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Does Dasani’s NYT homeless story leave you angry? Sad? Indifferent?

In behavior, children, cities, culture, domestic life, education, family, journalism, news, parenting, urban life, US on December 12, 2013 at 1:11 am

By Caitlin Kelly

It’s a story that took a year of reporting and writing to produce, prompting more than 600+ comments after the first day — by 5:30 p.m. yesterday, more than 1,713 readers had weighed in.

English: The New York Times building in New Yo...

English: The New York Times building in New York, NY across from the Port Authority. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The New York Times is running a five-part series on Dasani, an 11-year-old African American girl living with her siblings in a squalid New York city shelter that has sucked up millions of tax-payer dollars already.

Her parents take methadone, do not work and have seven other children sharing a 500 square foot room.

Dasani is smart, capable, liked by her teachers, and burdened by caring for her brothers and sisters. She, like them, has nowhere clean, quiet and comfortable in which to do her homework. Their room has no desk. One wall has a hole where mice run freely.

Here’s an excerpt from the first instalment:

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.

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.

I spent more than an hour reading the comments, which came from social workers, past and present; from New York schoolteachers; from the formerly poor and homeless able to escape a difficult past; from the fed-up-with-generational-welfare crowd.

A few readers simply shrugged — the entire United States, not just New York City, is deeply pockmarked by poverty now, with the second-highest rate of child poverty in the developed world.

As one commenter said…wait. This story will soon be only one of many. She is hardly unique.

Reader reactions, predictably, are mixed:

outrage at the shelter’s squalor; dismay at the parents’ inability or unwillingness to work, earn money and set an example for their children; anger at the tens of thousands of tax-payer dollars supporting a couple of adults who have made repeatedly poor choices, including producing more and more children they have no way to support; disappointment that the U.S. allows children like her to live in such appalling conditions; confusion as to what can be done to alleviate this kind of poverty.

As I’ve blogged here before, I was a Big Sister in 1998 for 18 months to a 13-year-old child whose family was also deeply dysfunctional.  (For readers outside of North America, Big Sister/Big Brother is a national program that matches volunteers — usually middle or upper middle class, employed and well-educated — with struggling youngsters. The idea is to foster relationships that will help poor children and teens survive and thrive.)

I found the process deeply frustrating, as much because I expected far too much from it and because, I thought, the organizers expected far too little.

My “little sister”, like Dasani, was bright and very likeable, apparently eager to flee the clutches of poverty.

But, sadly also highly unlikely to do so. I saw frightening and destructive behaviors within her family I’d never before encountered en masse — abandonment, laziness, welfare dependence, neglect and passivity — that boded ill for her future.

The desire to flee poverty can also create an impossible choice — between the bosom of a chaotic family a child knows well, and a larger world they don’t. You’re not going to get very far saying “axe” instead of “ask” a question.

I saw this play out with my “little”. The more I tried to find her better options, (even, yes, a scholarship spot at a private school barely 30 minutes drive from her family), the more they shrugged it off.

I admit it. After 18 months, I burned out and walked away.

Children need consistently healthy role models if they’re going to succeed and avoid the pitfalls of addiction and/or teen pregnancy. Dasani’s mother teaches her to fight — physically — which, as the Times reports, gets her suspended from school.

The series’ pathos has left some readers eager to “help” — but what, exactly, can they do?

Donate to charities? Pay even more taxes? Volunteer individually with a child on their own? Foster a child or several?

What do you think?

What — if anything — would change (for good/better) a life like hers?

  1. Caitlin, what a good thought asking the important questions. Having grown up in West Virginia, I’ve witnessed firsthand a great deal of poverty. Many of these questions are unanswerable without a broader system, in my opinion, but I choose to donate my energy toward helping as many local charities as I can — specifically causes that are close to my heart. There is drug and alcohol abuse in my family, so I try to donate to the domestic violence and recovering addicts’ homes. Growing up on the poorer side of middle class and now circulating on a higher social strata, mostly due to my work, I think it’s sometimes shocking how so many people ignore problems that are not right in front of them. Bringing other peoples’ problems and needs in the community to their attention can sometimes open hearts. So I guess that’s what I would say — try to find a need and let others know about it. We can’t all do it ourselves.

    • Jose and I have been talking about this series at home…Part of the challenge is a sort of compassion fatigue I think people feel in an economy that has made life much harder for people than they would like…blunting or killing their compassion for others’ struggles.

      I admire your devotion to trying to effect change.

  2. Being a recently homeless veteran, I have seen a lot and frustrated by the coldness and detachment of the VA Hospital personnel in charge of helping people. Between 9-4 baby and you are lucky to get ahold of anyone, if you can. I had my car though, and my cat. Me and my cat are very close. I’ve endured hell over the years but to see children so marginalized it makes one angry and disillusioned.

