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Invisible Child, Part 4: Finding Strength in the Bonds of Her Siblings

Author: Andrea Elliott, Photographs by Ruth Fremson

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Children are not the face of New York’s homeless. They rarely figure among the panhandlers and bag ladies, war vets and untreated schizophrenics who have long been stock characters in this city of contrasts. Their homelessness is hidden. They spend their days in school, their nights in shelters. They are seen only in glimpses — pulling overstuffed suitcases in the shadow of a tired parent, passing for tourists rather than residents without a home.

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Their numbers have risen above anything in the city’s modern history, to a staggering 22,091 this month. If all of the city’s homeless children were to file into Madison Square Garden for a hockey game, more than 4,800 would not have a seat.

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Yet it is the adult population that drives debates on poverty and homelessness, with city officials and others citing “personal responsibility” as the central culprit. Children are bystanders in this discourse, no more to blame for their homelessness than for their existence.

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Dasani works to keep her homelessness hidden. She has spent years of her childhood in the punishing confines of the Auburn shelter in Brooklyn, where to be homeless is to be powerless. She and her seven siblings are at the mercy of forces beyond their control: parents who cannot provide, agencies that fall short, a metropolis rived by inequality and indifference.

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The experience has left Dasani internally adrift, for the losses of the homeless child only begin with the home itself. She has had to part with privacy and space — the kind of quiet that nurtures the mind. She has lost the dignity that comes with living free of vermin and chronic illness. She has fallen behind in school, despite her crackling intelligence.

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She has lost the simplest things that for other children are givens: the freedom of riding a bicycle, the safety of a bathroom not shared with strangers, the ease of being in school without stigma. And from all of these losses has come the departure of faith itself.

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God “is somewhere around,” she says. “We just can’t find him.”

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To trust is to be caught off guard.

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Dasani is unmoored by her recent suspension from the Susan S. McKinney Secondary School of the Arts. For months, this new school was her only haven. She had grown so attached to her principal, Paula Holmes, that she expected a measure of tolerance despite her outbursts, the kind of forgiveness she never gets at home.

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Dasani has a close relationship with her principal, Paula Holmes.

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Her forced departure from school overlaps with spring break, plunging Dasani further into the morass of her family’s troubles. Her parents’ resolve to leave Auburn has vanished now that their savings plan fell apart, yet the shelter is pressing the family to leave while offering no assistance in finding a home. Meanwhile, the Administration for Children’s Services has stepped up its scrutiny of Dasani’s parents, who are increasingly despondent.

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As pressure mounts from all sides, Dasani braces herself. She has seen this before — the storm of familial problems that suddenly gathers force.

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“It’s a tsunami, just spinning around, nothing going right,” she says. “And I’m like, ‘Put my life back together!’ and it doesn’t happen. Your life doesn’t go the way you want it to go.”

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On April 3, Dasani climbs up the steps of McKinney wearing her best cardigan. She lingers in the hallway, keeping an eye on Principal Holmes’s door. She is eager to try out the script her mother has drilled into her. How was your spring break, Miss Holmes?

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(Pause, wait for Miss Holmes to ask the same question.)

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Oh, it was good. I’m staying out of trouble!

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(Wait for Miss Holmes to laugh and then head for the door, showing new determination.)

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Gotta get to class!

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Instead, Dasani hangs back. Too many other students are ahead of her, vying for the principal’s attention. In class, she is quiet and focused. “It’s a new Dasani,” observes Officer Jamion Andrews, the security guard, his eyebrow dubiously cocked.

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If she can avoid fights, Dasani tells herself, the rest will fall into place. It is the taunts that she cannot resist. Her body gets “hyped.” She loses control. And that is precisely the behavior that Roxanne, her counselor at school, is trying to disrupt.

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In those moments, Dasani must learn to breathe in for 10 seconds through her nose and then breathe out for 10 seconds through her mouth. Roxanne demonstrates.

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Dasani practices on her walk home from school.

