My latest wonkblog column explores homelessness issues:
My first foray into social services was as a night volunteer in a homeless shelter. I particularly remember one bright and vivacious 12-year-old girl. The two of us sometimes talked during dinner. As we talked, her little brother would buzz around us, using language and gestures more suited to the Navy than to his preschool. Her parents were puzzlingly limited. I would sometimes help them with simple tasks such as assembling their children’s Christmas toys. They angered easily, with predictable results. In the middle of all this family chaos was this calm and resilient young girl. She made me a fantastic playful picture depicting a punked-out teenager with multiple piercings. I had no idea how to help her.
I thought about her as I read the initial installments of Andrea Elliott’s amazing, heartbreaking New York Times profile of another middle-schooler named Dasani, who lives in a homeless shelter called Auburn Family Residence, in Brooklyn’s Fort Greene section. Dasani shares a 520-square-foot room with her parents and her seven siblings. She’s one of 280 children in this huge and forbidding structure. I don’t know that we’re sure how to help her, either… (more here).
Space prevented me from exploring one other issue: the simple role of bad luck. Dasani’s story includes savage turns of fate that so easily might have turned out differently. I’m tempted to dismiss the importance of bad luck. Families living near the water line have a way of conspiring in their own misfortune. If Chanel wasn’t arrested on one day, she might easily have been arrested on another occasion—for example the day she shoplifted Dasani’s birthday cake.
But bad luck does actually matter. The worst twist of fate concerned Chanel’s mother, Dasani’s grandmother, Joanie. Stably employed as a municipal worker after her own struggles with addiction. Joanie provided one of the very few sources of personal and financial stability in Dasani’s life. When this indispensable woman died of leukemia at age 55, her family never really recovered. “Why did she have to go away so quickly?” Dasani asked. I found myself asking the same question.