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"Invisible Child": the NYT reports on homeless children

This week the New York Times has been running a series called "Invisible Child" -- an in-depth report on the problem of chronic homelessness in New York City, told through the experiences of an eleven-year-old girl named Dasani who lives with her family (mother, stepfather, and seven siblings) in a Brooklyn shelter.

Reporter Andrea Elliott and photographer Ruth Fremson have done a remarkable job communicating what life is like for families like Dasani's, and the many obstacles that stand in the way of a hopeful future for a child who lives in poverty in the city. The series, divided into five parts, is very long, and very much worth the time it takes to read. It is like a supersized version of those profiles of the "Neediest Cases" that the Times runs during the holidays to remind readers to donate to its Neediest Cases Fund. In this case, however, the focus is not on how charitable foundations have helped Dasani and her family, but about how public initiatives and institutions have tried to assist them, and have often fallen far short of their needs. It also looks squarely at the economic disparities that exist in Fort Greene and throughout the city, with wealthy New Yorkers living alongside desperately poor ones. (Part 3 opens with an unforgettable scene: Dasani's mother stops at a wine store's evening tasting with her kids in tow.) The sorts of luxuries that high-income New Yorkers enjoy, and that the Times typically can't fetishize fervidly enough, seem far less ordinary and innocent through the eyes of an outsider like Dasani. (Which reminds me: be sure to read David Cloutier's piece in the latest Commonweal on the perils for Christians of the luxuries we take for granted.)

Elliott's hard work -- the series was obviously many months in the making -- fulfills one of the highest objectives of journalism: it makes the invisible visible, and tells the story of people whose voice is seldom heard. Its generous sweep takes in not just the "invisible" but massive problem of homelessness, but also the problems that plague public schools, and the conflicts that reformers' interventions can create; the tangle of social agencies designed to help people like Dasani's family, and the circumstances that keep clients from reaping the benefits; and the attempts made under Mayor Michael Bloomberg to address these issues and how they have fared. Along with Ian Frazier's excellent New Yorker article "Hidden City," published in October, "Invisible Child" offers an unforgettable look at what it means to be homeless in today's New York. You won't come away hopeful, but you probably will come away wanting to help any way you can. [Update: see here for suggestions.]

Unless you're on the editorial board at the New York Post, that is. Their response to the "Invisible Child" series, published on December 9, must be read to be believed.

Headlined "The New York Times' 'homeless' hooey," the editorial scoffed that Elliott had failed in her presumed objective to paint New York as "a hard-hearted city." In fact, said the Post, the story "suggests just the opposite" -- "If the city is at fault here, it might well be for having been too generous — providing so much that neither the father nor mother seems much inclined to provide for their kids."

Congratulations, Post editors; you have found a way to update "Are there no workhouses?" for contemporary readers -- and just in time for Christmas! All those inclined to gripe that conservatives are unfairly caricatured as not caring about the poor, please address future complaints to the Post, care of William McGurn.

The Post is not known for its high standards of either journalism or decency, and it certainly has no time for in-depth, long-form reporting on the plight of the poor (or anything else). Still, their response to "Invisible Child" -- if they felt compelled to offer one at all, which they shouldn't have -- might have taken any number of less monstrous forms. They could have pointed out that the myriad failures of well-intentioned government programs described in Elliot's story demonstrate the importance of giving generously to private charities at this time of economic struggle. They could have railed, however insincerely, against the government for failing to provide more effective ways for people like Dasani's parents to "provide for their kids." ("An open public assistance case allows the agency to be reimbursed with federal funds," Elliott explains in Part 2, "while also making the family eligible for child care and job training — the kind of supports that could help in finding a home. 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.") Or they could simply have expressed appreciation for this intimate glimpse of how hard life can be for many New Yorkers, concluding with a stock expression of goodwill -- "While we may not agree on how best to confront these problems, surely we can all" etc. Instead, the Post decided to read a reported article as an editorial, projecting a highly simplified argument and perspective onto a deeply complicated story, and then sneering: "The Times and Elliott, like much of the liberal establishment, seem to think it’s the city’s job to provide comfortable lives to outrageously irresponsible parents. In this case, that’s a couple with a long history of drug problems and difficulty holding jobs. Something’s wrong with that picture."

Well, yes, a lot is wrong with that picture. The personal struggles of Dasani's parents, from drug addiction to emotional immaturity to general discouragement and despair, are vividly depicted in Elliott's story (that's how the Post knows about them). So are the economic conditions that make a phrase like "difficulty holding jobs" dishonest at best. But what "Invisible Child" focuses on most of all is the kids, Dasani and her siblings and all the others housed at their shelter and in places like it. They live in squalor -- the description of the bathroom they must share with other shelter residents is enough to make you cry -- they go to school hungry, and they are destined to grow up both much too fast and not at all. The Post's editorial does not offer even a few words of compassion for their plight. Instead it ends with its verdict that, really, the city has been "too generous," and concludes with a nasty zinger: "That would be a story worth reading."

