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Invisible Child, Part 2: A Future Rests on a Fragile Foundation

Author: Andrea Elliott, Photographs by Ruth Fremson

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Gracie Mansion is something of an oddity. In a city with a 2 percent vacancy rate and a shortage of public housing, the mayoral residence sits uninhabited on 11 pristine acres of the Upper East Side. It has been more than a decade since Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg chose to remain in his opulent townhouse, consigning Gracie Mansion to the status of a museum and venue for civic events.

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Dasani knows none of these particulars when she steps through Gracie’s doors on a school trip in February. She is looking for the mayor. She wants to see him up close, this mysterious “Wizard of Oz” figure who makes decisions about her life from behind a curtain of political power.

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It never occurs to Dasani that the mayor does not live there. Who could have a mansion and not live in it?

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May 2
Abubakar Touray (May 02 2016 11:29AM) : I find this very true ! more

Its true because some people are rich and have many houses that they don’t even lay their heads on.And they see poor people outside and cant even help.

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“Look at that fireplace!” she marvels as her classmates step into the parlor where Mr. Bloomberg has given news conferences. The tour guide, a woman wearing gold-clasp earrings and tangerine lipstick, moves the children along, reminding them not to touch.

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They shuffle into the library. Still no mayor. Dasani scans for clues like the F.B.I. agents of her favorite television show, “Criminal Minds.” She inspects a telephone. “His last call was at 11:15,” she whispers.

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The tour guide opens French doors onto the veranda where New York’s mayors have entertained dignitaries from around the world. “It’s a very gracious way of living,” she says. “Very elegant.”

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What impresses Dasani most are not the architectural details or the gold-bound volumes of Chaucer and Tolstoy, but the astonishing lack of dust. She runs her hand lightly over the top of a Steinway piano.

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“I tell you,” she says. “This house is clean.”

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Dasani was still an infant when Mr. Bloomberg took office in 2002. Declaring Gracie Mansion “the people’s house,” he gathered $7 million in private donations — much of it his own money — to rehabilitate the pale yellow 18th-century home, which overlooks the East River. In came new plumbing, floors, lighting and ventilation, along with exquisite touches like an 1820s chandelier and a four-poster mahogany bed.

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Facing that same river, six miles away on the opposite side, is the Auburn Family Residence, the squalid city-run homeless shelter where Dasani has lived for more than two years.

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Mar 7
Anthony Ruiz (Mar 07 2016 9:34AM) : In this photo of dashia house it really shows their homeless lifestyle. more

what makes this important is shows you how there homeless with their living room full with crates,cleaning boodles,clothes on the floor, and dressers in the middle of the room.

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May 6
Abubakar Touray (May 06 2016 1:24PM) : Sad [Edited] more

I find this really sad because the government sees this and cant even help out , I mean look at the way they are living.

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She shares a crowded, mouse-infested room with her parents and seven siblings, who sleep doubled up on torn mattresses.

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Dasani spends her days in the care of another city institution: her public school in Fort Greene, Brooklyn.

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The Susan S. McKinney Secondary School of the Arts has suffered its own troubles under the Bloomberg administration: a shrinking budget and fewer teachers.

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Dasani shuttles between Auburn and McKinney, just two blocks apart. They form the core of her life and the bedrock of her future, one that is in peril.

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Adults who are homeless often speak of feeling “stuck.” For children, the experience is more like a free-fall. With each passing month, they slip further back in every category known to predict long-term well-being. They are less likely to graduate from the schools that anchor them, and more likely to end up like their parents, their lives circumscribed by teenage pregnancy or shortened by crime and illness.

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In the absence of a steady home or a reliable parent, public institutions have an outsize influence on the destiny of children like Dasani. Whether she can transcend her circumstances rests greatly on the role, however big or small, that society opts to play in her life.

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The question of public responsibility has gained urgency in recent decades. By the time Mr. Bloomberg was elected, children made up 40 percent of shelter residents.

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“We’re not walking away from taking care of the homeless,” the mayor said early on. “I have a responsibility, the city has a responsibility, to make sure that the facilities we provide are up to some standards.”