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The two blocks of sidewalk between McKinney and the shelter can be a minefield. This week, one of Dasani’s classmates, Sunita, begins to stalk her along the way. Sunita is a foot taller than Dasani and easily twice her 70 pounds. Their rivalry dates back three years to fourth grade, when Sunita, who lives in the projects, began teasing Dasani about living at Auburn, prompting Dasani, then 9, to throw her first punch.

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For days, rumors have been flying that the two will fight again.

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As school lets out on April 9, Dasani steps onto the sidewalk and is surrounded by a sea of girls.

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“You gonna fight her?” one of them asks breathlessly.

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“No!” Dasani yells loud enough for Sunita to hear. “Miss Holmes says if I get in another fight I get suspended.”

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Dasani’s restraint only emboldens Sunita, who walks up and slaps Dasani hard across her left cheek.

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The crowd is hushed. Dasani tries to breathe.

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“You think that hurt? I eat those,” Dasani says, using one of her mother’s put-downs.

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The girl glares at Dasani.

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Breathe in 10 seconds.

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Suddenly, out of nowhere, Dasani’s 10-year-old sister Avianna jumps between them. “You better back up off my sister’s face before I hurt you,” Avianna yells.

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The girls might as well be twins. They share the same pillow, the same dresser, the same absent, biological father. It is usually Dasani who comes to Avianna’s rescue, carrying her up four flights of stairs to their room when her asthma strikes.

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But today, Avianna rises to the occasion, mouthing off fiercely at Sunita as the crowd disperses.

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Dasani is soon surrounded by all of her siblings, a familial force field. Their bond presents itself physically. When they walk, ride the bus, switch trains, climb steps, jump puddles, cross highways and file into Auburn, they move as a single being. In all things, they are one.

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The sheer size of the family draws the notice of strangers, who shoot looks of recrimination at the mother, Chanel.

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Yet she sees fortitude in this small army of siblings, something she and her husband, Supreme, never had growing up. “That’s why the street became our family,” she says. “I didn’t want the street to become their family, too.”

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The children’s solidarity is striking enough that social workers frequently make note of it. “Family close knit,” reads one social worker’s report in March.

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They live in dread of the Administration for Children’s Services. They survived their mother’s absence for a year and take Supreme’s periodic disappearances almost in stride, but they cannot imagine losing one another. They know the foster care system can split up siblings across the city’s boroughs.

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Dasani is haunted by the thought of losing her baby sister, Lele, who just turned 1 and sometimes calls her Mommy.

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All the children dote on Lele, but Dasani speaks her language, discerning hunger or a wet diaper in the baby’s cries.

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The 11-year-old girl responds with the instinct of a mother but not the training. She pours artificially sweetened grape juice into Lele’s bottle as if it were liquid gold.

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What would happen to Lele in the hands of strangers?

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“Some people don’t know how to take care of babies,” she says.

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The children have heard their father’s story — how Supreme was torn from his siblings and years passed before he was reunited with them in the Marcy projects, in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. Supreme soon left home to join the crack trade.

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By then, another child of the Marcy projects had also escaped. She chose an alternate path.

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“Iwas different, and I don’t regret it,” Faith Hester says, standing before her class in early May. She is not one to dwell on the past. But today, a student prompts Miss Hester to talk about her education. She was only 16 and living in the Marcy projects when she won a scholarship to SUNY Cortland.

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She packed a large orange suitcase. Her mother refused to take her to the train station. Girls married their way out of the projects. Going to college, the neighbors sneered, was trying to “be white.”

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So Miss Hester left alone that day, dragging her suitcase along Park Avenue. In college, she cleaned houses to help pay her way. Her mother did not speak to her for six months. “Sometimes you have to be alone,” she says, looking around the room.

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“I don’t regret it for one second,” she says, slamming her hand down on a desk. “That was the path!”

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The class is motionless.

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“Do you understand what I’m saying?” Miss Hester continues, her voice trembling. “There are going to be some places in your life where you feel bizarre. You feel outstanding. And remain that way. Stay just as you are.”

