Few authors pick up a Pulitzer Prize for their first foray into a particular genre of writing, but that is exactly what Andrea Elliott, a journalist and staff writer with The New York Times, did with her 2022 book, Invisible Child: Poverty, Survival and Hope in an American City. The book charts the life trajectory of Dasani Coates, a child who experienced homelessness in New York City in the 2010s. The book begins in 2012 at which time Dasani is living in a homeless shelter with her parents, Supreme and Chanel, and her seven siblings. It was at this time that Elliott first met Dasani while she was researching what eventually became an extensive piece on homelessness in New York which was published in serialised form in The New York Times. Once the articles appeared in the Times Elliott continued to maintain contact with Dasani and her family and expanded the original piece into a full book, charting their experiences over an eight year period. The result, Invisible Child, has been described as both heart-breaking and life-affirming.
When Elliott first met the Coates family in 2012 they were living at the Auburn Family Residence, a homeless shelter in which they lived for over two years in a single 520 square foot room. The surroundings were not plush. The heating was usually turned off, even in the cold New York winters and the food was often gone off. Moreover, even to cook it can be a challenge, with residents of the shelter often having to queue for up to an hour to use one of the two communal microwaves available to them. And this is just the least of the Residence’s problems. Auburn has been plagued with building code violations over the years, which include faulty elevators and flooding toilets, while there have been reports of sexual misconduct on the part of some staff. Given these conditions, it is unsurprising to learn that journalists are not allowed to enter Auburn to document the conditions and instead Elliott compiles her newspaper pieces from reports provided by Dasani and her family, along with photos and camera footage of the conditions prevailing in the building which they clandestinely capture and give to Elliott.
However, Elliott’s story is one of contrasts. Despite the appalling conditions at the Auburn Residence, Dasani emerges as a brilliant student in her school, showing an intelligence and ability well beyond that of most of her peers. And she is not just academically gifted, but also flourishes athletically as a track and field athlete and as a gymnast. Eventually Dasani’s academic abilities earn her a scholarship to a boarding school in Pennsylvania for gifted children from impoverished backgrounds. But this creates its own unique problems, as she is now separated from her family who are remarkably close despite the adversity they have had to face. Dasani, despite her youth, is now faced with a very tough question: what if leaving poverty means abandoning your family?
While Dasani’s story is at the heart of Invisible Child, Elliott’s book moves outwards to explore how the situation faced by the Coates family is one faced by hundreds of thousands of families in the United States today and tens of thousands of children in New York City alone, often owing to institutional racism, social inequalities and historic problems concerning housing and social policies. Elliott charts this history of social injustice in America by looking back at Dasani’s ancestors. Her great-grandfather, for instance, was a mechanic in the 1940s who was deemed worthy enough by the United States government of repairing armoured vehicles and tanks during the Second World War, but who couldn’t get a job as an African American mechanic back in North Carolina after the war.
These problems haven’t been fixed in America, the goalposts have simply been changed, with poor African American communities in New York City now facing the threat of their neighborhoods being turned into apartments for the rich as ‘gentrification’ is espoused as a solution to urban poverty by mayors of the city such as Michael Bloomberg. The result, or the collateral damage, for want of a better term, of this tortuous history, as Elliott details so eloquently in her book, are children like Dasani Coates and her siblings whose lives are blighted by the sins of America’s past despite their potential as human beings.