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The Bloomberg administration set out to revamp the shelter system, creating 7,500 units of temporary housing, a database to track the shelter population and a program intended to prevent homelessness with counseling, job training and short-term financial aid. The new system also made it harder for families to be found eligible for shelter.

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For a time, the numbers went down. But in the wake of profound policy changes and a spiraling economy, more children wound up in shelters than at any time since the creation of the shelter system in the early 1980s.

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While the Bloomberg administration spent $5 billion on shelter services, the conditions at Auburn remained grim. Dasani and her siblings have grown numb to life at the shelter, where knife fights break out and crack pipes are left on the bathroom floor. In the words of their mother, they have “become the place.” She has a verb for it: shelternized.

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For Dasani, school is everything — the provider of meals, on-the-spot nursing care, security and substitute parenting. On the Gracie trip, Dasani wears the Nautica coat donated by a school security guard and matching white gloves bestowed to her that morning by the principal.

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A school like McKinney can also provide a bridge to the wider world.

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It does not matter that Dasani’s entire sixth grade must walk a mile to the subway in icy winds, take two trains, then walk another 10 minutes before arriving. This round-trip journey, which occupies much of the day, is a welcome escape.

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As Dasani leaves Gracie that afternoon, she refastens her neon-pink snow hat. She has given up on the mayor.

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“He lives somewhere else,” she says, waving an arm along East End Avenue before heading back to the subway.

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There is no sign announcing the shelter at 39 Auburn Place, which rises over the neighboring Walt Whitman Houses like an accidental fortress. Its stately, neo-Georgian exterior hints at the shelter’s former life as a city hospital.

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The Auburn Family Residence in Brooklyn's Fort Greene neighborhood.

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Two sweeping sycamores shade the entrance, where smokers linger under brick arches, flicking cigarette ashes onto an empty, untended lawn. A concrete walkway leads to the heavily guarded front door, where residents pass through a metal detector and their bags are searched for forbidden objects like canned food, hair dryers and irons.

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Visitors are restricted to the bleak lobby. Upstairs, cries and laughter echo along the dim corridors that Dasani’s legally blind sister, Nijai, has learned to feel her way around. The shelter is ill equipped to handle the needs of its numerous disabled residents, among them premature infants and severely autistic children.

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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.”

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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.

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DOCUMENT

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A complaint submitted by a resident who says she was threatened in the bathroom.
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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.

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The police are never notified.

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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.”

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It stands to reason that the complaints of children would be ignored, given how often the warnings of inspectors go nowhere.

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Over the last decade, city and state inspectors have cited Auburn for more than 400 violations — many of them repeated — including for 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.

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Dasani can pick out the inspectors by their clipboards and focused expressions. They work for the State Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance, which supervises homeless housing around the state. Given that Auburn is partly funded by the state, these inspectors should presumably hold sway.

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Year after year, their reports read like a series of unheeded alarms. Responses by the city’s Department of Homeless Services attribute Auburn’s violations to a lack of money. To the state’s complaint, in 2003, that only one staff member is tending to 177 school-age children in the shelter’s recreation room, the agency responds: “We lack resources for teenagers!”

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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.

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Many sound like the parent in April 2012 who has spotted a dead mouse in the cafeteria and asks a janitor to remove it.

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The next day, the mouse is still there. “A child could have touched it,” the parent recounts telling the janitor, to which the janitor laughs and responds, “Well then you should have cleaned it up.”

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There is no place on the inspection forms for the most common complaint: the disrespect accorded to residents by the shelter staff. Were there such a box to check, it could never capture how these encounters reverberate for days, reinforcing the rock-bottom failure that Auburn represents.

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Even egregious incidents are sometimes mentioned in passing. One mother summarizes her grievance, at the top of the form, as “All of my belongs went in garbbage.” In explaining how her possessions were discarded, she mentions, tangentially, that her caseworker had “groped” her. She ends the complaint on a conciliatory note: “Peace.”

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The signature at the bottom belongs to Dasani’s mother, Chanel. After she filed the complaint in September 2011, the worker was taken off her case, but kept his job and recently got a raise. Chanel never told Dasani, for fear of passing on the shame she feels whenever she sees the man.