What's the "that" they're referring to? The story of how Chanel and Supreme are lazy good-for-nothing poor people? Or the story of what their lives would be like if the city weren't so "generous"? It's not clear. But what really makes that last line heartless is its implication that the story Elliott did report on is not worth telling. In fact, it's "hooey."

I know people who subscribe to the Post, and I've often wondered how they make peace with its gleeful moral bankruptcy. But I don't know a single human being who could read "Invisible Child" and come away with the impression that Dasani's story is not worth hearing. Why, then, is the Post so anxious to tell its readers that they shouldn't read it? That, as they say, would be a story worth reading.

About the Author

Mollie Wilson O'Reilly is an editor at large and columnist at Commonweal.



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Mollie -- "Why. . .is the Post so anxious to tell its readers that they shouldn't read it?"

You answered the question yourself two sentences before that one:  "gleeful moral bankruptcy."  The same gleeful moral bankruptcy one finds in John Stossel, who began his faux-panhandler routine for Fox by saying, "OK, let's go freeloading!"  (Colbert's characterization of Stossel as a "70's -era porn moustache" is priceless.)

The Post's perspective on the poor was summed up well by Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest:  "If the poor can't set us a good example, what on earth is the use of them?"


The Post's answer to Jesus, I suppose, is why were you in prison, sick and hungry? Wasn't it your fault?

It was a surprise to me that the owner of Modells in the series "Undercover Boss" discovers that one of his employees is homeless. We are indeed in a gilded age with the opposite happening. Catholic charities does a lot of good work. But when  you are  renovating the Cathedral at $187, 000, 000  the help for the Dasani's of this world should be a lot more visible. There are a good number of parishes which feed the needy and homeless. But most parishes are very lax. Should not the care of the poor be the most prominent activity of every parish?

In John 21, Jesus makes his third revelation to the Disciples after the Resurrection.  Three times He asks Simon Peter if he loves Him.  Of course, Peter answers Yes each time.   And each time after the Yes, Jesus says, “Feed my lambs” (15), “Tend my sheep” (16), “Feed my sheep.” (17) 

The issue for the writers at the Post is to whom is the commandment directed?  Is this a duty only of an individual, or is the duty imposed on the community?  And if on a community, then which community: that of our immediate circle (say our parish), or is there an obligation that falls on us ensemble as a city or a country?   The radical Libertarian interpretation, to which the Post subscribes editorially, is that such duties as may exist oblige only the individual, and they include duties on all parties, not just those of us who are successful and well off.

Mark L

On a related note, there's this story about a San Francisco techno-entrepreneur with a not-so-gleeful moral bankruptcy:

If there's one good thing about this guy and the Post, it's that we're finally seeing in full the contempt that the business class and its lackeys have long harbored toward the rest of us.  


Good post, Mollie. The story makes it very clear that Dasani's parents carry a heavy responsibility for the turmoil she lives in. It introduces the city government's failures this way: "Yet Dasani’s trials are not solely of her parents’ making. They are also the result of decisions made a world away, in the marble confines of City Hall."  And this is amply documented in the story that follows.

This statement in the article caught my eye:

Dasani’s circumstances are largely the outcome of parental dysfunction. While nearly one-third of New York’s homeless children are supported by a working adult, her mother and father are unemployed, have a history of arrests and are battling drug addiction.

The parents are unemployed drug addicts.  But what, they don't have any responsibility?  The writer calls this parental dysfunction, and that poor child faces an uncertain future.  I'm sorry, but those parents are despicable; they have created a lving hell for an innocent child.  Sounds like what they need is a public horsewhipping.

And a public horsewhipping would do for the child exactly what?

Bob - I understand the visceral reaction.  I do think, though, that considering the plight of the child gives a different perspective.  Surely our society's obligation to the well-being of the child is even higher than whatever our obligation is or should be to adults like Dasani's parents who make poor choices (and quite possibly started their own lives in a social deficit, for which they're now reaping bitter fruit).

As another perenthetical aside: considering the plight of the child puts a different spin on problems of illegal/undocumented immigrants, too.

One possibility for circumstances like Dasani's is for the state to assume custody, and try to place Dasani in foster care, and perhaps eventually adoption.  I haven't had a chance yet to read the series, but I'd be surprised if the authors don't examine that option.  I'm not recommending or opposing that.  It's not too far different from the judge trying to figure out what to do about Huck Finn and his drunken dad.


Asked what would Jesus do about the poor, conservatives and libertarians inevitably say that Jesus didn't say anything about big-government poverty programs; rather, that he intended for individuals to help each other through private charity.

