“Invisible Child:” the Life of a Homeless Family in NYC

Andrea Elliott, a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, talks to our partners from Amanpour & Company about her latest book, “Invisible Child: Poverty, Survival and Hope in an American City.” Based on nearly a decade of reporting, the book focuses on eight dramatic years in the life of Dasani Coates and her family — and the broader issue of New York City’s dealings with its homeless population.



CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR: And now, we move to New York. And the Big Apple gets a new mayor, did get a new mayor this weekend. Eric Adams will take charge now of a city in the grips of another COVID surge, especially in its many homeless shelters. Pulitzer Prize winning writer, Andrea Elliott, wrote a damning expose of New York’s handling of its homeless, focusing on one girl named Dasani. Eight years later, Elliott’s out with a new book called “Invisible Child: Poverty, Survival and Hope in an American City.” And here she is talking about that with Hari Sreenivasan.


HARI SREENIVASAN: Christiane, thanks. Andrea Elliott, thanks for joining us. Now, some of our viewers might remember this series that you wrote back in 2013 or recorded in 2012 about a family that you found and what they were going through, their struggles and hardships in New York back then. But what was a fascinating turn is you decide to embed with this family for the next eight years to produce this book. So first off, Dasani, tell us a little bit about her.

ANDREA ELLIOTT, AUTHOR, “INVISIBLE CHILD”: The moment I saw Dasani, I wanted to follow her. I wanted to know her story. She just jumped out at me. She was 11 years old and she had this kind of spark about her. And she was, by outward appearances, a kind of star, right? She was on the honorable, she was this really fast sprinter. She was like brimming with optimism, and this was in her name, because she was named after the bottled water that had just come to Brooklyn after she was born, and that symbolized for her family luxury. Something that they could never afford. A different life. A better life. And what wasn’t clear when I first met her was how difficult her actual life was in the shelter. The shelter was off limits to the public. I eventually snuck in with photographer from the “New York Times,” Bret Franson (ph), through a fire escape in the back and ran past forces of security guards. We were undercover at this point and just trying to expose the conditions. And her room, which was one room, was shared by all 10 family members. They had a mop bucket that they used as a toilet. They were overrun by mice and just really decrepit horrible difficult conditions. But even in that setting, this little girl would wake up every morning, go to the window and look at the Empire State Building. So, there was just so much aspiration in her daily existence and that really moved me.

SREENIVASAN: You had a passage about the homeless shelter in there. Over the last decade, city and state inspectors have cited the Auburn shelter for more than 400 violations. Among them, broken elevators, non-functioning bathrooms, faulty fire alarms, insufficient heat, spoiled food, sexual misconduct by staff, inadequate child care and the presence of mice, roaches, mold, bedbugs, lead and asbestos. And this was the refuge for a family that did not have a home. I mean, what were they escaping? What was life outside that shelter like? What was the alternative?

ELLIOTT: There was no alternative. This was what they got. I would argue that Dasani’s true refuge was the public school system, which is probably the most powerful antipoverty program that exists for children like her outside of keeping their family together, which was the other most important thing that she had. Those two systems of survival were so central to her existence. But, you know, the conditions of the shelter, I don’t believe were the result of neglect so much as just a part of the punishing of reality that cities tend to impose upon the poor, that you’re punished for your condition. They did not want families to overstay their welcome. They didn’t want it to be too comfortable. And that’s what I found to be probably most upsetting about this particular place, as if there were hundreds of children living there, having to pay the price of this other broader system that didn’t really think about their future because to grow up poor is a marker. It changes fate for people. And here, we have a city that is marked by wealth and yet, many families were forced to live in conditions like this not because they wanted to but because it was impossible to — increasingly hard to find affordable housing, and this is a problem across the country. Only about 3 percent of Americans have access to federal affordable housing programs, such as Section 8 Public Housing. But it’s a tiny percentage when you consider the incredible cost of living.