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Chanel in the family’s room, where violations cited by inspectors have included the presence of roaches, mice and a lead paint hazard.

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May 6
Abubakar Touray (May 06 2016 1:28PM) : Disturbing more

From looking at this picture i could tell that Chanel doesn’t like doing anything in their apartment.The rooms looks a mess , Why don’t she clean a little ?

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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?’”

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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.

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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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Auburn initially suspended the caseworker, Kenneth Durieux, for 30 days. But he kept his job for nearly a year, even after the police charged him with sexual abuse. He was dismissed last January, before pleading guilty to forcible touching.

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Just this year, there have been some 350 calls to 911 from the shelter — including 24 reported assaults, four calls about possible child abuse and one reporting a rape.

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City officials declined to comment on the reports of sexual abuse. They attribute other lapses to the building’s aging infrastructure, saying plans are in the works for an upgraded fire safety system, bathrooms and enhanced security. Since Mr. Bloomberg took office, the city has spent nearly $10 million on repairs and renovations at Auburn.

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In the past decade, Auburn’s directors have fared well, receiving raises even as the shelter’s problems persisted. One former director, Susan Nayowith, was promoted to head of client advocacy at the Department of Homeless Services.

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These kinds of facts are lost on the shelter’s children, who see only what is before them — like the Swedish meatballs that come frozen in prepackaged trays or the Cheerios served one night for dinner.

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And then there are the elevators, which frequently break down. Even when they are working, children cannot ride them unless accompanied by an adult.

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A month before the trip to Gracie Mansion, when Dasani’s sister Avianna walks into the shelter gasping from an asthma attack, a guard refuses to take her up in the elevator. Dasani lifts her wheezing sister, twice her girth, and carries her up four flights of stairs to their room.

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Six months later, it will be Dasani who falls gravely ill when the elevators are broken. She rocks and vomits bile one evening, trying to distract herself by watching television. At 3:02 a.m., Chanel calls 911.

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She helps Dasani down four sets of stairs before she collapses on a row of chairs in the lobby. There is no ambulance, so Chanel calls again. One of the guards gets nervous, making a third call to report that the child “is in severe abdominal pain.” Two more calls are placed.

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Mar 7
Anthony Ruiz (Mar 07 2016 12:40PM) : In this sentence something is wrong with Dasani. more

What i see in this sentence is that Chanel is helping dasani down some stairs before she collapse on a row of chairs in the lobby.

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At 4:02 a.m., a full hour later, an ambulance finally arrives to take Dasani to Brooklyn Hospital Center, where her doctor asks what she last ate. Her answer: a shelter dinner of spinach lasagna.

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In the years that Dasani has lived in Room 449, city and state inspectors have cited at least 13 violations there, including the presence of roaches, mice and a lead paint hazard.

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Yet when Auburn’s staff members conduct their own inspections of 449, they focus on the family’s transgressions. The room is found to be chaotic and insufficiently clean. There are few mentions of Auburn’s own lapses — the absence of dividers for privacy or assistance with permanent housing. Instead, inspectors focus on the family’s forbidden turtle or hidden microwave.

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Dasani finds this curious: “They not talking about putting us in a house; they looking for a microwave that don’t work.”

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Lately, it is the family’s sink, with its rotting wall and leaky pipe, that fails to get fixed. For weeks, the pipe drips through the night. Finally, Dasani is fed up. She crouches down and examines the pipe as her siblings watch. “Nobody thought about pushing it in and twisting it,” she says in her cocksure manner. A few quick jerks and she triumphs. The children squeal.

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It goes unremarked that here, in this shelter with a $9 million annual budget, operated by an agency with more than 100 times those funds, the plumbing has fallen to an 11-year-old girl.

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Dasani’s homeroom at McKinney is a cozy haven of book-lined shelves and inspirational words scrawled in chalk, like “Success does not come without sacrifice and struggle.” Every morning, she quietly tucks her coat and backpack in the classroom closet, a precious ritual for a girl who has no other closet. She then slips into her small wooden desk, opposite her humanities teacher, Faith Hester.

