And then, with a crash, work and home lives collide.
On Monday, the New York Times published a phenomenally detailed, five-chapter article titled Invisible Child: Dasani’s Homeless Life — an intimate portrait of one homeless child and, by extension, her family. At the start of this story, Dasani is an 11-year-old living in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, full of promise. At its end, she is nearly 13.
This little girl and her family were my neighbors in Brooklyn. I recognize her mother, Chanel, from the photographs — I used to pass her by on my way home through the north end of Fort Greene park. The children would be playing on the exercise equipment (the same bars that Dasani used for pull-ups) and I would dart around the socializing adults and parked umbrella strollers on my way to that “other New York” the writer speaks of, farther “east along Myrtle… [to] the shaded, graceful abode of Fort Greene’s brownstones”.
To Have and Have Not.
The portrait of Dasani, while beautifully rendered, is not gentle. It reveals a little girl of uncommon strength and intelligence, with forebearance and determination and gumption that have been painfully earned. A child who effectively shoulders burdens more responsibly than many of the adults in her life, doing the best she can with what she knows and sees and longs for. At 12, she is a parent-figure to 7 siblings. She takes refuge in her school. She seizes opportunity with both hands, but has so many other sets of hands ready to pry her grip open.
I ache to know what will become of this child, and of her siblings. And of “the vast and invisible tribe of more than 22,000 homeless children in New York”. So many of them are not “uncommon” — bright, spunky, loving dreamers, currently destined to a seemingly-endless multi-generational cycle of poverty. When violence or neglect or drugs or alcohol or sexual assault or the endless crush of hopelessness have taken their toll — what then?
“What then” is that we’ll lose some of those children to early death, to promise snuffed out by life without a refuge of “home”. We’ll see some in foster care, hungry for scraps of love and care. Some few will beat the odds. And we’ll see some at Covenant House, those who hit the bottom with nowhere else to turn, who are yet brave enough to trust in strangers.
But without real, systematic, policy-based change and a wide social structure that capitalizes on the compassion of every person to put wholesome food into hungry bellies and provide safe spaces for the most basic needs of life — a clean washroom and a warm bed — while pouring light into shadows and helping starved souls find a reason to hope, there will be nothing more. We will continue to throw away living people, children and toddlers and babies who, if allowed to be their best selves, could offer so much to us all.