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.
In the presence of her brothers and sisters, Dasani has no peace. Without them, she is incomplete.
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.
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.”
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.
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. (dance)
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.
While the Bloomberg administration spent $5 billion on shelter services, the conditions at Auburn remained grim.
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.”
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.
Prevention is a luxury reserved for schools with enough counselors.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.”DOCUMENTState 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.
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.