    My bottom-line is that even that old homeless male was an innocent child. So many murderers were abused and it not tough luck. I tell those of that mindset to basically screw themselves. I say what happens if you are born in Africa or even a child born to abuse or a woman is a burning bed scenario? I hate haughtiness and people who think they are special. One cold can take a life. My friend just died of ALS, he was one of the most humane, humble and considerate people that I have ever met. His daughter is suffering from this loss.

    So what can I do? A lot and I am getting disability for anxiety but there are other problems. I too am losing strength in my muscles on my left side. In the mean time, when I feel good, I am going to live it up. I am going to do an event with ALS and try to make helping fun while getting the word out.

    I am a Meteorologist, but ,my speech has been affected. There is no stroke, thank God, so I owe it to all the hurting people in the streets or the hospital bed, live vigorously, use your connections to help others. My nephew Joel Stephens died at 22 from a rare form of cancer. He was an all-American kid in the total sense of the word. Even before he died, he was signing autographs and helping the sick. I will keep this in the family and do for others, not for myself but for us all. No one here is a disposal lighter, to be chucked away away by some measure of perceived fitness.

    We all suffer, but we also can offer a cold cup of water and a house not made of cardboard. We can live in a world of hope, rather than relegate children to live in such a dangerous world. Five year olds should not experience their mom being threatened with a knife to her throat. That child in your story should not be loaded with that much despair. I feel her pain and know that, we can make a difference. Not maybe the whole word but a part of it hopefully.

    • Thanks for weighing in…I thought this would surely hit a chord for you.

      But…what about her parents? Should she go to a foster home where she’ll learn habits that won’t hurt her? Give her a break from parenting all her siblings?

  3. I think what we need is more support for education, because having an education is a big step to getting out of poverty. I think we also need to let these kids know, at school and at home, that they have people who want to help them and are willing to step in and help if they just ask for it.
    At least, I think that could help. I could be very wrong.

  4. If people want help, I think they should be able to get it. The problem is if they want help and none is available.

    • Again…what “help”? The family pays nothing for rent, gets free food and thousands of dollars a month without working. How much more help could they expect?

      In principle, yes, people who need help should get it. But what happens when they don’t move to any position of independence?

  5. I was once in contact with a 6 year old from a family of 6 children born to irresponsible parents; he was sweet as sugar, but also had aggressive episodes most likely due to his home life…I was tempted to spend time with that child, but his aunt warned me about the dangers I could get myself into because the parents were not reliable and could end up making accusations against me. This happened about 7 years ago, the mother has since then had a couple more children and all 8 children ended up being taken by a social service organization…she spends her time going from one coffee shop to another & impregnating every year, leaving the husband (he works) to go with other men & returning whenever convenient…in my opinion this couple should be vasectomied & tubal ligated; they are producing dysfunctional children who most likely will not function in society!

  6. I had similar experience in a Russian orphanage in 1990s – described at http://otrazhenie.wordpress.com/2012/08/10/oh-girls/ . There was neither mercy nor miracles in that world. Even a few decades later I still don’t have an answer to your questions :-( .

    Dostoevsky described similar issues in his stories over a hundred years ago (see example at http://otrazhenie.wordpress.com/2012/07/15/about-a-little-boy-and-a-little-girl-who-did-not-freeze-to-death/). What can we do to help and make a real difference?

    • That post of yours is extraordinary — everyone should read it! Thanks for linking to it.

      One of the many powerful points you make is the modeling of healthy behaviors from healthy parents. If a child does not get it, how can they possibly know how to behave in the world of successful relationship?

      • So true. Most social dysfunctions can be tracked down to bad modeling, that’s why it is so hard to break dysfunctional cycles and help people, who are caught in them.

        One of my friends was working as a prison guard for a year. He noted that often different generations from the same family were caught in that ‘prison’ cycle – young man, who get to prison, had their dads and granddads going through prison.That’s normal life for them. They have not seen anything different in life. :-(

      • I wonder what the answer is…?! I guess legions of social workers and academics are still trying to find it.

  7. it leaves me so sad and frustrated for the children. somehow, some of these children end up rising above it all, against all odds, through a combination of resilience, opportunity, chance, luck, and people like you, who offer them increased odds and mentorship. as you have lived and seen though, this is often not enough, nor even welcomed by the families or the system. i think that we always have to try, as you did, until we find ourselves stuck and unable to do any more, and then others need to keep on trying, until we find a way, myself included.

