” And here she is talking about that with Hari Sreenivasan.. But, you know, the conditions of the shelter, I don’t believe were the result of neglect so much as just a part of the punishing of reality that cities tend to impose upon the poor, that you’re punished for your condition.. SREENIVASAN: Some of these structural things you see play out as you detail the life of Dasani’s mother and the hurdles that she faces.. ELLIOTT: Dasani’s mother, her name is Chanel.. Chanel wound up mothering eight children.. But the family wasn’t even really about them.. The family was about their kids.. They didn’t want the street to become their kids’ family as it had for them.. And so, this was about creating a system of survival for Dasani and all of her siblings.. And this, ultimately, came to the attention of child protection and they monitored the family pretty closely throughout the time that I was with this family.. ELLIOTT: This was the most stunning event in Dasani’s life, was this opportunity she got to go to the Hershey School, this boarding school that paid for everything.. The federal government spends 10 times as much on programs that separate families, the vast majority of whom are families of color than on programs that would keep them together.. Dasani’s family experienced both programs.. Then his kids and Chanel’s kids, all eight of them, including Dasani, though she was at boarding school, were placed in the foster care system.. Where’s Dasani?
‘I read the book out to the girls. It was really tough’: Andrea Elliott on writing about New York’s homeless children ›
The Pulitzer-winning New York Times journalist talks about her new book, Invisible Child, which records the experiences of a young girl growing up homeless in Brooklyn
Andrea Elliott is a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist at the New York Times .. Elliott continued to follow the family over the course of almost a decade, recording their experiences in her first book, Invisible Child: Poverty, Survival and Hope in New York City , published last year.. She lives in New York with her two children.. What mattered most to me was finding a child who wanted to be heard and who could narrate her experience of growing up poor to me.. I think it’s incredibly important, it’s essential, to give a voice to the person whose story I’m telling.. As I continued to write the book, for nine years – October 2012 to August 2021 – I did grow close to the family.. They called me Drea, just like I used to be called at high school.. Drea was complicated because she was there to observe and translate into words things that were very upsetting, but also moments of joy – there’s a lot of joy and a lot of humour in this book, and people don’t expect that.. Has Dasani read the book?. That is what I did – I witnessed and recorded the reality that faces families like this.. Dasani, Chanel and Avianna, May 2021.. At the moment she’s kind of shy about it.. I feel, as reporters, the quieter we are in places and systems that are oppressive, the more likely we are to see their reality.. They know my kids, my kids know them.. Certain things cut across class and race, and addiction is one of them.
Dasani wakes up before dawn each day at a homeless shelter in Brooklyn, New York. After slipping out from under the covers, she goes to the window. On a clear day, she can see all the way across the shimmering East River to the top of the Empire State Building, the first New York skyscraper to reach 100 floors. And looking at it makes her feel like the world is full of promise. “I have a lot of possibility, too,” she says. “I have a lot of things to say.”
Dasani wakes up before dawn each day at a homeless shelter in Brooklyn, New York.. And looking at it makes her feel like the world is full of promise.. Elliott followed Dasani for eight years to provide a ground-level look at what being a poor kid in New York is like and to explore the city’s mishandling of the homeless.. She was changing diapers before she was in grade school.. Dasani needs to change her life and leave the shelter to become the person she could be, Miss Hester explains, and “that’s a problem if any of her family members don’t see leaving as important.”. 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 meals.. Visits to the different homes where her siblings live make her feel guilty for going away.. Dasani begins getting in fights and bloodies another girl’s nose, leading to her expulsion from Hershey.. When Dasani gives Chanel the news, Chanel tells her that there is no more home and Dasani will have to go into foster care.. But for Dasani “home” is the people she loves, not a place.. They spend their lives in and out of shelters, grow up with troubled parents and often raise their siblings.. Like Dasani, many of the children look out the window each day and believe something better is waiting for them out there.
Our favorite student comments from a lively discussion about homelessness and a girl named Dasani.