Two problems with that answer: first, given the number of times Jesus had to exhort the rich to help the poor, appealing to altruism must not have worked very well.  Second, first-century Palestine didn't have a population of 310 million.  For all its inefficiency, government is better equipped to help the poor than are charities.  




If, after the childhood Dasani has had, she succumbs to addiction herself and can't find a job, or can't find a job that will support her and her own children, should we horsewhip her too? At what point does she stop being an innocent victim and become despicable, like her parents? Do we get to horsewhip her as soon as she turns eighteen?

Angela - I wouldn't want us to have to choose between the state and private charity.  They're both essential components (and not the only components) of any safety net we can weave to help those who are poor.


Re: Jim and Matt's comments about Dasani's parents -- Part 3 of the series tells their respective stories, going back to their childhoods. They were, not surprisingly, born into circumstances much like Dasani's. Knowing more about where they came from adds another dimension to the story -- not, I'm afraid, a hopeful dimension, but a very sympathetic one. They've failed their kids in many ways, but to say that they are "not much inclined to provide" is completely wrong. (I have a feeling the author of the Post's take did not realize there were 4 more chapters after that first one -- even though all were posted online at once. Not that it matters, since they were going to misrepresent the story regardless.)

Matt's question is exactly right: if you want to make this about "personal responsibility" (something Andrea Elliott specifically acknowledges, and rejects as simplistic), where do you draw the line between innocent victim and despicable trash?

This story could have been written about New York City children, who are poor, anytime in the last 150 years, and probably was (and probably in the New York Times!). The compassion of many good people and the reform measures adopted as a result of such stories have been complicit in making the situation of these children as bad or worse than the previous generation.

Let me cite one example because I was involved in a research project that examined the conditions raised by a lawsuit, Sugarman v. Wilder, which eventually and effectively ended the system that we knew as orphanages or congregate settings or homes for children.

Many of those institutions were run by religious groups, Catholic, Jewish, Protestant. The New York Civil Liberties Union argued that the placement process on the basis of religion was unconstitutional and detrimental in particular to black Protestant children. That criteria for placement was indeed in place when these institutions were founded in the ninetheenth century. It had brokent down mid-twentieth century by virtue of institutions accepting children not primarily on the basis of their religion but on the basis of their needs--needs that agencies thought they could meet. Obviously there were some children who were very difficult to place in any setting. The NYCLU won the case and destroyed this system.

The long-term effects have been the closing of most, if not all, of those institutions. Foster care was promoted in their place. But that system is not functioning well and many agencies and social workers are reluctant to separate children from their parent(s) even when it would be in the interest of the child. Where can these children go when their parents are "dysfunctional." They go nowhere, because there is nowhere for them to go.

A better child welfare system is one answer, but there are better ones. Affordable housing, jobs, higher wages, better schools, effective contraception--all of that would be more effective in providing for the 22,000 children the story identifies. But that's probably not going to happen either.

What's the lesson? Reformers should be circumspect in what they decide to reform and think ahead about what will replace the system they are dismantling.


One can argue the various merits or demerits of public versus private charity, of how much to tax or not to tax, but this much is clear (at least to me): Do not define public charity (that is, the taking of one person's wealth by force of law and giving it to another) as Christ's love of the poor. 

By the way, every person has the ability to choose between good an evil.  No one put a gun to the heads of that child's parents and forced them to begin taking drugs.  They chose to do so.  At some point that child will face such choices and God's graces will support her when she does.

Kind of like how you choose to be such a smarmy bastard, eh?

If God's graces don't support her, can we hope that the reporter, Andrea Elliott and her Pulitzer Prize along with the New York Times will support her?

The Times's public editor, Margaret Sullivan, wrote an interesting post today on how the story came together and what the response has been like, along with suggestions for how readers can help Dasani's family and others like them.

It's also worth reading through the over 2000 comments that accompany the series, including the second one under "reader picks," Mary from California. It is an account of someone who worked with families like Dasani's. No self-congratulations in Mary's account.

Well Abe, one man's smarm is another man's charm, as he said in alarm...

God's graces will support her when she does

But grace does not come out of thin air. It is incarnated, and since we are the Body of Christ, it is through our attitude towards her that she will encounter God's graces. We can pray that God shows us what he wants us to do as his instrument of grace to help her. We can't abstractly  leave it to God and wash our hands of it. As His people, it's our responsibility.

Do not define public charity (that is, the taking of one person's wealth by force of law and giving it to another) as Christ's love of the poor. 