    • It is a pathetic sort of lottery, isn’t it? I remember feeling so hopeless and overwhelmed even trying to help just one girl…when it became clearer and clearer to me that her family resented the hell out of me and my success in life. I could see that she wanted something calmer and better, but there were no intermediate steps to get there…like going to and graduating from college.

      I agree that some children, somehow, will have the resilience, and perhaps the mentoring (it does exist) to survive such a childhood, but the much larger structural problems — addiction, multiple un-supported children, sky-high housing costs — oy.

  8. As a student of life and a Minister of the Gospel of Jesus Christ & Him Crucified I find this a very hard question to answer. I grew up in an alcoholic family and I myself graduated to drugs and violence to sooth my appatite and hunger for bigger and better things. I have ran with the biggest, badest, & meanest bikers in this country just to feel like I belonged to something pertaining to family that cares.

    I have often wondered what life would be like if I had had better rolemodels or a less violent father but truth be told I don’t think I would change anything that I have been through in my life.

    Let me quickly explain, God knew us before we were ever born. He knows our lives before we do and gave us a free will and a choice to boot knowing our choice wont be the right one in our circumstances. I know, I been through it. But, God also sent his Son into this world not to condem it but through Him we might be saved.

    Because I was blessed with the knowledge of Jesus Christ & why He was crucified I have been givin a new life that lets Him, (Jesus Christ) lead and I follow. I have never been steered wrongly & God’s Blessings have filled my cup to full and running over.

    God tells us in His Word that we are to be Ministers of His Word and Faithful to Him and we will have Life and have it more Abundantly. We are also to teach our children in the ways of the Lord so that they will not depart from it.

    I am glad that I was taught at an early age about Jesus Christ & Him Crucified. I now am married, I have 2 children that are grown, and a life that is blessed by God, Oh, and a Testimony that opens more eyes than it scares and wins souls for the Lord than i have counted.

    How do we handle each of these situations is and should be up to God. He is the one that knows best. I believe and teach that we should always seek the Lords Wisdom and be Faithful and do what he tells us to do. No matter whether it is like Happyappalachy and support you local abuse causes or personally getting involved in some way or another. Sometimes the Athourities need to be called.

    But Above All, God should be sought first. I commend all of you that have taken action in some way to help. Even Jesus helped those in need that needed to be made whole…

    May God Bless All Of You & Your Decisions To Act,
    Floyd

    • Floyd, thanks for sharing this. You make a powerful point indeed:

      “I grew up in an alcoholic family and I myself graduated to drugs and violence to sooth my appatite and hunger for bigger and better things. I have ran with the biggest, badest, & meanest bikers in this country just to feel like I belonged to something pertaining to family that cares.”

      We all need to feel loved and that we belong. I’m glad you have a good life and family now!

  9. One thing that I think would be a good way to help is to help the schools and institutions catering to these people. Especially the schools. When I was younger I volunteered in an inner city school and it was terrible. New policies with no child left behind mean failing schools are closed, but I worry about that because it just causes a huge transition to be needed. Schools in the wealthy suburbs are so different from schools serving the poor. Helping the schools is also a way to make sure that the help is going primarily to the children. But more funding to homelessness supports and charities would also help. Also, policies that help reduce inequality.

    I have also had frustrating experiences trying to “help” and I don’t think I am cut out for firsthand helping of people in these situations. But this story has me torn up inside. I hope at least by trying to send some charitable dollars to these schools or advocating for better funding for them I can be part of a positive change.

    • Thanks for making time to comment…I appreciate it.

      The problem is that these kids are only in school a few hours a day and their family exerts a lot more influence over how they make choices (drugs, sex, gangs, fighting) than anything a teacher or teachers can tell them. I really admire teachers who care and who try every day to help these children.

      This story is powerfully affecting as who among us would turn our backs on a child in need? But she has a family, and parents. What is **their** role in giving her a good model to follow — or letting her go to people who can? How is giving them endless welfare money making any change at all in their children’s future? I think that’s the unanswerable piece here.

  10. I don’t think there is a single solution. But an important piece that is severely lacking is access to good mental health care. I was a middle school teacher for 5 years in an impoverished inner city. There were close to 2,000 students – many lived in seriously dysfunctional families. There was only 1 full time psychological counselor in the school. Teachers are not trained to be counselors, but the psychological and emotional needs of these students often falls on their already overburdened shoulders. I wish I could have continued teaching, but I became a statistic and broke under the pressure and impossible demands of the job.

    • Thanks very much for commenting — it’s incredibly helpful to hear from people like you who have served on the frontlines in what, clearly, is a losing battle. It’s a terrible loss to students who need help that they can’t get it from school nor from parents nor from the “medical system.” I wonder how much talent and intelligence is ground to dust between these wheels.

