Photograph by Ruth Fremson/The New York Times.
“Dasani can pick out the inspectors by their clipboards and focused expressions,” Andrea Elliott writes in a five-part series in the Times, in which she follows Dasani, an eleven-year old Brooklyn girl who, when they meet, has been living in the Auburn Family Residence, a homeless shelter, for almost three years. The inspectors, from the city and state, saw much of what Elliott did, and what Dasani had become used to. Auburn, in Fort Greene, has been cited for more than four hundred violations in the past decade—“unheeded alarms,” Elliott writes, and not for casual things: “inadequate child care, faulty fire protection, insufficient heat, spoiled food, broken elevators, nonfunctioning bathrooms and the presence of mice, roaches, mold, bedbugs, lead and asbestos.” Some of those mice were in Dasani’s room, which she shared with eight other people. It’s not a home, unless that’s just somewhere with a roof.
Then there were the written complaints about Auburn that didn’t go further: children said they were molested, but the police were never called. Or their mothers were groped, or a man exposed himself to them in the bathroom they had to share.
How can any child live in a place supervised by the city of New York, partly paid for by the state, without having proper plumbing, food, heating? How can she not be safe, in any sense, when she’s left in a place with security guards against whom there are unheeded reports of sexual assault, and where the air itself isn’t safe to breathe? The Times piece shows not only how wrenching but how unhealthy it can be to be a poor child in the richest city in the world, and the assault that poverty stages on small bodies. Two of Dasani’s siblings have asthma, a disease that, a 2012 study showed, is strongly associated with income level in New York. It can’t have helped to be living in a room where the walls, an inspection found, were covered with black mold.
There are a lot of things that aren’t helping Dasani, as the series makes clear. Among them are her parents’ drug addictions. (She lives with her mother and stepfather, along with one full, two step- and four half-siblings. She is the oldest child, and much of the care for the youngest seems to fall to her.) Her mother named her after the bottled water, which struck her as aspirational. She tells Dasani to fight in school—where she had been on the honor roll and where her teachers seem to sense that she is a remarkable child who, in better circumstances, might do exceptional things. As it is, the hope seems to be that she might get a toehold, or just survive.
There are more than twenty-two thousand homeless children in New York City. As Ian Frazier wrote in The New Yorker last month, according to the Coalition for the Homeless, “during Bloomberg’s twelve years the number of homeless families went up by seventy-three per cent. One child out of every hundred children in the city is homeless.” They aren’t as obvious on the street. They are in city waiting rooms at intake centers, or in the halls at places like Auburn. How one feels about their parents’ choices is not, ultimately, as interesting as the kind of futures we want them to have, and the kind of city they can help make. Frazier’s piece addresses one of the questions Elliott raises: why has homelessness increased under the Bloomberg Administration? The answer has much to do with our otherwise circumspect mayor’s misunderstanding of the incentives driving homeless families and, one must say, something like a tragic lack of outrage.
What changes the life of someone like Dasani, who doesn’t deserve the troubles she’s been given? There are hints, throughout Elliott’s series, that something does change, and that the girl will not be living at the end in the place we saw her in the beginning. Reading it, one waits for the bureaucratic wheels to turn, or a relative to intervene, or just some luck. But the one thing that makes a difference turns out to be an alarm early one morning, in another room at Auburn, when a single mother named Aisha sees that “her three-month old daughter, Casshanae, has turned blue,” and begins to scream.
The agency that runs Auburn knew that Casshanae “was born premature with respiratory distress syndrome and developed feeding problems”; that the hospital’s social worker thought she should be in a better-equipped shelter; that Aisha said the crib she was given was damaged and that the sheets didn’t fit; and, incidentally, that Aisha had filed a complaint that another resident had sexually assaulted her. She was still at Auburn when Casshanae stopped breathing. “None of the staff members try to resuscitate the baby, even though they are certified in CPR,” Elliott writes. She is declared dead at a Brooklyn hospital.
“Dasani tries not to think about the dead baby,” Elliott writes. But in the wake of her death, there is a sudden flurry of crib-safety notices; there are more inspectors, and some better food: “During one visit, inspectors see an asthmatic three-year-old child coughing and vomiting so much that 911 is called.” And then there is a report that Elliott describes as “a devastating litany of violations,” one that, because of Casshanae, actually seems to be read. The shelter does not even have a certificate of occupancy; in addition to the bad food and filth and black mold, there are serious fire-safety violations; it’s a trap in more ways than one. The state concludes that Auburn is not an appropriate place for babies or sick children to be housed. Dasani’s family, along with several others, are given a few hours to leave Fort Greene; they are sent, for the moment, to a spot in a better shelter, in Harlem.
Reading about Casshanae’s death, another passage came to mind, one from the novel “Jane Eyre,” a book published in 1847:
When the typhus fever had fulfilled its mission of devastation at Lowood, it gradually disappeared from thence; but not till its virulence and the number of its victims had drawn public attention on the school. Inquiry was made into the origin of the scourge, and by degrees various facts came out which excited public indignation in a high degree. The unhealthy nature of the site; the quantity and quality of the children’s food; the brackish, fetid water used in its preparation; the pupils’ wretched clothing and accommodations—all these things were discovered, and the discovery produced a result mortifying to Mr. Brocklehurst, but beneficial to the institution.
Charlotte Brontë based her description of Lowood, where Jane is sent as a child, on a school she attended, and where her sister fell ill; she later died. Film adaptations of “Jane Eyre” often show the horrors of Lowood, while skipping over the way the changed, post-epidemic school saves Jane—who, like Dasani, is passionate, and small. There are many discoveries that are mortifying, to mayors or to cities; the hard part is the beneficial results. But we are not in the Victorian era any more. Why does it take the death of a baby to bring about change in the life of a girl who, with some help, might be as at home in this city as anyone?