From the apostolic exhortation of Pope Francis:

180. Reading the Scriptures also makes it clear that the Gospel is not merely about our personal relationship with God. Nor should our loving response to God be seen simply as an accumulation of small personal gestures to individuals in need, a kind of “charity à la carte”, or a series of acts aimed solely at easing our conscience. The Gospel is about the kingdom of God (cf. Lk 4:43); it is about loving God who reigns in our world. To the extent that he reigns within us, the life of society will be a setting for universal fraternity, justice, peace and dignity. Both Christian preaching and life, then, are meant to have an impact on society.

188. The Church has realized that the need to heed this plea is itself born of the liberating action of grace within each of us, and thus it is not a question of a mission reserved only to a few: “The Church, guided by the Gospel of mercy and by love for mankind, hears the cry for justice and intends to respond to it with all her might”.[153] In this context we can understand Jesus’ command to his disciples: “You yourselves give them something to eat!” (Mk6:37): it means working to eliminate the structural causes of poverty and to promote the integral development of the poor, as well as small daily acts of solidarity in meeting the real needs which we encounter. The word “solidarity” is a little worn and at times poorly understood, but it refers to something more than a few sporadic acts of generosity. It presumes the creation of a new mindset which thinks in terms of community and the priority of the life of all over the appropriation of goods by a few.

203. The dignity of each human person and the pursuit of the common good are concerns which ought to shape all economic policies.

I too was taken with the remarkable series published this week in the Times. Still a number of questions arose in my mind, and I decided to send them off to the "Public Editor" of the Times. I transcribe them here to see if they are of concern to others:

"The series by Andrea Elliott is riveting and will certainly be in contention for a Pulitzer Price.
Nonetheless, I do have some questions (some of which you began to address in your post of December 12). In brief, I'd like to know more of the "backstory." Thus:

1. how was this family chosen? who put Ms Elliott in touch with them?

2. What was the attraction for the family to have so much of their personal stories shared?
What were the preliminary conversations like? who took part? did one or another voice dominate?

3. Did the "Times" make any financial commitments/disbursements?

4. The reference to Dickens has been invoked by many commentators, there are places where Ms Elliott seems to be interpreting Dasani's thoughts, feelings; did that represent  creative extrapolations on the reporter's part from the situations encountered?

5. incidents of fighting were reported. Were the "Times'" reporters present; did they make any effort to intervene?

6. where there interventions on the reporter's part: for example, when Giant's calls to Chanel go unanwered?

I do not raise the questions in a querelous manner, but in order to obtain a fuller sense of this remarkable account."

The  crux of the problem is two-fold: public aid is mostly inadequate to help overcome severe poverty and unemployment, and children are pretty much doomed to the care of their parent(s) rather than separated and 'sentenced' to foster care.

What works is intensive programmatic supports on a transitional housing site with supportive services and supervision. It typically takes 18 to 24 months for the issues to be resolved and for the family to successfully transition to permanent housing. Many of the barriers are imposed by the social service sector itself: lack of section 8 housing vouchers, lack of any affordable housing availability, insufficient supports through TANF and Food Stamps, lack of unemployment extensions, and a lot of bureaucratic red tape to sign up and submit periodical reports. Then, relapses for the drug or alcohol afflicted are common and without intervention or treatment programs.

The real problem is that too many of us have bought into the 'personal responsibility' accusation which disqualifies these folk as 'unworthy of help.'

I cannot believe Margaret is advocating the return to Oliver Twist conditions and abusive and strict orphanages. Where would you place a "Boys Town" for NYC? What do you do about the irreversible harm done to children when they are taken away from family and parent and separated from siblings? The best solution is to keep the family together in safe and secure housing with supportive programs. Instead of worrying 24 hours a day about where they will sleep and how they will eat, they can find the help they need to navigate the system and begin to work through their issues.


If it is your interpretation of the Holy Father's words that he is demanding a socialist state to eliminate all poverty and injustice (which would by necessity be totaltarian in order to force compliance by all citizens), then I think you are 100% wrong.  Besides, hasn't all that been tried, to disaterous results, already.  National Socialism in Germany, marxist socialism in the old Soviet Union and Cuba (China seems to be a different animal; it is implementing capitalist techniques within a marxist political structure).

Capitalist economies have the highest standards of living, and we should always remember the past:  Try remebering Mao's massacres, Stalin's starvation of the peasant farmers, and Pol Pot's hideous atrcities...

Matthew,  I just love your reply.  I feel exactly as you do but could not find a way to express how I felt.  I feel that the parents are so very likely responding to their own life histories, as do we, more than we might want to even admit.  I just don't believe in free choice all that much: I do believe in it, but, as they say, those of us who are "successful" or "productive" usually stand on the shoulders of giants or on the shoulders of those who have helped us so much along the way.   To me, it doesn't matter if the persons involved are children, teens or adults: I see them all as in much need of compassion and assistance, not comments such as "they made poor choices" - and then shutting the door.  We need to ask ourselves how we would turn out if we never had good parental figures, or not suffiencet emotional support from a loving adult.