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Miss Hester can best be described as electric. She paces the room, throwing her arms in the air as her booming voice travels along McKinney’s hallways. Long after she gave up dreams of acting, her class is the stage and her students, a rapt audience.

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Sometimes she arrives in an Audrey Hepburn updo; other days, she dons the brightly patterned prints procured in Senegal on a trip to “learn the truth about my motherland.”

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She favors expressions like “Oh my gooney goo hoo!” and “Okie pokie dokie shmokie!”

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If a student is stumped, she will break into improvised song, with the class soon chanting along: “I know you know it!” — clap, clap — “I know you know it!” — clap, clap.

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Miss Hester knows that students learn when they get excited. It bothers her that McKinney lacks the sophisticated equipment of other public schools. She shelled out more than $1,000 of her own money, as a single mother, to give her classroom a projector and document camera.

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May 6
Abubakar Touray (May 06 2016 1:32PM) : I am really Amazed more

What she did is very great because they are some teachers out there that wouldn’t even do this for their students.

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When Miss Hester looks around her classroom, she sees a glimpse of her younger self. She was raised by a single mother in the Marcy projects of Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, a monotonous spread of 27 brick buildings with the singular distinction of being where Jay-Z grew up. She could never quite numb herself, like other children did, to the addicts shooting up in the elevator or the dead bodies on gurneys. Her salvation came at church and school.

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In 1979, Miss Hester was one of the first black students to be bused from Marcy to the predominantly white Edward R. Murrow High School in Midwood, Brooklyn. Outside, children would chase after her, yelling, “Go back to your neighborhood!” Inside the school, she applied herself fastidiously. A teacher made all the difference, guiding her to college applications. She was only 16 when she graduated, bound for SUNY Cortland.

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Thirty-three years and two master’s degrees later, it is Miss Hester who searches for the student in need of saving.

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She sees promise in Dasani, who landed on the honor roll last fall. But lately, she is skipping homework and arriving moody and tired, if she makes it to school at all.

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May 6
Abubakar Touray (May 06 2016 1:38PM) : Im shocked more

If Dasani keeps doing this kind of stuff it will a bad affect on her younger siblings because they will follow her footsteps.And she would not be what she wants to be in the future

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New York’s homeless children have an abysmal average attendance rate of 82 percent, well below what is typically needed to advance to the next grade. Since the start of the school year, Dasani has already missed a week of class and arrived late 13 times.

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Her attendance is being closely tracked by a social worker in the school whose nonprofit organization, Partnership With Children, offers counseling and other services to some of the city’s most vulnerable students.

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Miss Hester told Partnership about Dasani. She saw no point in turning to the school’s guidance counselor or psychologist, who serves two other schools. They jump from crisis to crisis, like E.R. doctors in triage, treating problems that have become acute or irreversible.

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Prevention is a luxury reserved for schools with enough counselors. In their absence, McKinney turns to Partnership, which has weathered its own post-recession budget cuts and layoffs. Graduate students are filling in as interns.

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This is how Dasani finds herself sitting across from Roxanne, who is pursuing a master’s degree in social work at Fordham University. She has been assigned to lead one-on-one counseling sessions with Dasani.

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Dasani has never had a counselor. They meet once a week, passing the time playing Mancala as Roxanne tries to draw Dasani out, which proves far more difficult than any board game. Dasani knows how to deflect questions with humor, avoiding talk about her family and the shelter.

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She is also studying Roxanne. There is something soft about this Minnesota native, who uses words like “sweetie” and melts into giggles. Dasani is puzzled by Roxanne’s attire — the rumpled shirts and distressed boots that pass for hip in other Brooklyn quarters. Nothing she wears seems to match, and yet her clothes are spotless.

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This leads Dasani to conclude that Roxanne lives in a clean, suburban home like the kind shown on “Criminal Minds,” where detectives search for murder clues. It is not the murders themselves that intrigue Dasani so much as the enormous, orderly closets of the crime scenes — closets big enough to live in.

