"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.

Mollie Wilson O’​Reilly is editor-at-large and columnist at Commonweal.

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