Dignity in a city
that tests it daily

Andrea Elliott's book about a New York family reveals how the racism endured by their ancestors laid the foundations of their poverty today

Hero image

Dasani Coates was 11 when she cartwheeled into Pulitzer Prize-winning  journalist Andrea Elliott’s life.

The 11 year old was living with her mother Chanel, stepfather Supreme, her closest sister Avianna, and six other siblings in one room riddled with damp, mould and vermin. She was small for her age but her eyes were luminous and watched everything.

Dasani struck me as a quintessential New York City kid – alert, curious, tough, creative, stubborn, but also adaptable

This was the start of nine years of reporting for Elliott – first for the New York Times, in a series of articles that captured the hearts of readers, and now in a book, Invisible Child: Poverty Hope and Survival in New York City. The captivating and moving story follows Dasani and her family through various forms of precarious accommodation and struggles with government agencies and courts as the family battle against seemingly insurmountable odds to stay together.

Born at the turn of a new century, Dasani was named after the bottled water that caught Chanel’s eye and struck her as classy, but which also came to symbolise Brooklyn’s extreme gentrification. Elliott demonstrates how this shift in the city’s cultural landscape is the latest in a long history of mechanisms used to disempower African Americans, and traces Dasani’s ancestors back to slavery and the Great Migration north to illustrate this.

At age 13 Dasani’s position almost as poster girl for poverty arguably helps her secure a place at a prestigious boarding school for disadvantaged children, founded by chocolatier Milton Hershey, who himself grew up poor. But leaving poverty also means abandoning the family she loves and it quickly becomes apparent that Dasani is the connective tissue keeping her family together.

Invisible Child is a heartbreaking and compelling read that sadly symbolises so much of what America has come to represent. But it is also one of family, resilience and hope – and it won Andrea Elliott a second Pulitzer Prize.

How did you first meet Dasani and why did she in particular capture your attention?

I was standing outside a homeless shelter in Brooklyn, reporting for he New York Times, when I met Dasani and her family in October 2012. I was looking for a way to write about child poverty because one in five American children was growing up poor – the highest child poverty rate of any wealthy nation. And that year alone, there were more than 22,000 homeless children in New York’s shelters.

I’ll never forget the moment I saw them. Dasani’s mother, Chanel, was walking like a drill sergeant with her children right behind her. That image has stayed with me – how united they looked, how powerful in their togetherness. They derived so much strength from that family bond. It helped preserve their dignity in a city that tested it every day.

Dasani struck me as a quintessential New York City kid – alert, curious, tough, creative, stubborn, but also adaptable. She embodied many of the things that make this city great. So in that way, she was like a lot of kids I had interviewed. What set Dasani apart was how closely she observed and articulated – in a profound and moving way – what was happening in her own life. That’s a rare trait, even in adults.

Is the gentrification of Dasani’s birthplace Fort Greene particularly poignant because of its Black pioneering history?

Any gentrifying neighbourhood faces a transformation that can feel, to longtime residents, like a form of historical erasure. But this was especially the case in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, where luxury townhouses are now selling for millions to a predominantly white clientele in the very neighbourhood that was once a beacon of Black power.

The agencies that Chanel and Supreme come into contact with place a lot of emphasis on personal responsibility but the long history of systemic racism you trace through their family histories illustrates how the odds were stacked against them. What were some of the key moments in those histories that had an impact on the Coates’ lives and do you think there’s still an element of personal responsibility to be taken?

It is easier to take the position that the poor are to blame for their lives than to reckon with the impossible conditions that they and their children have inherited – segregated schools, polluted neighbourhoods, inadequate housing and healthcare. It’s also easier to see homelessness as a current plight, brought on by irresponsible behaviour, rather than as the outgrowth of a long and complex history shaped by government systems and policies.

I think Dasani’s family history shows how the past informs the present – how the racism endured by her great-grandfather, a WW2 veteran, laid the foundations of her poverty today. Can personal responsibility be discounted? Of course not. But what I find is often missing from the conversation is how to measure personal responsibility. A homeless mother struggling to feed her children while making her welfare appointments while searching for a job while trying to avoid illness is, arguably, showing more self-reliance than some educated, well-off people could ever muster.

