Life has been anything but easy for 20-year-old Dasani Coates. Named after the bottled water that signaled Brooklyn’s gentrification, her story has been featured in five front pages of the New York Times. Together with her siblings, Dasani has had to persevere in an environment riddled with stark inequality, hunger, violence, drug addiction and homelessness. She’s not alone. There’s nearly 1.38 million homeless schoolchildren in the U.S. About one in 12 live in New York City. We often focus on the stories of children who “make it out” of tumultuous environments. But what about the ones who don’t? New York Times Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Andrea Elliott spent nearly a decade following Dasani and her family. Andrea joins to talk about her expanded coverage of the Coates’ family story, which is told in her new book, “Invisible Child: Poverty, Survival & Hope In An American City.”
Note: This is a rough transcript — please excuse any typos.
Andrea Elliott: We love the story of the kid who made it out. We rarely look at all of the children who don't, who are just as capable. And I think that that's what Dasani's story forces us to do is to understand why versus how. How you get out isn't the point. It's why do so many not?
Chris Hayes: Hello. And welcome to Why Is This Happening? with me, your host, Chris Hayes.
Chris Hayes: You know, the U.S., if you go back to de Tocqueville and before that, the Declaration and the founders, you know, they're very big (LAUGH) on civic equality. Right? They think, "All men are created equal," creed is what distinguishes the U.S., what gives it its, sort of, moral force and righteousness in rebelling against the crown.
And, of course, the obvious thing that many people at the time noted was that, you know, there were over a million people in bondage at the same time they were saying this. And even as you move into the 1820s and '30s when you have fights over, sort of, Jacksonian democracy and, kind of, popular sovereignty and will, you're still just talking about essentially white men with some kind of land, some kind of ownership and property rights.
So civic equality is often honored in the breach, but there is the fact that early on, there is a degree of material equality in the U.S. that is quite different from what you find in Europe. And then, of course, over time, what happens in the United States is that we become less and less materially equal.
We get the robber barons and the Industrial Revolution. We have a period where basically from the New Deal to 1980, inequality in the country shrinks and then the story, as you well know, from 1980 to now is just skyrocketing inequality. And there's a bunch of ways to look at that picture.
It's, sort of, prismatic because, as you're talking about the separation of a nation in terms of its level of material comfort or discomfort, right, or material want, there's a million different stories to tell of what that looks like.
Like, you could tell the story about Jeff Bezos sending himself into space. You can tell that story, as we have on the podcast, about the, sort of, crunched middle class, folks who want to afford college and can't. But, of course, there's also the story of poverty, which has been a durable feature of American life for a very long time.
There have been a few huge massive interventions that have really altered the picture of what poverty looks like in the U.S., chiefly the Great Society and the New Deal and some other things that have happened since then. But it remains the case that a shocking percentage of Americans live below the poverty line.
And we're gonna talk a little bit about what that number is and how good that definition is. And through the years of American journalism, and some of the best journalism that has been produced, is about talking about what that looks like at the ground level.
And part of the reason I think that is important is because the nature of the fracturing (LAUGH) of American society is such that as we become increasingly balkanized, there's a kind of spacial separation that happens along class lines.
There's a huge separation that happens in terms of the culture that people consume, the podcasts they listen to or don't listen to, the shows they watch. And these bubbles get, sort of, smaller and smaller, in which people are increasingly removed from these different strata of American life.
And that's really true of the poor. I mean, I think everyone knows there are a lot of poor people, particularly a lot of poor people in urban centers, although there are a lot of poor people in rural areas. There are a lot of different gradations of what that poverty looks like.
And a few years back, there was this piece about a single girl in the New York City public school system in The New York Times that was really I think brought people up shore, 'cause it was so well done. She was such a remarkable and charismatic figure, and also because her story was so compelling.
Her name was Dasani. She was named after the water bottle that is sold in bodegas and grocery stores. And the reporter who wrote that, Andrea Elliott, wrote a series of stories about Dasani. It starts as a investigation into what basically the lives of New York City's homeless school children look like, which is a shockingly large population, which we will talk about, and then migrates into a kind of ground level view of what being a poor kid in New York City looks like.
Andrea has now written a book about Dasani. It's called Invisible Child: Poverty, Survival, and Hope in an American City. (BACKGROUND MUSIC) It is an incredible feat of reporting and writing. And it's a great pleasure to welcome Andrea to the show now.
Andrea Elliott: Thank you so much for having me, Chris.
Chris Hayes: Yeah. So let's start with what was your beat at the time when you wrote the first story?
Andrea Elliott: I didn't really have a beat. In October of 2012, I was on the investigative desk of The New York Times. I had been there for a while. I focused on doing projects, long form narrative pieces that required a lot of time and patience on the part of my editors and a lot of swinging for the fences in terms of you don't ever know how a story is going to pan out.
You just invest time. And I had focused for years on the story of Islam in a post-9/11 America. And what really got me interested, I think, in shifting gears was in the end of 2011, Occupy Wall Street happened. And there was this, sort of, sudden public awakening around inequality.
