My first foray into social services was as a night volunteer in a homeless shelter. I particularly remember one bright and vivacious 12-year-old girl. The two of us sometimes talked during dinner. As we talked, her little brother would buzz around us, using language and gestures more suited to the Navy than to his preschool. Her parents were puzzlingly limited. I would sometimes help them with simple tasks such as assembling their children’s Christmas toys. They angered easily, with predictable results. In the middle of all this family chaos was this calm and resilient young girl. She made me a fantastic playful picture depicting a punked-out teenager with multiple piercings. I had no idea how to help her.
I thought about her as I read the initial installments of Andrea Elliott’s amazing, heartbreaking New York Times profile of another middle-schooler named Dasani, who lives in a homeless shelter called Auburn Family Residence, in Brooklyn’s Fort Greene section. Dasani shares a 520-square-foot room with her parents and her seven siblings. She’s one of 280 children in this huge and forbidding structure. I don’t know that we’re sure how to help her, either.
Homelessness raises many issues that don’t fit cleanly into the grooves of any political parable. Their lives – and their problems -- are complicated and particular.
Dasani’s story is often cited to symbolize New York’s glaring inequality and the shortage of affordable housing in the Big Apple. Fort Greene is one of New York’s most rapidly gentrifying communities. Dasani and her family regularly pass million-dollar row-houses, in streets where low-end groceries coexist with places offering $740 bottles of wines. In a time of unparalleled wealth, rents have been rising while the bottom has fallen out of the low-wage economy. Not coincidentally, the number of homeless New York children has swelled to 22,000. Dasani’s destitute mother, Chanel, and her step-father, Supreme, certainly can’t afford market-rate housing.
But I’m hard pressed to identify specific ways gentrification has actually worsened Dasani’s immediate predicament. Homeless kids in Detroit or East Saint Louis, Ill., are spared the indignities of gentrification. It’s not clear they are any better off for that. My own brushes with Chicago’s homeless services in decidedly non-gentrified locales haven’t inspired much confidence either.
With equal justice, this story might be told as an account of the ways that troubled parents damage the lives of their children. The adults in Dasani’s life face a myriad of challenges involving substance abuse and various scrapes with the law. Chanel and Supreme are overwhelmed. They’ve have way too many children with each other and with others. They seem inches away from losing their children, miles away from being able to hold a job or being able to manage daily parenting challenges.
Supreme sells pirated DVDs on the street. He loses a critical tax refund to overdue child support. He rapidly depletes their monthly public assistance checks. Chanel commits petty thefts. In full view of her children, she picks fistfights with disrespectful strangers. She encourages her own daughter to do the same. It’s heartbreaking but unsurprising to see Dasani replicate her mother’s truculent stance, endangering her one way out by earning suspension from school.
This is also a story of apparent incompetence and mismanagement that allows the facilities at Auburn Family Residence to be so substandard:
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….
[P]repackaged meals are served in a cafeteria where Dasani and her siblings wait in one line for their food before heading to another line to heat it in one of two microwaves that hundreds of residents share. Tempers fly and fights explode. The routine can last more than an hour before the children take their first bite.
This is baffling and infuriating. To be sure, many services are under-funded in New York and elsewhere. But let’s be clear: New York City spends $800 million on its homeless shelters. How difficult is it to install six more microwave ovens? How can a facility that houses hundreds of people apparently fall so far below reasonable physical standards?
Auburn’s physical challenges pale in comparison with the pathological social environment with which Dasani must contend. There were troubling cases of staff misconduct. The basic lack of security and professionalism were equally toxic. One bureaucratic episode led to the family being “logged out” of the Auburn facility:
That evening, tired and hungry, [Dasani’s family] returned to their room. It looked ransacked. Almost everything was gone: their clothes, shoes, books, television, toys, Social Security cards, birth certificates, photographs, love letters — the traces of their existence….
Chanel raced down to the security guards, Dasani chasing after her.
“Where are my mother’s ashes?” she screamed. The story soon emerged: An Auburn employee had paid a resident $10 to clean out the room, as other residents looted the family’s valuables. Everything else was tossed in the garbage.
Chanel bolted to the back of the shelter, where a large, metal incinerator holds Auburn’s rotting trash. She waded in, the garbage reaching her waist. She searched frantically. This could not be Joanie’s final resting place, she kept telling herself.
The ashes were gone. The accompanying crisis set in motion a tragic series of events and decisions that led to Chanel’s arrest for apparently trying to sell drugs to an undercover officer.
Not surprisingly, New York’s Administration for Children’s Services is feared and resented by many families. Elliot writes that the initials ACS “are uttered with the same kind of alarm that the C.I.A. can stoke overseas.”
But what about the perspective of the child welfare professionals charged with the responsibility to support and monitor this family? These men and women includes graduates of programs such as the one in which I teach. What would you do in their place, given the imperfect options? How would you stay grounded and caring if you were forced to bear witness, day after day, to the misfortunes, self-sabotage, and tragedy recounted in this series? Dasani and her siblings might have benefited from some different residential arrangement. Yet they love their parents. And an out-of-home placement is hard to execute without separating siblings who love and depend upon each other.
I study the lives of many men and women who spend much of their lives being labeled as patients or as clients in helping systems. One immediately knows which is which. If you present with tuberculosis or AIDS at the grittiest public health clinic in big-city America, you are likely to receive technically proficient care. Patients generally receive respectful and professional services in relatively well-resourced environments. Too often, if you walk down the street to the closest social service agency or homeless shelter, you will have a very different experience. Clients are treated less respectfully, in a less supported, less professional environment, and thus receive less effective help.
No one should claim with any confidence that we could have prevented or can solve the myriad problems that beset Dasani and her family. Some of their problems may not be fixable. But there are things we know we can do. We know Dasani could at least go to sleep in a clean and safe place where her family is secure from strangers’ intrusions or predations. So we should at least do that.
Harold Pollack is the Helen Ross professor at the School of Social Service Administration and co-director of the Crime Lab at the University of Chicago. He is a nonresident fellow of the Century Foundation.