Sadness, anger, hope and the desire to “stop talking and start doing something” about homelessness: these were the dominant reactions to the series “ Invisible Child: Dasani’s Homeless Life ”. among the 190 students who participated in our most recent installment of The Learning Network’s Reading Club .. Written by Andrea Elliott with photographs by Ruth Fremson, the five-part series narrates the story of Dasani, an 11-year-old girl who is one of New York City’s 22,000 homeless children, and her family.. Dasani reminds us about the world beyond ourselves.” Many writers noted that learning about. Dasani and her family gave them a new perspective on their own lives.. I agree with @Diamonique P that there may be an alternative family or person that could give this to Dasani, but then her siblings would suffer because the article makes it clear that she is that person for them.. I admire Dasani greatly for being that person for her siblings even though she does not have a person that she can count on.. Readers’ frustrations — with the living conditions at the shelter, with Dasani’s parents for the choices they’ve made, and with the gaping inequality so apparent in the family’s immediate. neighborhood — came up again and again.. Despite knowing how hard it can be to escape a life of poverty that you are born into, she still works hard because she knows that she can grow up to do great things by avoiding the mistakes members of her family. have made in the past and living up to her full potential.. Dasani’s daily tasks range from taking care of her six younger siblings to avoiding being separated from her family by child services to dealing with unsafe conditions at Auburn.. Was it intended to make us sympathize with Dasani and hate New York’s. shelter system or was it intended to shed a new light on the lives of the homeless and influence us to begin to strive for a change?. It is a strong force, whether you realize it or not….Until. a different atmosphere of tolerance and “anyone can be who they want to be” mentality arises, many people who live in poorer areas will continue to live where there seemingly is no hope for a better. life.. We chose it not just because. it is well-written, draws from life and personal experiences and shows a careful reading of “Invisible Child,” but also because it acknowledges and weaves together other readers’ ideas, contributing. to the conversation that our Reading Club was created to foster — across classrooms, schools, countries and beyond.. Some experts have hypothesized that this might be because reading books about people whose lives are worse than ours makes. us feel better about ourselves.. (This is also the principle behind reality television shows; viewers will think that however bad their own lives are, at least they aren’t 16 and pregnant or trying to. avoid a hungry alligator or being subject to some kind of unthinkable public humiliation – an idea of “it could be worse.”) As expected, this idea has already been expressed in the comments. of those who realize anew how lucky they are.. The difference between these fiction books and Dasani’s story is that Dasani is a real person and a child, her story laid bare and thrust in front of the reader’s face, with haunting pictures that. don’t allow the reader to disregard the reality.. The personal nature of the Invisible Child will result in, undoubtedly, many trying to reach out and give aid to Dasani, her family, and others like her, but, as expressed by @NadiaFCS8-3, there is the overshadowing. question of how.
While the book is very much the tale of young Dasani Coates, Andrea Elliott uses her story and that of her family to examine the many who find themselves in similarly impossible circumstances.
Invisible Child: Poverty, Survival & Hope in an American City, by Andrea Elliott Random House. hide caption. Random House. Andrea Elliott's riveting debut, Invisible Child: Poverty, Survival, and Hope in an American City, is sure to linger in the minds of many readers long after the last page has been turned.. The invisible child of the title is Dasani Coates.. We meet Dasani in 2012, when she is eleven years old and living with her parents, Chanel and Supreme, and seven siblings in one of New York City's shelters for families experiencing homelessness.. At the time, Elliott is researching what would become a five-part series featuring Dasani in The New York Times.. The Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist ultimately follows Dasani and her family for a period of eight years, tracking a stunning array of heartrending tragedies and remarkable triumphs.. Elliott encounters the family of ten at the Auburn Family Residence, a "city-run homeless shelter where the heat is off and the food is spoiled" and where the family has resided for over two years, consigned to a 520-sq.-ft. room.. The cafeteria has only two microwaves, but sometimes waiting in line for an hour to use one is among the least of the shelter's problems.. It is no wonder that the building is off-limits to the public and the press.. The Coates family documents shelter conditions with video cameras provided by Elliott, revealing "footage of mice, roaches, and mold on the walls.". Her middle school principal, Elliott notes, had "seen plenty of distressed children, but few [had] both the depth of Dasani's troubles and the height of her promise.". His granddaughter is born in Fort Greene in 2001 a mere two years before Mayor Michael Bloomberg determines to "remake" her community.. The number of homeless families rose by 80% during Bloomberg's tenure as mayor.. Such schisms appear again and again in Invisible Child, underscoring Elliot's assertion that "To know Dasani Joanie-Lashawn Coates...is to reckon with the story of New York City, and, beyond its borders, with America itself."
The New York Times takes the wrong lesson from a real problem.
Dasani Coates, the 11-year-old homeless child profiled in Andrea Elliott’s highly praised five-part New York Times feature, arrived on stage at Wednesday’s inauguration ceremonies to serve as a poignant symbol of—in Mayor de Blasio’s words—“the economic and social inequalities that threaten to unravel the city we love.” But far from providing a window into inequality, the Times series, “ Invisible Child ,” is better understood as a beautifully reported but muddled revival of decades-long evasions about underclass poverty.. Chanel, Dasani’s mother and herself the daughter of a welfare-dependent drug addict in Brooklyn, has six children by three different men, a long history of debilitating drug use, an explosive temper, and numerous arrests.. Elliott is an honest enough reporter to admit “parental dysfunction.” But, as she told Times public editor Margaret Sullivan, she wanted to center her story on a child in order to avoid “the politics of blame”—referring, presumably, to those who have found fault with Chanel and Supreme’s many precursors.. A local charter school, the lifeline for many other poor parents and children, advertises its “rigor and excellence”; Elliott sniffs that it sounds “exclusive.” In the wake of welfare reform—howlingly protested by the New York Times , by the way—Chanel’s mother, Joanie, “turned her life around,” landing a $22,000-a-year job cleaning subway cars.. If Chanel and Supreme both worked full-time at minimum wage, she tells us, their combined salaries would come to only $2,300 per month—just enough to cover “the average rent for a studio in Brooklyn.” Not only does she wildly exaggerate rental costs (the New York City Department of Housing and Preservation reports median rent for all vacant apartments, not just studios, in 2011 as $1,100), but her calculations also don’t take into account the Earned Income Tax Credit; Social Security; food stamps; nutrition programs for women, infants, and children; and Supreme’s widower benefits, among other public sources of aid.
Journalist Andrea Elliott followed a homeless child named Dasani for almost a decade, as she navigated family trauma and a system stacked against her.
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