How were places like the Auburn shelter – riddled with damp, mould, vermin – where Dasani’s family shared one room allowed to exist in New York and do they still exist now?

Auburn was one of the worst shelters in New York’s history but there are plenty of shelters with substandard conditions. These problems persist because the homeless can rarely advocate for themselves and are hidden from popular discourse. It’s also true that the bureaucracy overseeing New York’s shelters has historically taken the position that shelter should never be too comfortable. They are meant to be temporary, even as the problem of homelessness is seemingly permanent.

Despite the brutal lives the Coates family lead, how is New York a better option for homeless families than other states?

New York has a stronger safety net than most states and also provides a right to shelter, which means that if you can prove you have nowhere to live, the state must give you and your family temporary housing, even if it means putting you in a hotel.

The Milton Hershey School is an anomaly – a private philanthropic school for children with complex home lives that supports them from pre-kindergarten until high school graduation and even pays for college tuition. Do you think it’s a good model and are there any aspects of it that state education could draw on?

The Hershey model works for plenty of children, especially if they arrive to the programme when they are very young. They learn to speak, dress and act like their new “house parents” and to have a predictable routine, with wraparound services and enrichment like tutors and ballet classes.

Older children have a harder time adjusting because, by the time they enrol, they have formed lasting bonds with their families of origin. It becomes harder to disconnect, and their loyalties are tested in ways that can set them back. The child I wrote about was 13 when she came to Hershey. In some ways she thrived, but she felt like she was betraying her family by leaving them behind. Ultimately, I believe that children should not have to leave home to leave poverty.

You recently spent more than two weeks in the UK. Do you see the same problems with poverty, housing and homelessness here as in the US?

There is a stronger safety net in the UK and greater public discourse about the cost-of-living crisis. The United States is a much larger country, both in population and geography, so it’s hard to draw neat comparisons but I see some clear parallels: increasingly middle-class families cannot make ends meet, both countries suffer from a shortage of affordable housing and homelessness is on the rise.

Do you see homelessness in the US increasing or decreasing?

It is hard to imagine homelessness declining anytime soon. Just this week, in New York City, the homeless population has skyrocketed to an unprecedented number, with more than 70,000 people in the city’s main shelter system. Some cities have tried innovative approaches and are bucking the trend. In Houston, Texas, for example, the number of homeless people has dropped by more than half as programmes have successfully moved people into permanent housing. But nationally we have a long way to go.

Hope is built into the subtitle of your book and it’s a word we have heard a lot in recent years, especially around Covid-19 and climate change. But is the need for hope meaningful when it takes action from people in power to actually change systems?

I believe that hope is the driver of change. And change happens in myriad forms, from grassroots activism to the highest level of policy making. If journalists believed that people in positions of power were beyond reach, our work would feel futile.

How did you keep journalistic distance and not intervene in the Coates’ lives? Do you think your presence in their lives changed their story, both in the eight year period documented in Invisible Child and in the future?

I began this project as a Times reporter and wound up as “Drea”, the nickname given to me by Dasani’s family. It’s not that I ever stopped being a reporter or trying to honour the rules of my profession. But when you spend this much time with a family, there is no title that can capture all the dimensions of that relationship. I had a job as a reporter. I had a personal bond with the family. I just tried to create space, in my mind, for these two facts to coexist. But it’s a constant work in progress.

There are plenty of journalists and ethnographers who have had similar struggles, but I don’t think we talk about it enough. People expect us to arrive at some kind of moral clarity – a solution that safeguards our profession while keeping our humanity intact. I just don’t think it’s ever that simple. Our work is too complex, too unpredictable. If anything, I think the goal is to never stop wrestling with the dilemmas we confront, which I discuss in greater detail in the afterword.

Invisible Child: Poverty, Survival and Hope in New York City by Andrea Elliott is published by Penguin

If you liked this article, we think you’ll enjoy these:

Interact: Responses to Dignity in a city that tests it daily

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published.