  11. I was a Big Sister too, for three years. I not only did something with my Little once a week, but often included her cousin and sister. She was one f the highlights of my life. Her mother was very responsible and taught the girls right from wrong. No drug abuse in that family. I think my problem was that I spoiled her, and she was the kind who would take advantage of it. I didn’t think I was spoiling her–just giving her the things that any other kid her age would get in a middle class family, such as chances to go to the pool, state fair, get snacks and go to the movies and so on. I probably should have focused much more on schoolwork, but I didn’t. My husband took her to a Brewer’s game, which she loved. She even loved helping around the house. It ended when we discovered she had been stealing from my husband’s wallet for months. We lost about $400. The mother literally stripped her naked to see if she had the money but couldn’t find it and didn’t end up believing us. But we knew because we had been missing money for so long we put the money someplace before she game and after she was gone, lo and behold so was the money. I am trying to be a Big Sister again, but it took two years before I was ready. And my Little loved her culture and way of speaking, and had no conception this was not going to get her very far in life. It was an impossible task to get her to see it was a one way ticket to nowhere.

    • Wow.

      Thanks for sharing this…When I ended the relationship with my little sister, I met Jose (my husband) shortly thereafter. I told him some of the dramatic and heart-rending tales she had told me (which had me on the phone frequently to her social workers) and he wondered how much if it was actually true.

      It is a really nasty experience to feel duped, manipulated and taken advantage of when your only goal is to be helpful to a child whose own family is a mess. I just couldn’t stand one more minute (ashamed to say it) around my “little’s” family. Their values and behaviors made me cringe every time. How can any child escape when that’s all they know?

      I admire you for being a Big Sister again. I’ve considered it, but am not at all sure I would. I really felt abused by the organization itself, who — later, with no embarrassment and no warning to me — told me they had matched me with one of their most difficult families. No shit, Sherlock.

  12. As a reader from England and a volunteer with a children’s charity I found the article very interesting. We do not have a national system like your Big Sister/Big Brother program, rather individual charities run their own mentoring schemes. I volunteer for Barnardo`s whose origins go back to the 19th century decease ridden slums of London where infant mortality was horrendous and extreme interventions were needed. My role as an Independent Visitor means that after training I commit to a 2 year period seeing the child I am matched with at least once a month which makes me the only non-professional adult the young person is in regular contact as he is in a long term foster parent placement. Having been in the role for over a year I find it very rewarding and have seen the young person develop and flourish within a stable fostering environment. I would like to make the following observations from my own experiences: Firstly the professional care service in the UK has had to rethink its whole policy after several high profile cases of severe neglect and abuse that have come to light. Inquiries found that communications between the different agencies had broken down so danger signs were not being picked up early enough and the culture of trying to keep families together as a policy was flawed. The emphasis now is child focused and the result of this is that more children are being taken out of problem families and into care which is a good thing. Secondly consider giving your time instead of money as a contribution, especially if you are a middle aged man. I am 51 years old with two grown up sons of my own and I know that the service needs more men to become involved. I am sure this would be the case in the US as well?

    • Thanks for sharing an international perspective! So interesting to see how differently this is done. I’m sure there are also, here, local schemes such as you mention.

      The BS/BB program also asks for a year’s commitment and a monthly visit. There is also, here, often a shortage of men willing or available to share their time, which is a shame, as so many kids really need a role model of someone who is there — as you point out — because they choose to be, not because it is only their job, and often poorly or hastily done.

      Another reason so take this on is to truly understand the multiple issues that show up in deep poverty — and in a country with such tremendous income inequality as the U.S. it’s impossible to imagine how bad it can be for a child until or unless you have lived it or seen it up close. Poverty, as a political and economic issue, receives very very little press coverage here (versus fawning “profiles” of the powerful and wealthy), which exacerbates the problem and makes the children even less visible or audible. I really had no idea how bad it can be; my “little” lived a 10-minute drive from my home, but it might as well have been a foreign country, so differently (and sadly) did she experience the same county, state and nation.

      • To clarify the professional care system is funded through local and national taxation in the UK and it would be my guess the system would probably take Dasani and her siblings away from her family either on a temporary or permanent basis dependent on the detailed circumstances. This might mean that the siblings could be split up and placed in different care situations although it sounds as if this would be detrimental to someone like Dasani.The charities offer additional services in conjunction with local authorities. The government is also trialing a scheme where the most troubled 100,000 or so families in the country are given intensive help and support. Again from my experience the frustration comes from the inefficiencies in the processes and the poor use of resources as the one thing more precious to a child than anything else is time

      • It’s a difficult issue when a child wants to be with her siblings — but the parents’ influences are not helpful to them.

  13. […] Does Dasani’s NYT homeless story leave you angry? Sad? Indifferent? […]

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