The captivating debut of Andrea Elliott, Invisible child: poverty, survival and hope in an American city, is sure to linger in the minds of many readers long after the last page has been turned.
The book tackles poverty, homelessness, racism, drug addiction, hunger and more as they shape the lives of a remarkable girl and her family. The invisible child of the title is Dasani Coates. We meet Dasani in 2012, when she is eleven years old and living with her parents, Chanel and Supreme, and seven siblings in one of New York City’s shelters for homeless families. At the time, Elliott was considering what would become a five-part series starring Dasani in The New York Times. The Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist ultimately follows Dasani and his family for an eight-year period, recounting an awe-inspiring array of heartbreaking tragedies and remarkable triumphs.
Elliott meets the family of ten at the Auburn Family Residence, a “city-run homeless shelter where the heat is off and food is wasted” and where the family has resided for over two years, recorded in a 520 square feet of land. . room. The cafeteria only has two microwaves, but sometimes queuing for an hour to use one is one of the shelter’s least problems. In the previous decade, Auburn had been cited more than 400 times for offenses ranging from broken elevators and faulty fire alarms to non-working bathrooms, sexual misconduct by staff and childcare services. inadequate children, writes Elliott. In 2013 alone, more than 350 911 calls were made from Auburn, with residents making “twenty-four reports of assault, four reports of child abuse and one report of rape.” It is not surprising that the building is closed to the public and the press. The Coates family documents the conditions of the shelters with video cameras provided by Elliott, revealing “images of mice, cockroaches and mold on the walls.”
Yet in this context, and despite the mockery of the school’s students when they find out about his homelessness, Dasani still shines. A school counselor describes Dasani’s intelligence as “supernatural” and notes that his “thought content far exceeds that of his peers his age.” His college principal, Elliott notes, had “seen many children in distress, but few [had] both the depth of Dasani’s troubles and the height of his promise. Also gifted at sports, Dasani excels in gymnastics and athletics. , she has access to many resources that she lacked for much of her life: consistent and healthy meals, a complete wardrobe, the absence of poverty. However, what she has lost is the daily interaction with her family.
This absence is significant because, despite all their struggles, the Coates are a surprisingly tight-knit family whose love for one another is evident. Dasani and her mother are so close that “feelings flowed between them like oxygen,” and Dasani says of her parents: “When they are happy, I am happy. When they are sad, I am sad. That is. like I’m having a connection, like I’m glued to them like glue. ” The challenges of poverty and drug addiction mean that Chanel and Supreme are often unable to fully meet the needs of their children. This is where Dasani traditionally came in, playing the role of surrogate for her seven siblings for much of her childhood.
While the book is largely the story of Dasani, a protagonist readers can’t help but encourage, Elliott uses his story and that of his family to examine the many people who find themselves in similar circumstances. impossible. They are members of an “invisible tribe of more than 22,000 homeless children – the highest number on record, in America’s most unequal metropolis.” Elliott details both how the various systems that trap Dasani and her family – from homeless services to public assistance to child assistance – came about and how they evolved, noting that ” America’s social welfare system were overwhelmingly white. In 1931, of the 93,000 families who received these cash benefits, only 3 percent were black. “
These forays into history also follow Dasani’s ancestors, including his great-grandfather, June, who moved from North Carolina to Brooklyn after serving in World War II, only to find himself unable to find a a job as a mechanic at a time “when 94% of the profession was white.” This despite the fact that he “repaired military vehicles under Nazi fire”. Her granddaughter was born in Fort Greene in 2001, barely two years before Mayor Michael Bloomberg decided to “remake” his community. Once “the beating heart of this Gasoline magazine called Brooklyn’s ‘Black Mecca’, “Bloomberg’s incentives resulted in” developers [breaking] over nineteen luxury buildings in Fort Greene, all within three years, ”writes Elliott. Black-owned businesses in Fort Greene have closed. “The number of homeless families increased by 80% during Bloomberg’s tenure as mayor. Dasani’s birthplace would eventually become” one of the pockets of the city. more unequal in the city, “where the richest 5% earn 76 times the income of the poorest 20%, Elliott notes.
Such schisms appear again and again in Invisible child, highlighting Elliot’s assertion that “To know Dasani Joanie-Lashawn Coates … is to reckon with New York’s history and, beyond its borders, with America itself”. Yet the book’s reservoir of hope never runs out, thanks in large part to the resilience of Dasani and his family. What could easily have been, in lesser hands, voyeuristic or sensational is rather a rich story, told with empathy. Elliott is a masterful storyteller, and by sharing Dasani’s story, she calls on us all to dismantle the systems that have so often failed her and countless others.
Ericka Taylor is the popular education manager for Take on Wall Street and a freelance writer. His work appeared in Bloom, the millions, and Willow Springs.