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Dasani stares at her teacher, mesmerized.

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“It takes a lot of courage to be different,” Miss Hester says.

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When Dasani looks into the future, she sees who she won’t be. She won’t be a dropout. She won’t do drugs or smoke or drink. She won’t get married, unless she finds “a gentle man, not a harsh man.”

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She won’t have children unless she can support them. She won’t end up on the street.

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“Spare some change?” she says, mocking a panhandler. “Nuh-uh. Not me.”

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It is harder for Dasani to imagine who she might become. She has been told she must reach for college if she wants a life of choices, but who will pay? Her mother is quick to ask that question whenever Grandma Sherry tries to encourage Dasani with the shining example of a niece who graduated from Bates College in Maine on scholarship.

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Other children talk of becoming rap stars or athletes, escaping their world with one good break. Dasani subscribes to the logic of those fantasies. Her life is defined by extremes. In order to transcend extreme poverty, it follows that she must become extremely rich or extremely something. What exactly she cannot see. To dream is, after all, an act of faith.

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“I don’t dream at all,” she says. “Even when I try.”

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She believes in what she can see, and Miss Hester is real. Her lecture that day leaves Dasani feeling uplifted.

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As she walks home with a classmate later that afternoon, they talk about a coming history project on ancient Egypt. Dasani does not see Sunita coming.

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“I’m gonna fight you!” Sunita calls out from the underpass, shedding her sweatshirt.

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Dasani pivots and starts walking against the traffic along Tillary Street. This time there are no siblings to come to her rescue.

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Get back on school property, she tells herself. She crosses over toward McKinney as Sunita charges up behind her.

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“Move before I punch you!” Dasani says. But Sunita grabs Dasani’s shirt and pulls as Dasani takes a roundhouse swing. They fall to the ground, biting and scratching.

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Suddenly, another big girl piles on, kicking Dasani in the face and laughing while Sunita holds her down.

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Somehow Dasani manages to throw Sunita off balance, scrambling on top and pummeling her face before they pull apart, bleeding and crying.

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“I’m saying it right in front of your face,” Dasani yells, her chest heaving. “You wanna fight me some more ——”

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“I’m ready!” Sunita yells.

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“I will jump you in your face!”

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“I want you to! I want you to!”

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Sunita’s brother orders her to retreat. “Take your ass in the house!” he yells.

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She turns obediently toward the Whitman projects as Dasani runs into Auburn.

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Minutes later, Dasani emerges with Chanel, who heads to the projects ready to go. She will wait for Sunita’s mother all night if needed, and they can settle this themselves.

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But as Chanel presses for details, she learns that Dasani is hardly innocent: She had thrown Sunita’s book bag on the floor earlier that day and commented unfavorably on her “$2.99 sweater.”

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Chanel cools down and decides to handle the matter at school. The next morning, the two mothers and their daughters meet with Karen Best, an assistant principal who cuts to the chase.

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“Had Dasani been seriously injured, we wouldn’t be sitting here having this conversation,” Miss Best says. “And that’s what you need to understand: Children as young as you go to jail. O.K.? Real simple.”

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The mothers nod. The girls stare at the floor.

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“She could have had a concussion,” Miss Best says. “You want to do something? Prove how smart you are.”

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“There you go,” Chanel says approvingly.

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“Everyone knows the negativity,” Miss Best says, looking at both girls. “You got that down pat. Show the brains.”

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Back at Auburn, nothing is going well. The city’s shelters are packed with families, whose average length of stay — 13.5 months — is longer than ever. Dasani’s family is among the outliers. It will soon be three years since they landed at Auburn. While the Department of Homeless Services cannot limit a family’s time in the shelter system, the agency can resort to punitive measures when residents are found to be uncooperative.

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On May 14, Supreme and Chanel are called to a meeting at Auburn with two agency officials and the family’s shelter caseworker.

