'Invisible Child' tells the story of childhood homelessness in America
Andrea Elliott's riveting debut, Invisible Child: Poverty, Survival, and Hope in an American City, is sure to linger in the minds of many readers long after the last page has been turned.
The book takes on poverty, homelessness, racism, addiction, hunger, and more as they shape the lives of one remarkable girl and her family. The invisible child of the title is Dasani Coates. We meet Dasani in 2012, when she is eleven years old and living with her parents, Chanel and Supreme, and seven siblings in one of New York City's shelters for families experiencing homelessness. At the time, Elliott is researching what would become a five-part series featuring Dasani in The New York Times. The Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist ultimately follows Dasani and her family for a period of eight years, tracking a stunning array of heartrending tragedies and remarkable triumphs.
Elliott encounters the family of ten at the Auburn Family Residence, a "city-run homeless shelter where the heat is off and the food is spoiled" and where the family has resided for over two years, consigned to a 520-sq.-ft. room. The cafeteria has only two microwaves, but sometimes waiting in line for an hour to use one is among the least of the shelter's problems. In the previous decade, Auburn had been cited more than 400 times for violations that ranged from broken elevators and faulty fire alarms to nonfunctioning bathrooms, sexual misconduct by staff, and inadequate childcare, Elliott writes. During 2013 alone, more than 350 calls to 911 were made from Auburn, with residents making "twenty-four reports of assault, four reports of child abuse, and one report of rape." It is no wonder that the building is off-limits to the public and the press. The Coates family documents shelter conditions with video cameras provided by Elliott, revealing "footage of mice, roaches, and mold on the walls."
Yet against this backdrop, and despite mockery from students at school when they discover her homelessness, Dasani still shines. A school counselor describes Dasani's intelligence as "uncanny" and notes that her "thought content far surpasses peers her age." Her middle school principal, Elliott notes, had "seen plenty of distressed children, but few [had] both the depth of Dasani's troubles and the height of her promise." Athletically gifted as well, Dasani excels in gymnastics and track. Her academic talent ultimately results in Dasani enrolling in a boarding school in Pennsylvania that serves children in families with low incomes. There, she has access to many of the resources she'd lacked for much of her life — consistent and healthy meals, a full wardrobe, freedom from poverty. What she has lost, however, is the daily interaction with her family.
This absence is significant because, for all their struggles, the Coates are a strikingly tight-knit family whose love for each other is apparent. Dasani and her mother are so close that "feelings passed between them like oxygen," and Dasani says of her parents, "When they're happy, I'm happy. When they're sad, I'm sad. It's like I have a connection, like I'm stuck to them like glue." The challenges of poverty and addiction mean that Chanel and Supreme are often unable to fully attend to the needs of their children. That's where Dasani traditionally stepped in, playing the role of surrogate parent to her seven siblings for much of her childhood.
While the book is very much the story of Dasani, a protagonist readers won't be able to help cheering for, Elliott uses her story and that of her family to examine the many who find themselves in similarly impossible circumstances. These are members of "an invisible tribe of more than twenty-two thousand homeless children — the highest number ever recorded, in the most unequal metropolis in America." Elliott details both how the various systems that trap Dasani and her family — from homeless services to public assistance to child assistance — came to be and their evolution, noting that "America's first welfare mothers were overwhelmingly white. In 1931, of the 93,000 families who received these cash stipends, only 3 percent were Black."
These forays into history also follow Dasani's forebearers, including her great-grandfather, June, who moved from North Carolina to Brooklyn after serving in World War II, only to find himself unable to get a job as a mechanic at a time "when 94 percent of the profession was white." This is despite his having "repaired military vehicles under Nazi fire." His granddaughter is born in Fort Greene in 2001 a mere two years before Mayor Michael Bloomberg determines to "remake" her community. Once "the beating heart of what Essence magazine called Brooklyn's 'Black Mecca,'" Bloomberg's incentives resulted in "developers [breaking] ground on nineteen luxury buildings in Fort Greene, all in the span of three years," Elliott writes. "Within a decade, the neighborhood's real estate prices had doubled, and its portion of white residents had jumped by 80 percent — while an estimated threequarters of Fort Greene's Black-owned businesses closed." The number of homeless families rose by 80% during Bloomberg's tenure as mayor. Dasani's birthplace would ultimately become "one of the most unequal pockets in the city," where the top 5 percent earn 76 times the income of the bottom 20%, Elliott notes.
Such schisms appear again and again in Invisible Child, underscoring Elliot's assertion that "To know Dasani Joanie-Lashawn Coates...is to reckon with the story of New York City, and, beyond its borders, with America itself." Still, the book's reservoir of hope never runs dry, in large part due to the resilience of Dasani and her family. What easily could have been, in lesser hands, voyeuristic or sensational is instead a rich narrative, empathetically told. Elliott is a masterful storyteller and, by sharing Dasani's story, she calls on all of us to dismantle the systems that so often failed her and countless others.
Ericka Taylor is the popular education manager for Take on Wall Street and a freelance writer. Her work has appeared in Bloom, The Millions, and Willow Springs.