No, Bob, I don't think that pope Francis is demanding a socialist state. I think that he is requesting a change from unfettered capitalism. How do you interpret 

"working to eliminate the structural causes of poverty and to promote the integral development of the poor",

what do you think he means by


"a new mindset which thinks in terms of community and the priority of the life of all over the appropriation of goods by a few",

(who are those few) and how do you think capitalist economies are shaped by concerns for 

"the dignity of each human person and the pursuit of the common good" ?

Mike Evans - great comment above re: intensive-support transitionsal environments.  FWIW, I've worked with our local Catholic Charities in the past to raise funds for just such a project.  it is quite successful, but the scale at which it operates is distressingly small: it is able to provide housing and related resources for a couple of dozen client families at a time, when the scope of the problem, even in our suburban region, runs into the hundreds or, probably, thousands.  But we're not able to raise funds at a scale that would allow CC to address the overall candidate population.  I'm not privy to all the program funding details, but it's quite likely that the private money we raise is supplemented by government grants, but that is a well that seems to run a little dryer every year.

In the village where I live (in the Chicago area, suburbs style themselves "villages"), the local interfaith pastors' council also has spun up an iniatiative along the lines of what you describe.  There are something like 30 members of the council, but the initiative is funded to serve 5-6 families at a time - again, a small fraction of the overall problem.  

The work being done by these intiatives is great.  If only we could find a money multiplier for them.

Given the realities of scarce funding, I think the question that needs to be asked is, If we can't provide the best option to everyone, is there a second -best option for most that is affordable?  Dasani's plight, as described here, doesn't sound like second-best; it sounds like what happens via inertia in a world where virtually nobody cares very much.


Mike Evans: "I cannot believe Margaret is advocating the return to Oliver Twist conditions and abusive and strict orphanages." No, you don't have to believe that.

As you know or should know most institutions of the nineteen-sixties, seventies, and eighties were not Oliver-Twist institutions. Many of them were of high quality and offered specialized services. My point was that most of those closed without due consideration of what would replace them: Foster care or remaining in troubled families. You write of the kind of intensive services that can benefit such families. At the same time you and Jim P both acknowledge how expensive and few they are.

My over-all point: Advocates for change especially when it comes to children and children's services often seem to be blind to the unintended consequences of the changes they bring about through legal action and moral crusades. Shouldn't we be asking whether children will actually be better off; in the case of NYC children and family services it appears not.

Perhaps only cranks like the NYPost will mock or find fault with the series. But I am struck by the following: In the first piece in the series Dasani is fixed on keeping her family's residence secret from the other girls in her new school lest she be looked down upon. What she had hoped could be concealed has throughout the series been revealed not only to school mates, but to the world, and not only where she lives but how she has come to live there. Does anyone else find this abusive albeit informative? 


I find the best way to interpret a text is to begin by reading what it actually says. Your interpretation of Evangelii Gaudium appears to begin instead with what you're sure Pope Francis could not have said because, in your judgment, it would be obviously false and popes don't say obviously false things. So the holy father could not have criticized capitalism—even though he very plainly did—because you are sure that the only possible alternatives to it are all totalitarian. Thus does a misreading of history lead to a misreading, or non-reading, of the pope's actual words. There are more things in heaven and on earth, and in this exhortation, than are dreamt of in your cramped and complacent philosophy.

Bob Schwartz:

I was taken aback by what you wrote:

those parents are despicable. . . .Sounds like what they need is a public horsewhipping.

Do you really think that?  And do you think it can be reconciled with what Pope Francis has been saying about the need for mercy, the primacy of mercy?

The contrast between your comment and the preceding one, by Paul Moses, is striking.  Given what you wrote, I assume you agree with the first part of what he said: “The story makes it very clear that Dasani's parents carry a heavy responsibility for the turmoil she lives in.”

But what about the second part?    

 [The story] introduces the city government's failures this way: "Yet Dasani’s trials are not solely of her parents’ making. They are also the result of decisions made a world away, in the marble confines of City Hall."  And this is amply documented (emphasis added) in the story that follows.

Would you simply say that Paul is right in the first part, and wrong in the second?

I hope you’ll respond.


     I want to respond to Bob Schwartz. You can be as angry as you like at the parents for their irresponsibility. What about our responsibility to children like Dasani. Are we just going to tsk tsk the parents  and do nothing to help them? Poverty does not look good. Poor people are not attractive, smell good, or look good. Christ taught us that these are our brothers and sisters. Would we be able to do any better than those parents were we in their situation? How can we feel so self righteous when we allow these tragedies to continue. " What you do to the least of mine, you do for me." I think that is what I remember being taught .  

Yes Gene, I meant it.