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“I’m asking you: What have you been doing to move out?” one of the officials asks Chanel and Supreme in a recording they made of the meeting.

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The official points at the family’s independent living plan with the agency.

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“You both signed it, O.K.?” the official says. “It says, ‘This shelter is temporary housing.’ You must look for permanent housing for yourselves.”

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Violating the plan enough times means a family can be given an “involuntary discharge,” barring them from returning to the city’s shelters for 30 days.

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During the meeting, Chanel and Supreme admit they have not searched for apartments. They say there is no point, since they cannot afford city rents without the kind of subsidy that the department once offered. They complain that their room is miserable and ask if they can be transferred to a better shelter.

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“It’s really hard,” one of the officials says. “Listen, you are not the only family in shelter.”

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“I know that,” Supreme says. “Thousands.”

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“Tens of thousands,” the official says.

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“Right, well, I have a different question,” Supreme says. “Do y’all fall under the guidelines of the New York City Housing standards?”

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“Excuse me?” one of the officials says.

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A few weeks earlier, the family had been walking the elegant streets south of Fort Greene Park, searching “white folks’ trash” for discarded books and clothes. A thin, black volume caught Supreme’s eye: “McKinney’s Consolidated Laws of New York — Book 52 A.”

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He began leafing through hundreds of pages of laws, noting the violations that his living arrangement presents: the lack of hygienic conditions, dividers for privacy and sufficient living space.

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“I think it’s inhumane,” Supreme mumbles. “I think one of you all need to try it. Your husband, eight children, all in one room. No bathroom. I want to see how you all manage that for three years.”

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He might as well be talking to himself.

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“With the documentation we can move forward, O.K.?” one of the officials says.

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Supreme seems not to hear her either.

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“You never got no peace of mind. You and your husband can never have a moment because your children are always in your face. You’d go crazy!”

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The meeting is wrapping up.

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“Even now, they got the bathrooms closed, so where you gotta go? All the way to the next floor,” Supreme continues. “I got a child who is legally blind. I gotta monitor her every time she go to the bathroom. It’s, like, bananas. It’s really bananas.”

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The children’s birthdays come in a mad springtime rush: Lele’s in March, Avianna’s in April, the remaining six in the span of three and a half weeks. Expectations are calibrated based on where a birthday falls in the monthly cash flow. Those at the start of the month bring hope, while those at the end of the month are luckless. So it goes for Avianna.

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Avianna, at a park near Sherry’s home, is a child who savors everything.

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Supreme hands her $11, one for each year of her life, but the next day, he asks for $5 back. She waits for a cake. Days pass. Finally, the children give up and light two small candles. Like carolers, they hold them beneath Avianna’s face and sing.

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Avianna savors everything. While her siblings inhale their food, she will linger over each French fry.

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She spends her $6 slowly. A week later, she takes her last dollar bill and folds it delicately, like a Japanese fan. She then places it inside a homemade card that Chanel opens on Mother’s Day.

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They pass that afternoon at the laundromat. There is only $190 left on Chanel’s debit card, the balance of a tax refund that was supposed to rescue them from the shelter.

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In times like these, Chanel sees fit to steal groceries. She tells the children to wait for her at a store’s entrance. She hides the habit from them. They hide their knowingness from her.

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Except for Papa, a gaptoothed 5-year-old buzzing with energy.

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“You stealin’!” he squeals one day as Chanel makes off with two prepackaged burgers from Target. “You crazy!”

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“Shut up, man!” Chanel says, before composing herself.

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“Look,” she tries more softly. “It’s not right to steal. But God knows when it’s for a good reason.”

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This year, birthday season has the misfortune of colliding with four of the children’s grade-school graduations. They need new outfits, and money for class photos and parties. Chanel is accustomed to saying no when she has to, but she also recognizes the small luxuries that will separate her children from their peers.

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By the time Dasani’s birthday arrives at the end of May, she knows better than to expect $1 for each of her 12 years.