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Miss Hester wonders about these counseling sessions. She finds Roxanne bright and devoted, but worries that Dasani will run circles around the intern, whose overriding quality is sweetness.

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“I don’t need ‘sweet,’” Miss Hester says. “I need a Ph.D.”

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May 6
Abubakar Touray (May 06 2016 1:41PM) : This is great more

I think Dasani teacher Ms.Hester should keep telling her about education , She will be interested and it will probably motivate her to become something in life.

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Back at the shelter, Dasani spends countless hours with her siblings playing games on a Nintendo Wii. If Dasani could design her own video game, she would call it “Live or Die.” The protagonist would be an 11-year-old girl fighting for her own salvation.

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In the first round, she confronts the easy villains — her chores — scrambling to bathe, dress and feed her siblings. She cannot find Baby Lele, who is crying. The baby’s tears turn into lethal rocks that fall from the sky, which the girl must dodge.

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Next, she encounters her parents battling social workers in the guise of angry pirates. Chanel tosses magical powers to the girl, who defeats the pirates, melting them to the ground.

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In the third round, she goes to school, finding danger and deliverance. Her math teacher is a supervillain whose weapon is numbers. “Ten” turns into 10 charging porcupines. Down the hall, the girl must rescue Miss Hester from giant, rolling cans. “If she dies, all the kids die, too.”

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Finally, the girl faces off against her longtime rival from the projects, a purple hulk who picks up cars and hurls them. If the girl survives, she reaches the queen — the principal, Paula Holmes — who decides her future. Winning brings the prize of a new house. Losing means returning to the shelter, “which is death.”

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“My goal is to make it to the end, but I keep dying,” Dasani says.

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It is easier for Dasani to think of Auburn as the worst possible outcome because the alternative — winding up on the street — is unfathomable. She knows that if she and her siblings were to lose the shelter, they might land in foster care, losing one another.

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So as bad as it is, the children try to make the place their own. When the lights are on, their room is flatly fluorescent, which prompts them to climb a dresser, remove the plastic lamp cover from the ceiling and color it in with crayons the shades of a rainbow.

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When the lights are off, the room assumes a gray aura not unlike, Dasani imagines, the hospital ward it once was. “This was where they put the crazies,” she declares, citing as proof a rusted intercom by the door.

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The communal bathroom closest to Dasani is, indeed, reminiscent of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” Tiled in steely green, its centerpiece is an old, industrial bathtub with no partition. A limp plastic curtain divides the sole shower from the rest of the bathroom, which is marked by vulgar graffiti and shared by dozens of women and girls, though men sometimes intrude.

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May 17
Abubakar Touray (May 17 2016 1:28PM) : I think this is sad more

I think this is very disgusting because everyone int the shelter uses the shower together.And I don’t think that’s comfortable cause its like their in prison.The government should upgrade the shelter and put showers in the rooms.

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The floor is filthy. The children routinely wipe it down with bleach stolen from the janitors, as residents are forbidden to bring the cleaning solvent into Auburn. A changing table hangs off its hinge, pointing to the floor like a slide.

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At night, the children hear noises. They are sure Auburn is haunted. Five-year-old Papa calls the ghost in their room “I-it.” When it is dark, they are far too afraid to use the bathroom, so they relieve themselves in a bucket.

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Abubakar Touray (May 17 2016 1:34PM) : Heart breaking more

This so heart breaking because the kids have to use a bucket to make it their toilet because they are afraid in the shelter at night.

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Yet that bathroom has become Dasani’s makeshift sanctuary. She practices hip-hop routines across the floor. She sits alone in the toilet stall, the lid closed beneath her. Sometimes she reads, or just closes her eyes. Her mind feels crowded anywhere else.

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Lately, she is worried about her mother, who has been summoned on Feb. 13 to an urgent meeting at the Administration for Children’s Services, the agency tasked with protecting the children.

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Photographs of smiling children line the walls of the agency’s lobby in Bedford-Stuyvesant, where Chanel is greeted by her caseworker, who uses the nickname “Mr. James.”

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“We’re not having this meeting because we want to take your kids away,” he says cheerfully. “We’re having this meeting because we want you to move to an apartment.”

