The idea of having to navigate cockroaches, mice, no heat and sexual predators before you even leave for school is not something any child should go through. Yet, this is the daily life for hundreds of children living in two shelters in New York City and Brooklyn. They are part of the more than 22,000 children that make up New York City’s homeless population.
Now, after more than a decade of repeated citations for deplorable conditions, more than 400 children and their families are being moved from the city-owned facilities – all because of a determined 12-year-old girl.
Chanel couldn’t afford the luxury of buying water in a bottle. When the water with the fancy name started arriving in the bodegas of her Brooklyn neighborhood, she felt that it represented a certain status in life she could never imagine. When her first child was born a short time later, she gave her the name Dasani, with the hope it would give her a chance in life.
Twelve years later, Dasani would be standing on stage at the swearing in of the 109th mayor of New York City and be the subject of a major profile in the New York Times.
“Invisible Child: Dasani’s Homeless Life” by Andrea Elliott was a five part series published in December 2013. It chronicled the daily life of Dasani, her parents and her seven siblings. The ten of them all lived in a single room in the Auburn Family Residence in the Fort Greene neighborhood of Brooklyn. Converted to a family shelter in 1985, it was designed to be a temporary stop for those who found themselves homeless. Three decades of changing political and economic policies that have made the cycle of poverty even more dire has turned the shelter into a permanent stop for many.
Dasani’s family had been living there for three years.
The New York Times series, which profiled the family’s up and downs for a year, brought much needed attention to the life of the city’s poor and to the Auburn shelter. The article detailed the deplorable conditions which included mice in the walls, cockroaches, rooms without kitchens and some without running water. Bathrooms are communal, which children and adults use often without the watchful eye of security, leaving women and children at risk for the sexual predators that were often among them.
The article also got the attention of then Mayor-Elect Bill de Blasio.
The timing of the article was particularly poignant considering that the policies of outgoing Mayor Michael Bloomberg were among the myriad of reasons why Dasani’s family – and the hundreds of families at Auburn – had found themselves barely surviving. For nearly 15 years, the city gave priority to homeless families for permanent housing available for federal subsidy programs. From 1990-2005, the city provided permanent housing for 53,000 homeless families. Bloomberg ended the program in 2005 and replaced it with a short term rent subsidy program that ended in 2011. By the time he left office, the city had more than 52,000 homeless – the highest in the city’s history.
Bill de Blasio easily won the election on the message of paying attention to the people Bloomberg forgot. Dasani’s story highlighted the two cities he talked about on the campaign trail. Chanel and Dasani were invited to the inauguration. On January 1, 2014, Dasani held the Bible while Leticia “Tish” James was sworn in as New York City’s public advocate – and first in line in succession to the mayor. Tish James held Dasani’s hand during her speech. James was born on assistance, lived on food stamps and had been evicted in her lifetime. Dasani stood next to her, representing the little girl James once was, looking at the woman she could be.
Without knowing it, Dasani was already making a difference.
Last month, the city began moving families with children from Auburn and another shelter, Catherine Street shelter in lower Manhattan. Officials are trying to find permanent subsidized housing or safer temporary housing. Amid increased security at both facilities, they are first removing families from Auburn. As of February, 42 families had already been removed, with more being moved in June to avoid disruption for children’s school attendance. A dozen families have already been removed from Catherine Street, with hopes the remainder will be in permanent or temporary housing by the fall. In all, more than 400 children will be removed from the facilities to safer conditions.
The facilities will be converted to adult only shelters.
By the time of the inauguration, Dasani and her family had already left Auburn. After the death of an infant, Auburn was under increased scrutiny and officials were pressured to remove families with infants and disabled children. Dasani’s family had both. In October, her parents were given just a few hours to move out to a new shelter. By the end of the day, the family of ten was living in a shelter in Harlem – an apartment with two bedrooms and a kitchen.
The Department of Homeless Services is still trying to find the family permanent housing for vulnerable families which also have on-site support services. Their story is going to be included in a book, written by the same journalist who wrote the article, which will focus on the larger plight of child poverty. When notified of the changes happening at Auburn and their own situation, Dasani’s mother Chanel replied, “It takes all of this for something to happen? Why was it so hard to do this three years ago?”
Hopefully for the more than 22,000 homeless children in New York, they won’t have to wait so long.
Photo credit: Valerie Everett