As for "unfettered capitaism" I presume the Pope means "unregulated capitalism"  But, at least in the U.S., there are thousands of regulations on capitalism:  Environmental, financial, workplace, you name it.  So how could he be talking about the U.S. as an "unfettered" economy?


Matthew:  "Complacent"?  Me?  I worry constantly that the U.S will end like Cuba, or Venezuela.  Cramped, maybe.   Definitely not complacent!  As for the totalitarian aspect of all this, since everything we think and do ultimately affects the economy, everything we think and do must be controlled in order to bring to effect a society where no one is poor, no none is discriminated against, and into the bargain, everyone will be fulfilled to the max, and there'll be marmalade skies till the end of time.  Because as you know, the poor will not always be with us...Oh, wait...


Hell yes we should take care of them!  And the parents need severe sociaization training before they even get near those kids again.

You should read what Milton Friedman has to say about a social program that works. Google Milton Friedman's social program. Milton the conservative!! Capitalism in this country is capitalization run-amuck. Capitalism does get people out of poverty, but it also has only one goal... To make money. By itself , without regulations to protect society, this is a system that exploits the most vulnerable.  It is not beneficial to the whole of society.  For example, we are subsidizing walmart workers. They make so little that they qualify for food stamps and additional money to get them out of poverty. What's wrong with that picture. Should my taxes pay for Walmart's workers? I think capitalism works if there is a safety net so that everyone has access to food, shelter, education, and safety.  

Bob, I forgot... For a society that doesn't believe in helping the undeserving, we certainly have no problem putting out money to keep people in prison. If we spent that money caring for children , we might not have to use it to incarcerate them when they're older. 


But there are thousands of federal, state, county, and city programs that purport to help people.  I agree with spending money to help children, but for the love of God, keep those poor kids away from the drug addicts, prostitutes, and child molesters who are their parents.

It should be obvious to everyone by now that Bob Schwartz is trolling -- that is, entertaining himself by saying outrageous things in order to provoke a response from people who are actually taking this whole subject seriously. ("Child molesters"?) Please stop responding to him as though he were making an earnest argument based on a thorough reading of the "Invisible Child" series, rather than just typing terrible and dimwitted things for kicks.

Fr. Imbelli,

Your questions and your description of the story as "remarkable" suggest that you are questioning its authenticity.

Regarding how Dasani was chosen, it's clear to me that the reporters tried to maximize  contrasts. They may have picked the Auburn family residence because it was particularly squalid and stuck in the middle of now-affluent neighborhoods, and in that shelter, they may have picked Dasani for her striking good looks, that make the reader want to read on to see what happens to her, and her being on the honor roll at school.

I note, though, that the reporter never showed her doing homework, (although they once mention that the children do their homework "hunched over on mattresses") and that the principal talked about "how capable the girl is... Without even trying, she keeps up." That raised a red flag for me. The mother, although loving her children, loved by her children, keeping the family closely knit, and quite likeable, has a problem with self-control  and discipline: she has difficulty staying off drugs, keeping her weight down, using contraception (I'm guessing that part - it's not mentioned), and not letting her anger get the better of her in conflicts... Does this smart and beautiful girl also lack self-control and discipline? It's not clear to me. Since that lack if a big part of the family's problems, I'd be more optimistic reading about a child who works hard to get good grades than about a child who keeps up "without even trying".  In that respect, the principal's efforts, to try to teach her to not fight even when provoked, seem right on target.

Regarding your other questions, I guess that you're asking how much the observer changes the observation itself. There is a note about it in the end.

Andrea Elliott, an investigative reporter with The New York Times, began following Dasani and her family in September 2012. The series is written in the present tense, based on real-time reporting by Ms. Elliott and Ruth Fremson, a photographer with The Times, both of whom used audio and video tools.

Throughout the year, Dasani’s family also documented their lives in video dispatches from the Auburn Family Residence, which does not allow visitors beyond the lobby. Ms. Elliott and Ms. Fremson gained access to the shelter to record conditions there.

The reporting also drew from court documents, city and state inspection reports, police records, the family’s case files at city agencies and dozens of interviews with shelter residents. Most scenes were reported firsthand; others were reconstructed based on interviews and video and audio recordings.

I am guessing that the fighting pictures were reconstructed. Now, it is mentioned towards the end that "the shelter is providing a steadier supply of formula, diapers and other items to mothers". Then there is the fairy tale start of Dasani's work for "Giant", and the happy ending of the series, with the "stunning news" of their moving into a real apartment. One is left to wonder: does the reporters' presence around the family have something to do with the happy turn of events? For example, did the reporters  give a few strategic phone calls so that they could have a happy ending to their story, or was the shelter director spurred into action by their presence, or is it just chance? Did the family let them report on them in exchange for the promise of help to get them out of the shelter? Maybe they did not even have to say it, but Dasani's family understood that having reporters around would help their case with the administration, without needing to be told.

