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

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?