SREENIVASAN: Some of these structural things you see play out as you detail the life of Dasani’s mother and the hurdles that she faces.

ELLIOTT: Dasani’s mother, her name is Chanel. She was named after the luxury perfume that her mother spotted in a magazine. Because at that time in Brooklyn, in the late ’70s, a magazine ad was the closest that you could really get to this other life. And I think that at its heart, this is very much a mother/daughter story. Dasani and Chanel really exist in relation to each other. They don’t see themselves as separate. She was her first daughter. Chanel wound up mothering eight children. Dasani was her right hand. And by the time I met Dasani, she was really a third parent in that family. She served as an adultified child, and is what researchers like to call it, but I saw her simply as somebody who is showing up for her life in a strong and hopeful and brave way as possible, this child, and just pressing forward and trying to help her mom in all kinds of ways and at the same time, wanting to get away from her mom at times because her mother, going back to your question, Hari, I mean, Chanel was born right as the crack epidemic was taking hold of inner-city America. And I think it’s important to know that it wasn’t just that these communities found themselves taken up by addiction or derailed by the addiction to this drug, it was that this drug created an alternate economy for a community that had lost jobs because of the industrialization that industry had pulled out of the cities and left a lot of people out of work. And s, Chanel was growing up in this fascinating and heartbreaking world where people were addicted, including her mother, but people were also finding ways to survive through this drug. And she herself got caught up in that early on and she was a dealer and she was also somebody who fell to the addiction. But she beat it for a while, got married, and had — created a family. And Dasani was, in many ways, her right hand. You know, they created this family as a part of a plan. It wasn’t a plan that panned out as they wanted it to. You could argue they were very naive in those early days to think they were going to beat a lot of the problems, including their own addiction, that had held them back. But the family wasn’t even really about them. The family was about their kids. It was about creating an army of siblings, that they themselves did not have because both Chanel and Supreme had come from broken homes. They didn’t want the street to become their kids’ family as it had for them. This is what they always said, the street became our family. Gangs. People on the street who call you brother or sister but who aren’t really your brother or sister. And so, this was about creating a system of survival for Dasani and all of her siblings. And in that sense, they succeeded because there was nothing stronger in her life, more affirming than that bond that she had with her siblings, and it’s what got her through the day.

SREENIVASAN: So, give me an example of some ways Dasani was parentified or adultified. I mean, were there moments where there was tension between the mother and the daughter because the daughter felt like well, I’m picking up some slack, I’m a parent too?

ELLIOTT: There was a lot of tension and a lot of love. Both things were true about their relationship and about this family. Dasani could change diapers before she was in kindergarten. She was the kid in the family who went to fetch the bottle for the baby when she was in the fifth grade every morning before the sun was up. By the time she showed up for school, often late and usually having missed the curfew for breakfast, many other kids had slept that time, she had been working for hours. So, she was a kid who was just constantly on. She had to work at home, work in school. She had very little rest. She didn’t see it that way. She just saw this as her life. It wasn’t good or bad. It was just her reality. She did start to feel, as she came of age, that certain opportunities should be hers and weren’t because she was being kept home at times to do child care instead of being in school. And this, ultimately, came to the attention of child protection and they monitored the family pretty closely throughout the time that I was with this family. So, it wasn’t a secret to anyone and this is typical among poor families that everyone sorts of pitches in because just the act of survival requires so much work. I think people have this perception that the poor don’t want to work, especially those who are chronically unemployed. And what I found, one of the many things I found that was fascinating about this family is how much their story kind of just flew in the face of those popular concepts. For example. The poor, the deeply poor, I found were always working. They were always working. It’s just not the kind of work that we recognize in the formal labor market as work.

SREENIVASAN: Knowing that, there is a portion of the book where she gets a tremendous opportunity to go to a boarding school in Pennsylvania. And what does that do to Dasani and what does that do to the family that’s so close knit?