So, if that's where your questions are leading, I agree that the ending is a bit too good to be true, and was probably influenced by the reporters' presence. In "real life", Dasani's family would stay stuck in the shelter and maybe some day get turned out and find themselves on the street, and, most likely, Dasani's resilience would finally break. Instead, as things stand now, it seems that they are being given a chance to get back on their feet. Maybe that's not realistic enough for a Pulitzer!



my use of "remarkable" was in no way pejorative, or a "questioning of the story's authenticity."

My questions were my effort to understand more fully the circumstances of the selection of the family, the conditions of their participation, and the extent of the involvement of the reporter and the "Times" in the situations so movingly depicted.

Thanks for engaging the questions ... and adding some of your own.

Claire uses the phrase "real apartment" when referring to the unit in Harlem to which Dasani's family moves.   It is important to note that the move of Dasani's family from the horror of the Auburn shelter to the "real apartment" in Harlem was not a move out of the NYC shelter system.  That apartment is leased by the NYC Department of Homeless services and is referred to as a "cluster shelter unit" in the DHS system.

These cluster units were privately-owned, rent-regulated apartments or single rooms (SROs) that low-income people were living in not long before they became "cluster" units.  The city is paying sometimes as much as 4 times what the market or rent-regulation would pay.  This has created a huge incentive for these private landlords to harass, buy-out or illegally evict low-income tenants throughout the city so these units could be transformed into cluster shelter units.  Families in otherwise stable, affordable housing are being made homeless and forced into the shelter system so people already in the system can move in to the apartments and have the city (taxpayers) pay 3-4 times what the landlords were getting.  Not only are the private landlords being given incentive to evict current tenants, they are creating a greater demand for their over-priced product by pushing more families into the shelter system.  Icing on the cake of this scandal -- former Bloomberg officials are making a lot of money in the private sector  running this cluster system.

This program is perhaps the biggest boondoggle of the Bloomberg era which has received the scantest attention.  I offer 3 links if you are interested in understanding this better:

While the picture in the NY Times of the unit Dasani's family moved into suggests it is an apartment in good condition -- many of these units look great at first, but the slumlord profiteers behind them usually only did cosmetic work and problems abound. 

As Public Advocate, de Blasio was critical of this system.  Hopefully reform of it will be job one.



Jack Marth's post points to an underlying conundrum in the whole housing-the-homeless fiasco. Trying to solve the problem through subsidies or priority lists for public housing create incentives for people making themselves homeless. Sometimes they have been staying with family or sometimes they have to face a rent increase. There are many reasons that temporary homelessness may seem a better alternative. According to the Times families spend an average of 13 months in this system...far shorter than Dasani's family.

As the Times five-part series pointed out (a number of times) Bloomberg ended the policy of giving families in shelters priority for public housing. He said he was ending it because it induced people to apply for shelters so they could get on those priority lists. I have never seen data about how many families this ever involved and given the reluctance of tenants to give up apartments in public housing, it's difficult to imagine it was ever a major source for the families in shelters. But who knows?

Now, in Marth's example, getting rents four times market value from the city induces landlords to force out  tenants, some of whom certainly go into the shelter system. A vicious circle.

I doubt the social welfare system can fix this problem. And I doubt deBlasio can fix it within that system. The city and state have to return to aregime of rent regulation along with requiring developers to include a percentage of apartments for middle and low-income families in their gazzillion dollar buildings. The city gives developers a lot in the way of tax abatements; it's not too much that the city get something in return.

Jack Marth,

thank you for the enlightening (and depressing) reading. Do you share Peggy Steinfels' doubts?

My catechetical duties at my parish are canceled this morning due the snow -- so I have a few minutes to offer a tentative response.

I am not sure I fully understand Ms. Steinfels doubts so these are mostly random thoughts, not meant to respond systematically. 

I think Bloomberg over-reacted to the fear that people were entering the system simply to access affordable housing.  No doubt there were some folks who did that.  But anyone familar with the bureaucratic morass of the city shelter system, even when it functions as it is supposed to function, knows that someone entering it must be pretty desperate in the first place.

Soon after eliminating the priority access to Section 8 vouchers and public housing for shelter residents, the city and state created a voucher program (called "Advantage") for shelter residents which functioned like Section 8 -- but with a huge difference, the subsidy only lasted 2-3 years.  The theory was families would use these 2-3 years to get financially stable enough to afford the rent.  This simply did not happen. (the financial crisis of 2008 did not help)  Many families ended up being evicted and re-entered the shelter system. 