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Chanel stares at him.

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“Why don’t you ever tell my lawyer about these meetings?” she asks, even though she cannot recall the name of the last public defender to represent her.

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“You don’t need a lawyer to attend an A.C.S. meeting,” he responds.

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They ride the elevator up to a conference room, where Chanel is jarred to find the director of Auburn, Derrick Aiken, waiting. He is there to issue a warning: If Chanel and her husband, Supreme, do not comply with the Department of Homeless Services’ requirements, the family may be forced to leave the shelter system. At issue is their public assistance case, which has closed because Supreme failed to report to a job placement program, one of dozens of such lapses in the past decade. Currently, the family receives only food stamps and survivor benefits.

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An open public assistance case allows the agency to be reimbursed with federal funds, while also making the family eligible for child care and job training — the kind of supports that could help in finding a home.

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But the problem for Chanel and Supreme comes down to basic math: Even with two full-time jobs, on minimum wage, they would have combined salaries of only $2,300 per month — just enough to cover the average rent for a studio in Brooklyn.

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New York, it often strikes Chanel, has no place for the poor.

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Auburn offers plenty of proof. Residents like Jenedra, a home health aide, and her daughter, who works at a Pinkberry in Park Slope, Brooklyn, cannot afford city prices.

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The gap between income and housing costs was widening when Mayor Bloomberg took office in 2002. The homeless population was also growing. For decades, the city had tried to stem the numbers by giving homeless families priority access to public housing, Section 8 vouchers and subsidized city apartments. While the policy was in place, only 11.5 percent of the families returned to shelters within five years.

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To Mr. Bloomberg, priority referrals were an incentive to enter the shelter system. “Our own policies needlessly encourage entry and prolong dependence on shelters,” he said in 2004.

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20,000

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Children Living in Shelters

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In New York City

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15,000

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10,000

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Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg unveils a plan to reduce homelessness.

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A program offering families rental assistance is canceled.

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Stricter eligibility requirements are adopted.

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1985

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May 17
Abubakar Touray (May 17 2016 1:41PM) : Wow !!!! more

I am so shocked I knew it was this much children’s living inside shelters.But I think the government should the kids that don’t have a family away to foster parents.Because they will have people to depend on.

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Mr. Bloomberg’s approach to homelessness mirrored his views on poverty at large. The mayor’s best-known effort was the Center for Economic Opportunity, which spent $662 million on poverty prevention programs that emphasized education and job training as a means to self-reliance.

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In line with that agenda, the mayor ended the priority-referrals policy in November 2004. Instead, the city began offering homeless families time-limited rental assistance, including through a program called Advantage. Yet more than a quarter of them wound up back in shelters once their subsidies ran out.

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Among them was Dasani’s family. After their $1,481 rent subsidy expired in 2010, they returned to a shelter system that spends roughly $3,000 per month on every family. It would end up costing the city $400,000 to house Dasani’s family over a decade.

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In 2011, Mr. Bloomberg ended Advantage after the state withdrew its funding. Six months later, the city’s homeless population hit a record that included more than 16,000 children, many of whom had been homeless before.

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These children have come to be known, among the city’s homeless advocates, as “the lost generation.”

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Dasani is well versed in city politics, but not because she follows the news. She is simply forced to notice what other children miss. When Mr. Bloomberg tried to ban the sale of large, sugary drinks, Dasani began calculating what two sodas would cost in place of the supersize cup that, in her family, is typically passed among eight small mouths.

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Now it is the citywide bus strike that has called Dasani’s attention, by virtue of the fact that she must walk three of her younger siblings to school.

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It is no small feat to corral Papa, Hada and Maya, who form a tempestuous gaggle of untied shoelaces, short tempers and yogurt-stained mouths.

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Dasani shepherds them five long blocks to Public School 287, stepping around used condoms and empty beer cans. “Double up!” she yells in the manner of her mother.

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The children go silent and reach for each other’s hands, waiting for the traffic to pause. Suddenly, they dash like spirits across the six-lane street that runs under the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway.

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The strike has worn on for a month when, on Valentine’s Day, Dasani stops into a corner store outside McKinney.