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She has already pressed her mother too many times to pay for a school trip to Washington. Dasani has never been farther than Pennsylvania. She will hold out for that and let the birthday pass quietly.

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Chanel has no such intention. Dasani is her jewel.

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Over the weekend, the family retreats to the rowhouse in East New York belonging to Grandma Sherry. The mood is light. The children skip about as Supreme stands over the stove, tending to his honey-barbecue wings.

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The time has come to sing. Chanel gently lifts a vanilla sheet cake out of its plastic casing as Dasani stares in wonder. The top of the cake is still blank, awaiting inscription. Her mother covers it with candles and dims the lights.

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Dasani closes her eyes.

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If I could grant you three wishes, what would they be? her school counselor once asked her.

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A house of our own, a lot of money and three more wishes, was Dasani’s answer.

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She blows out the candles as the children clap.

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Chanel fetches a long, serrated knife. “Let me show you how to cut a cake,” she says, gingerly placing her hand over Dasani’s. Together, they move the knife through the buttercream frosting. “Doesn’t have to be perfect,” Chanel says.

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Dasani bestows a sugar-flowered slice on each of her siblings, taking a plain piece for herself.

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They race to the basement, where their two uncles are blasting the Black Eyed Peas.

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Screaming in delight, Dasani and her sisters leap onto a rickety, wooden platform and dance beneath a disco ball to “I Gotta Feeling” as Papa bounces around them.

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They barely register the hard-faced young men shuffling through the basement, exchanging elaborate handshakes, their heads hung low. Some play video games. Others mill about with girls in their teens wearing too much makeup and too little clothing.

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One of these girls, a baby-faced Dominican who works at the supermarket across the street, hangs on Uncle Josh, flashing braces when she smiles. To curry favor, she hands Dasani a $20 bill as a birthday present.

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Like other things in her life, Dasani could not have predicted such luck. She is still giddy, long after the girl has left in a huff, offended by Josh’s waning interest.

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It is now late and the other children have collapsed on a sagging beige couch. Dasani is dancing to Alicia Keys.

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She’s living in a world and it’s on fire

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Filled with catastrophe

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But she knows she can fly away

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Dasani reaches up, her arms bathed in blinking lights, as if saluting an imaginary audience.

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Oh, she got her head in the clouds

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And she’s not backing down

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This girl is on fire.

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Dasani has never had a better birthday. It feels like perfection.

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It hardly matters that the cake was stolen from Pathmark.

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Three days later, it is raining as the children spill down Sherry’s steps. They are hungry and short on sleep. In theory, they are heading to the thing they most need — psychotherapy. Chanel signed them up after learning that she can reap $10 per child in carfare through Medicaid, at a clinic in the Kensington section of Brooklyn.

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Chanel needs the cash. She is still hoping to find a way to send Dasani on her school trip to Washington, and the $75 deposit is due tomorrow. So despite the pelting rain, Chanel instructs the children to meet her at a subway station.

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Only Hada is wearing a raincoat. Papa’s hoodie slips off as he tips back to catch raindrops on his tongue. The children cross Lincoln Avenue holding hands.

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Dasani is in a foul mood. There is no telling how her anger will reveal itself today. Sometimes it comes as a quiet kind of rage. She will stare at an indefinite point, her eyes blinking, her mouth set. Other times, it bursts like thunder.

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“Move it!” she screams.

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Nijai trails behind, her glasses fogging over. She has always been the odd orchid in this bunch of daisies, the most delicate and sensitive child, made more frail by her advancing blindness.

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Nijai during an eye exam at Lighthouse International.

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She can make out only vague shapes and colors. Soon she will have to use a cane, but for now she often rests a hand on Lele’s stroller to guide her. Today, Lele and the stroller have been left at Sherry’s.

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“I said move it!” Dasani yells at Nijai.

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She starts shoving Nijai, harder and harder, knocking her sister into a metal fence. Then she punches her in the arm. “You stupid!” Dasani screams. “You think you smart, but you stupid! Now keep walking!”