The larger reality is that housing is increasingly out of reach to poor and low-income families unless the housing is  subsidized.  The city eliminated the Advantage program which certainly has a role in families staying as long as they are now in the shelter system, forcing the city to expand cluster shelter sites, costing the city even more than the Advantage program did.  Adavantage would have been much cheaper than cluster shelters.

Federal policy is key in my mind.  Section 8 works really well.  Section 8 funding should be expanded so cities like NYC with huge waiting lists can better meet the real need for affordable housing.  Instead advocates for housing struggle each year just to maintain current inadequate levels. The sequester set that back and my understanding of the budget deal just announced is that Section 8 sequester cuts will not be restored.  The city and state need these federal dollars to be not only restored, but expanded.

One final observation, the dysfunction and pathology in Dasani's family clearly will not simply disappear once the family is moved into permanent, affordable housing.  This a family in need of more services to help them gain more stability and self-sufficiency.  it may never happen -- but hopefully it will not live on for generations.  Regardless, whatever can be done now or in the future to help this family will have more efficacy if the family has secure, affordable housing.  The system does not need to "fix" all the problems in Dasani's family before housing them.  I would also point out that there are many, many families in the NYC shelter system who are simply there because of financial realities.  They don't need any more help than affordable housing.   Allowing them to languish in a place like Auburn may only push otherwise functional, resilent families into dysfunction and pathology.

Mr. Schwartz,


How exactly do you define socialism? 


Your comment to Claire (December 13, 2013 - 12:58pm) lumps together multiple versions of socialism without distinction. Pol Pot's understanding of socialism was the opposite of Stalin's and incompatible with Mao's. Cuban socialism is not the same as the socialism of Stalin, Mao, or Pol Pot, and has more in common with the post-Stalin era socialism of the Soviet Union (though they are now taking cues from post-Mao China as well). There is nothing "marxist" about China's political structure. "Leninist" seems to be the word that you are looking for, though neither Lenin nor Stalin would recognize today's China as socialist. In a later comment you also threw Venezuela, which is still a capitalist country (neither Marx and Engels, Lenin, Stalin, Mao, or Pol Pot would understand it to be socialist), into the mix. You also bizarrely conflate all of these systems with National Socialism in Germany, which despite the name was a fascist system (an extreme, ultra-nationalistic form of capitalism), and has nothing to do with the other forms of socialism you mentioned. As is clear from his writings, speeches, actions, etc. Hitler was deeply anti-Marxist, anti-Leninist, and hated the Soviet Union.


You wrote,

It should be obvious to everyone by now that Bob Schwartz is trolling -- that is, entertaining himself by saying outrageous things in order to provoke a response from people who are actually taking this whole subject seriously. ("Child molesters"?) Please stop responding to him as though he were making an earnest argument based on a thorough reading of the "Invisible Child" series, rather than just typing terrible and dimwitted things for kicks.

I see it differently.  That is, I'm convinced that Bob is not trolling or making his comments "for kicks."  Why am I convinced?  I've been corresponding with him offline for six years.  It has been a good correspondence, one I'm grateful for.  Obviously I can’t share it with you, but I’m confident that if you saw it – especially the long, moving, personal email he sent me two days ago, in response to one I sent him about this thread -- you’d reach the same conclusion as I have.

Do Bob and I have our disagreements?  Of course, as was obvious earlier on this thread, when I wrote that I was "taken aback" by his comment about Dasani’s parents.  But while I vehemently disagree with what he said, I'm sure he didn't say it as a troll or "for kicks.”

I have to wonder whether modern metropolises simply reach a saturation point of population.  There just doesn't seem to be enough *space* in New York City to accommodate all the people who want to live there.

Is there literally not enough space for the current population?  If there is space in outlying areas where housing might be built, are there jobs nearby for the people who would live in them?

It now seems that it is quite possible for Mother Earth to be literally over-run by us Earthlings.

Gene Palumbo, wih whom I've had a sort of back channel email relationship, is a guy that defnes what it means to be a Christian (he actually talks to me in a civil and friendly manner, given the political gulf between us) even though I'm absolutely certain we probably disagree 90% on political theory.  He did a lot of reporting on the ugliness going on in El Salvdor in the early eighties, and is an articulate and thoughtful guy who seems incapable of meanness.

I realize that what I'm saying has nothing to do with the original post, but there it is.

To Mollie, I say only that I will attempt to self-edit my future remarks so as to strip away any doubt as to whether or not I'm trolling.

Michael:  I thought that was a point I was trying to make about socialism: That the common thread uniting all the different types was that they all exhibited the need for absolute control of their "subjects" in order to immanentize the eschaton (did I get the spelling right?), as it were.

Thanks to Gene and Bob for the edifing exchange. One merit of dotCom is that a lot of good things happen "back channel."

If anyone is still checking in to this thread, here are some reflections by Ruth Fremson, the photographer of the series. She speaks to a few of the questions I raised above.

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