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She scans the aisles before settling on an iced honey bun, a bag of nacho-flavored sunflower seeds and some red gummy bears — a rare $3 breakfast earned as part of her allowance for watching Baby Lele all weekend.

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She glides into class only a few minutes late.

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Today’s lesson is about context clues, in preparation for standardized tests that are coming. “You come across an unfamiliar word,” Miss Hester explains. “You look at the surrounding words and ideas and you unpack that word.”

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The theatrics begin.

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“Flabbergasted,” she says. “I was flabbergasted when I found a million dollars in my purse.”

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The class erupts in laughter.

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“A million dollars!” Miss Hester hoots. “I know that that’s a lot of money. And it’s in my purse. And I’m supposed to be broke,” she says, batting her long lashes. “‘Flabbergasted’ means ‘delightfully surprised.’”

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Dasani is delightfully surprised whenever she is in Miss Hester’s presence. It does not matter that her mother finds the teacher “weird.” She makes Dasani want to learn.

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One can only imagine the heights Dasani might reach at a school like Packer Collegiate Institute, just 12 blocks west of the shelter. Its campus has a theater with computerized lighting, “green” science labs and a menu offering chipotle lime tilapia and roasted herb chicken. Its middle school cultivates the interests of the “whole child,” for whom doors will open to the “public arenas of the world.”

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Packer’s students might learn something from Dasani, too. Parents from five private Brooklyn schools recently filed into Packer, where tuition is over $35,000, to hear a clinical psychologist give a talk on how to raise “self-reliant, appreciative children in a nervous and entitled world.”

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That world is unlikely to become Dasani’s. She is not the kind of child to land a coveted scholarship to private school, which would require a parent with the wherewithal to seek out such opportunities and see them through. For the same reason, Dasani does not belong to New York’s fast-growing population of charter school students.

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In fact, the reverse is happening: a charter school is coming to McKinney. Approved last December by the Education Department, Success Academy Fort Greene will soon claim half of McKinney’s third floor. This kind of co-location arrangement has played out in schools across the city, stoking deep resentments in poor communities.

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The guiding ethos of the charter school movement has been “choice” — the power to choose a school rather than capitulate to a flawed education system and a muscular teachers’ union. But in communities like McKinney’s, the experience can feel like a lack of choice.

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Dasani watched, wide-eyed, during a protest last December as McKinney’s parents and teachers held up signs comparing the co-location to apartheid. Charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately operated, serve fewer students with special needs, and are sometimes perceived as exclusive.

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A web posting for Success Academy Fort Greene does little to counter that notion. Parents, it says, “shouldn’t have to trek to other Brooklyn neighborhoods or spend $30,000+ on a private school in order to find excellence and rigor.”

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By late February, Dasani’s grades have plummeted. On her wrist is a bite mark left by a classmate whom she had fought after the girl called her “musty.”

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The next day, Dasani lunges at a girl in gym class. Miss Hester has had enough.

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“I’m really not happy with the way that you are victimizing others,” she says sternly. “I need it to stop immediately. Do you understand me?”

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She nods at Miss Hester, her eyes dropping.

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Dasani’s humanities teacher, Faith Hester, has made her want to learn.

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For Dasani, school and life are indistinguishable. When school goes well, she is whole. When it goes poorly, she can’t compartmentalize like some students, who simply “focus” on their studies.

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It is a place to love or leave.

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Minutes later, Dasani is sitting in McKinney’s packed auditorium for an assembly on Black History Month.

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She hates Black History Month.

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“It’s always the same poems,” she says.

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The new honor roll is called out. Dasani’s name is missing. It must be a mistake, she tells herself. But when she hears all the other names, the truth sinks in.

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She slumps in her chair as a group of boys takes the stage to recite Langston Hughes.

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What happens to a dream deferred?

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Does it dry up

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like a raisin in the sun?

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Dasani knows this poem well. They read it every year. She stares blankly at the stage.

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Maybe it just sags

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Like a heavy load

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Or does it explode?

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DMU Timestamp: April 29, 2015 20:40

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