ELLIOTT: This was the most stunning event in Dasani’s life, was this opportunity she got to go to the Hershey School, this boarding school that paid for everything. And its entire purpose was to lift children out of poverty. So, the 2,000 children who are there from ages four to 18 and beyond actually, are children who have left poor backgrounds and find themselves living in this almost utopic existence where they have a suburban looking home and a real married couple as their house parents. And they get to have braces and learn to swim and they learn to drive and they get a full wardrobe and tutoring and piano and ballet. All the things that middle class Americans enjoy became Dasani’s reality. And it was an irresistible opportunity for her. She was 13 when she went to Hershey School. She felt that it was going to change her life. And it did, but not in the way she or I could have ever guessed. One major way it changed her life, first and foremost, was that by leaving her family, they found life without Dasani very difficult. And in her absence, things went wrong. Her mother struggled more. Her father struggled more. Her little brother, Papa, ran away five days after she left because he had some kind of fantasy. He was seven years old at the time, that he would also be rescued by a benefactor, and that one event then set into motion a child protection investigation that resulted 10 months later in the children being removed from their parents. And they were removed because of poverty-related problems. And so, in her absence, her siblings went into foster care, and that derailed Dasani. Up until then, she was pretty much thriving. She took off at Hershey. She jumped forward two grade levels in math and she joined the track team and she became cheerleader, but felt so torn when her siblings were suffering in foster care. She had tremendous survivor’s guilt and she wound up getting kicked out just to get back to them.

SREENIVASAN: You know, one statistic that leapt out at me from your writing is over half of all black children in America are subjected to at least one child protection probe before turning 18. They’re 2.4 times more likely than whites to be permanently separated from their parents entering a foster care population of more than 427,000 children nationally. That is just stunning to me that — and you explore in great detail the amount of resources that, as a city, state, federal level, we are currently spending on the foster care system versus preventing children from entering that system in the first place.

ELLIOTT: That’s right. The federal government spends 10 times as much on programs that separate families, the vast majority of whom are families of color than on programs that would keep them together. Dasani’s family experienced both programs. At first, they were in a prevention program that was supposed to prevent that from happening. And that program failed to help her stepfather who was desperately in need of basic things like getting the electricity put back on, getting his food stamps reinstated because of a bureaucratic lapse. These were phone calls that he needed help with and they didn’t happen. Then his kids and Chanel’s kids, all eight of them, including Dasani, though she was at boarding school, were placed in the foster care system. That’s a system that wound up spending $33,000 a month on just this family, which is about $400,000 a year. So, they went from massive poverty with very few supports in place to a system that spends so much money on them by separating them from their parents and putting them in these other homes. And if you just took a fraction of that amount of money and put it towards keeping the family together, I do think you would see better outcomes for her siblings. They suffered in ways that were irreversible, having gone into foster care. And I think that the message inherent in that is that poverty is a crime. And these families are disproportionately families of color and they are disproportionately situations where they are facing neglect accusations, not abuse accusations. The year that Dasani’s were removed, 2015, 7 percent of cases in New York City involved abuse charges, 7, 93 percent were neglect. And so — and the vast majority again were families of color. So, when you look at that, it’s impossible to see this as a neutral system or as a system that — it calls itself a child protection or the child welfare system, but there’s a growing movement now that wants to reframe the language around this system as a family policing system, as a system that punishes parents of color and parents who are in poverty.

SREENIVASAN: So, I’ve got to ask, not as a spoiler for the book, but where are they now? Where’s Dasani? Where is her mom?

ELLIOTT: They have been reunited after a long court battle. And they are living in a rental in the Bronx. And I would say they’re on an upswing. They are both working for UPS. And Dasani became the first person in her immediate family to graduate high school and she’s not in community college. She’s studying to be a business person. And she’s just feeling really hopeful about her life. I think that her version of success is thriving in her own setting. And she wants to be the person who decides what success looks like and should feel like not others. She wants to both stay close to her family while also hitting milestones that no one else has. And so far, she’s doing it.