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Nijai begins to sob as Khaliq yells, “Double up!”

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In pairs, they sprint across a six-lane highway and enter the Grant Avenue subway station, ducking under the turnstile to meet their mother. After they board the A train, she hands them a bag of lukewarm Popeyes chicken, furnished by a stranger.

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By the time they get off at Jay Street, their stomachs are full and the mood is lifted. Dasani spots an umbrella on the ground. It still works, opening to reveal an intricate pattern of white and black flecks. She twirls it around and, when the 103 bus pulls up, carefully closes it.

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Dasani and Nijai race to the back of the bus, where the motor keeps the seats warm. They sit pressed together, newly reconciled. Dasani is soon asleep. The little ones watch, thumbs in mouth, as their mother closes her eyes. Every time the bus slows, she snaps awake.

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At Church Avenue, the children and their mother pile off. The street looks familiar, but Chanel is unsure.

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“We got off at the wrong stop,” Dasani announces.

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Chanel fixes her gaze on Dasani.

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“Shut the fuck up,” she says. “You know, that’s one thing I don’t like about you — your negativity. You always talkin’ about the problem. You got a solution?”

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Dasani carries a singular burden among her siblings. Chanel has vested enormous authority in Dasani. Her competence, agility and strength — the attributes that could rescue Dasani from her life’s miseries — also threaten to keep her mired in the problems that her mother cannot meet alone.

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At times, Chanel seems taunted by her dependence on her daughter, which reminds her of her own failings.

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They walk single file toward Coney Island Avenue.

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Dasani tries to recover.

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“It’s this way, Mommy,” she says, gesturing hopefully toward a florist shop. They take a few steps before Chanel turns on her heel, remembering the way.

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“If you want to go somewhere, don’t listen to Dasani,” she says.

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Dasani freezes under her new umbrella.

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Chanel unloads.

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“I’m sick of your attitude,” she seethes. “There’s only like 15 kids going on this trip because people can’t pay. And me, who got nothing, is trying to send you and you gonna give me attitude?”

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Dasani keeps walking.

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Chanel’s fury mounts. She reaches for the same words every time, the kind that echo for days in Dasani’s head.

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Dasani always gotta have the answer.

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She think she special.

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She think she some-fucking-body.

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She nobody.

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Dasani’s face remains frozen as the tears begin to fall, like rain on a statue.

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Leaving a psychotherapy session.

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“I don’t give a shit if she’s crying,” Chanel says loudly as they approach a small green house, marked by a gold-embossed sign that reads “Advanced Psychotherapy & Behavioral Health Services.”

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“It’s only one goddamn chief,” Chanel says. “I’m the only chief.”

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Inside, the children file into their fourth “group therapy” session with a woman who asks vague questions like, “What are your hobbies?” She sounds more like a distant aunt than a counselor.

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Khaliq knows the difference. Earlier in the year, a Children’s Services caseworker had sent him to a therapist after he acted erratically in school. That therapist had asked questions like, “Do you want to kill yourself?” Those sessions felt like they never ended; these lasted only 20 minutes — roughly two and a half minutes per child.

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At the door, Chanel collects her $80 in carfare and the children head back into the rain. The cash instantly settles the family, leaving the children calm and Chanel introspective.

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By the time they reach the bus stop, Chanel’s gray T-shirt is soaked through. She is thinking about Supreme, whom she could not rouse from bed this morning.

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“What gets me down is the responsibility,” she says. “They got shoes on but no socks. I come all this way, on the bus, in the rain, to get the money so she can go on her trip.”

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She is shivering now.

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“Those are the things you are supposed to provide,” she scolds her absent husband. “You are the man. You made this family, but you don’t provide.”

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Dasani watches her mother silently. She wants to fix it.

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She can only feel empty. The day’s weight has passed from her sister to herself and now to their mother, who is weeping in the rain.

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DMU Timestamp: April 29, 2015 20:40

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