This week The New York Times is featuring amazing coverage of homelessness in our city, in the form of a captivating series of articles about a 13-year-old girl named Dasani — after the water of the same name. The coverage is nothing short of extraordinary.
First, the sheer depth of it is remarkable. It began on Monday with an article and picture filling almost the entire Times front page above the fold, with four full pages of photos and coverage inside. That's an amazing amount of space for any story.
On Tuesday it was the front page again, and three full inside pages. The series continues.
New York is a city where homeless advocates often criticize the lack of in-depth coverage of homelessness and poverty. We can be a city where people walk by homeless people in the street daily but never acknowledge them and rarely see them at all. We're a city long suffering homeless "fatigue."
The Times coverage might do something about that.
The articles put a face on homelessness. It's an engaging, captivating child's face. Precisely for that reason it's difficult to read; but it makes homelessness personal to anyone who does.
Dasani is an amazingly resilient and optimistic child living through a nightmare. She is described as 4-foot-8-inches, has incredible responsibilities for siblings at her tender age and lives in a city shelter for homeless families.
This isn't just any shelter. It's Auburn Place, a city-run facility Dasani refers to as "the jail." It's a Dickensian horror show of a place where Times reporter Andrea Elliot finds Dasani, who sleeps near a mop bucket that serves as her family's toilet, amid mice and rotting walls, to life.
The Times articles aren't the first media tour of the substandard Auburn shelter. A year ago, when Mayor Bloomberg opined that the increased average length of stay for city shelter residents — it's well over a year now on average — was because the shelters had become "so pleasurable" residents didn't want to leave, the NY Daily News reviewed Auburn. They described it as a place housing homeless families with "rats coming through the walls, worms in the bathroom and living conditions so squalid that one man compared them with his stint in prison."
The Times articles paint vividly, too. They tell the story of homeless children suffering "staggering societal costs" at the expensive of their opportunity for a decent education, a real chance to develop earning power or flee poverty, often leading to psychological trauma, disease, addictions and prison.
The Times also laments results for 22,000 homeless children a night in New York City shelters, which they say is the highest number since the Great Depression. But it might be worse than that.
Each year, HUD conducts a national "Point-In-Time" count of people experiencing homelessness in America. Their 2013 PIT count of one night in January reported progress. They found homelessness down 4 percent across America.
Sadly, New York City bucked that trend. HUD estimated on that night there were 64,060 homeless people in New York City. That may be an all-time record high. Worse, it included 39,601 people in homeless families.
The Times series also visits the policy choices "intended to push the homeless to become more self-reliant" and meant to reduce the number of homeless. First there was the elimination of the historic targeting of some of the city's public housing and Section 8 housing vouchers specifically to aid homeless families. But the homeless population wasn't reduced — it increased.
Then there was the elimination of a city subsidy to move homeless families from shelter to housing. Again, policymakers felt the meager subsidy was just drawing people into shelters. After its elimination, the number of homeless people, especially families with children, increased. It's more accurate to say it exploded.
Advocates argue the situation is all the more tragic because it doesn't have to be this way. There are real, evidence-based plans that have worked to prevent homelessness and reduce the number of homeless people. If policy choices helped get us into this mess, they say, better policies could get us out.
The plan to end homelessness in New York City would include reinstating the priority for using some portion of the city's federal resources to house homeless families. It would include more affordable housing targeted to very-low income people and supportive housing for those who need it. It would include a housing voucher program to move homeless people to permanent housing and a strategy of better coordinating government efforts of major "feeders" of homelessness such as aging out of foster care without a home, getting time-limited out of domestic violence shelters or leaving prison without housing.
Advocates say these proposals won't cost more than we spend now on programs that haven't worked. In most cases they save money, because subsidies, supportive housing and the like are far less expensive than shelters.
But what has enthralled us this week is not policy choices but the hard to fathom story of an 11-year-old honor student making her way through seemingly impossible obstacles, and the chance — just the chance —that she might succeed.
We're charmed by her optimism against all odds. She tells the Times reporter she won't fall into the pitfalls all around. She believes that Auburn will be just a "pit stop" for her. She says she has "a lot of possibilities."
We are horrified by her challenges, and saddened when she calls herself "ghetto."
The Times called the series "Invisible Child." But of course the articles have made her saga all so visible to us. That's a fantastic accomplishment.
It's also a responsibility. If we now know there are children forced to live like this in our city — 280 of them at Auburn, and at least 22,000 more — we should do something about it. And we could. Which leaves only one question: What will we do?
Jeff Foreman is Policy Director for Care for the Homeless in New York City. Follow him on twitter at @JeffForeman2.
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