QuoteReplyTopic: Dasani: A homeless 11 year old Posted: Dec 13 2013 at 11:37pm
he wakes to the sound of breathing. The smaller children lie tangled beside her, their chests rising and falling under winter coats and wool blankets. A few feet away, their mother and father sleep near the mop bucket they use as a toilet. Two other children share a mattress by the rotting wall where the mice live, opposite the baby, whose crib is warmed by a hair dryer perched on a milk crate.
Slipping out from her covers, the oldest girl sits at the window. On mornings like this, she can see all the way across Brooklyn to the Empire State Building, the first New York skyscraper to reach 100 floors. Her gaze always stops at that iconic temple of stone, its tip pointed celestially, its facade lit with promise.
“It makes me feel like there’s something going on out there,” says the 11-year-old girl, never one for patience. This child of New York is always running before she walks. She likes being first — the first to be born, the first to go to school, the first to make the honor roll.
Even her name, Dasani, speaks of a certain reach. The bottled water had come to Brooklyn’s bodegas just before she was born, catching the fancy of her mother, who could not afford such indulgences. It hinted at a different, upwardly mobile clientele, a set of newcomers who over the next decade would transform the borough.
Dasani’s own neighborhood, Fort Greene, is now one of gentrification’s gems. Her family lives in the Auburn Family Residence, a decrepit city-run shelter for the homeless. It is a place where mold creeps up walls and roaches swarm, where feces and vomit plug communal toilets, where sexual predators have roamed and small children stand guard for their single mothers outside filthy showers.
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.
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.
There's more it's a long read, Im not going to post all of it but it's a good read here.
Today, Dasani rides the creaky elevator to the lobby and walks past the guards, the metal detector and the tall, iron fence that envelops what she calls “the jail.” She steps into the light, and is met by the worn brick facade of the Walt Whitman projects across the street.
“Black is beautiful, black is me,” she sings under her breath as her mother trails behind.
This bodes poorly for the future. Decades of research have shown the staggering societal costs of children in poverty. They grow up with less education and lower earning power. They are more likely to have drug addiction, psychological trauma and disease, or wind up in prison.
Dasani does not need the proof of abstract research. All of these plights run through her family. Her future is further threatened by the fact of her homelessness, which has been shown, even in short spells, to bring disastrous consequences.
Dasani’s circumstances are largely the outcome of parental dysfunction. While nearly one-third of New York’s homeless children are supported by a working adult, her mother and father are unemployed, have a history of arrests and are battling drug addiction.
Yet Dasani’s trials are not solely of her parents’ making. They are also the result of decisions made a world away, in the marble confines of City Hall. 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 tells herself that brand names don’t matter. She knows such yearnings will go unanswered, so better not to have them. But once in a while, when by some miracle her mother produces a new pair of Michael Jordan sneakers, Dasani finds herself succumbing to the same exercise: She wears them sparingly, and only indoors, hoping to keep them spotless. It never works.
Best to try to blend in, she tells herself, while not caring when you don’t.
She likes being small because “I can slip through things.” In the blur of her city’s crowded streets, she is just another face. What people do not see is a homeless girl whose mother succumbed to crack more than once, whose father went to prison for selling drugs, and whose cousins and aunts have become the anonymous casualties of gang shootings, AIDS and domestic violence.
“That’s not gonna be me,” she says. “Nuh-uh. Nope.”
Dasani speaks with certainty. She often begins a sentence with “Mommy say” before reciting, verbatim, some new bit of learned wisdom, such as “camomile tea cures a bad stomach” or “that lady is a dope fiend.” She likes facts. She rarely wavers, or hints at doubt, even as her life is consumed by it.
In 1985, the city repurposed the former hospital into a shelter for families. This was the dawn of the period known as “modern homelessness,” driven by wage stagnation, Reagan-era cutbacks and the rising cost of homes. By the time Mayor Bloomberg took office in 2002, New York’s homeless population had reached 31,063 — a record for the city, which is legally obligated to provide shelter.
Among the city’s 152 family shelters, Auburn became known as a place of last resort, a dreaded destination for the chronically homeless.
City and state inspectors have repeatedly cited the shelter for deplorable conditions, including sexual misconduct by staff members, spoiled food, asbestos exposure, lead paint and vermin. Auburn has no certificate of occupancy, as required by law, and lacks an operational plan that meets state regulations. Most of the shelter’s smoke detectors and alarms have been found to be inoperable.
McKinney is a poor-kids’ version of LaGuardia Arts, the elite Manhattan public school that inspired the television series “Fame.” Threadbare curtains adorn its theater. Stage props are salvaged from a nearby trash bin. Dance class is so crowded that students practice in intervals.
And now, a charter school is angling to move in. If successful, it will eventually claim McKinney’s treasured top floor, home to its theater class, dance studio and art lab. Teachers and parents are bracing for battle, announced by fliers warning against the “apartheid” effects of a charter co-location.
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.
If there is one place she feels free, it is dance class. When she walks into McKinney’s studio, and the music starts, her body releases whatever she is feeling.
“When I’m happy I dance fast,” she says. “When I’m sad I dance slow. When I’m upset I dance both.”
At McKinney, Dasani quickly draws the notice of the older students, and not because she is short, though the nickname “Shorty” sticks. It is her electricity. When they dote on her, she giggles. But say the wrong thing and she turns fierce, letting the four-letter words fly.
It is still September when Dasani’s temper lands her in the principal’s office.
“Please don’t call my mother,” Dasani whispers.
Miss Holmes is seated in a rolling pleather chair held together by duct tape. She stares at the anguished girl. She has been at McKinney long enough to know when a child’s transgressions at school might bring a beating at home.
The principal slowly scoots her chair up to Dasani and leans within inches of her face.
“O.K.,” she says softly. “Let’s make a deal.”
From that day forward, Dasani will be on her best behavior. In turn, Miss Holmes will keep what happens at school in school.
With that, she waves Dasani off, fighting the urge to smile. She can’t help but like this feisty little girl.
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.”
A starkly different Auburn — the one to which Dasani is witness — emerges from stacks of handwritten complaints, calls to 911, internal staff reports and dozens of inspections over the last decade. It is less a haven than a purgatory.
There is the 12-year-old boy who writes, on Oct. 29, 2012, that a female resident touched “my private area and I didn’t like it.” His mother also files a complaint, saying the woman was showing pornography to children.
The police are never notified.
Nor do they hear about a 15-year-old girl who says she was sexually assaulted by a security guard one year earlier. The complaint, written by her mother in Spanish, never appears to have been translated. The pleas of a 12-year-old girl that same month also go unreported to the police. She writes of a man who exposes his genitals in a girls’ bathroom, making her too afraid to go back without a parent: “I am still scared that someone will come in.”
Auburn’s children have yet to assume their parents’ air of defeat. The children’s complaints recount their fear or discomfort as reason enough for action. The adults write as if no one is listening.
Like most children, Dasani absorbs more than her mother would like. She can see how the shelter shrinks Chanel’s self-regard. Dasani is there when the guards rip through her mother’s carefully folded laundry in the name of “inspection,” or when a caseworker dresses her down like a cheeky adolescent. “Sometimes it feels like, ‘Why you guys messin’ with my mom?’”
Chanel is not the first woman to encounter sexual advances by an Auburn employee. Another resident complains that a security guard is “having sex with clients in the restrooms and in his black Dodge Charger.” A 2012 letter by state inspectors to the Department of Homeless Services mentions a security supervisor and guards having “improper sexual contact” with a resident.
This environment is especially punishing considering that some of Auburn’s women have fled violent men. After a caseworker touched his 46-year-old client on the breast in February 2012, another male employee smiled at her the next day and asked “if I was being good,” she wrote in a complaint, adding, “I walk around every day feeling violated.”
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