And at that time, I just had my second child and I was on leave at home in Washington, D.C. where I had grown up. And I pulled off from my shelf this old copy of Alex Kotlowitz's There Are No Children Here, which is a classic incredible book about two brothers in the Chicago housing projects in the 1980s.
And I had read it in high school. And as I started to, kind of, go back through it, I remember thinking, "How much has really changed?" And I did some quick research and I saw that, in fact, the child poverty rate remained one in five.
One in five kids. It's now about one in seven. But at that time, just like it was at the time that There Are No Children Here came out, it's the highest child poverty rate of almost any wealthy nation. And that was stunning to me. And then I wanted to find a target in New York, a good focal point in New York.
And what was happening in New York was that we were reaching a kind of new level. Sort of, peak of the homeless crisis. So there were more than 22,000 children in homeless shelters at that time in the main system. And by the way, at that time this was one of the richest cities in the world.
And even up until 2018 was the last study that I saw that looked at this, that looked at the city's own poverty measure, which takes into account things like food stamps and stuff, nearly half of New York City residents, even as late as 2018, were living near or below the poverty line in a city that is so defined by wealth.
And one thing I found really interesting about your introduction, which so summarizes the reason I feel that this story matters, is this fracturing of America. What's also true, though, is that as places like New York City and Los Angeles and San Francisco and even Detroit and Washington, D.C. have increasingly gentrified, the experience of growing up poor is one of being in really close proximity with people who have money. You are seeing the other. I wanted to, kind of, follow up (LAUGH) the book that I loved so much in the '80s by looking once again at the story of poor urban America through one child.
Chris Hayes: Yeah. And There Are No Children Here, which takes place in what's called Henry Horner Homes, which is in the west side of Chicago right by what is now called the United Center, which is where the Bulls play. It's on the west side just west of downtown.
You know, it was low rise projects. The west side of Chicago is predominantly Black and Latino and very poor. Had been the subject of tremendous amounts of redlining and disinvestment and panic peddling that had essentially chased white homeowners out.
What's interesting about that compared to Dasani, just in terms of what, sort of, concentrated poverty is like in the 1980s, I think, when that book is being reported in her is that proximity question. So in There Are No Children Here, you know, if you go over there to the Henry Horner Homes on the west side, you do have the United Center.
In fact, there's the, kind of, brushes that the boys have with things outside of their, kind of, experience of poverty and class have to do with, like, parking cars (LAUGH) or helping cars and stuff and selling water at the United Center where there's all sorts of, like, fancy Chicago roles through.
But the spacial separation of Chicago means that they're not really cheek and jowl next to, you know, $3 million town homes or anything like that. But because of the nature of how spread out Chicago was, the fact that this was not a moment of gentrification in the way that we think about it now, particularly in the, sort of, post-2000 comeback city era and then the post-financial crisis, that the kids in that story are not really cheek by jowl with all of the, kind of, wealth that is in Chicago. They're quite spatially separated from it. And one of the striking elements of the story you tell is that that's not the case in the case of the title character of Dasani. Where do you first encounter her in the city?
Andrea Elliott: I met Dasani while I was standing outside of Auburn Family Residence, which is a city run, decrepit shelter, one of two city run shelters that were notorious for the conditions that children were forced to live in with their families.
This was north of Fort Greene park. Just a few blocks from townhouses that were worth millions of dollars. There are several things that are important to know about this neighborhood and what it represents. First of all, Dasani landed there in 2010 because her family had been forced out of their section eight rental in Staten Island.
Bed bugs. Their voucher had expired. All these things, kind of, coalesced to create a crisis, which is so often the case with being poor is that it's a lot of small things suddenly happening at once that then snowball into something catastrophic.
They wound up being placed at Auburn. To an outsider, living in Fort Greene, you might think, "Oh, that's the kid that lives at the homeless shelter. She's just a visitor. She's passing through. She's transient." That's what we tend to think of the homeless as.
And, of course, children aren't the face of the homeless. If you use the word homeless, usually the image that comes to mind is of a panhandler or someone sleeping on subway grates. Dasani's roots in Fort Greene go back for generations. And she was actually living in the very building where her own grandmother had been born back when it was Cumberland Hospital, which was a public hospital.
I think that what is so striking about the New York that she was growing up in, as compared to, for instance, the New York of her mother Chanel, also named for a bottle of liquid, (LAUGH) is that Chanel grew up in East Brooklyn at a time when this was a siloed community, much like what you are describing about Henry Horner.
So Bed-Stuy, East New York. East New York still is to a certain degree, but Bed-Stuy has completely changed now. At that time when Chanel was born in '78, her mother was living in a place where it was rare to encounter a white person. And you didn't really have firsthand access to what it looks like, what it smells like to be wealthy.
She saw this ad in a glossy magazine while she was, I believe, at a medical clinic. This is according to her sister, because Joanie has since passed. But she saw an ad for Chanel perfume. She didn't know what it smelled like, but she just loved the sound of it.
And so she named her daughter Chanel. All you could buy at the local bodega at that time was Charlie. (LAUGH) Like those kinds of, like, cheap colognes. Now you fast forward to 2001. We're in a new century. This is a pivotal, pivotal decade for Brooklyn.
Massive gentrification occurs in this first decade. In Fort Greene alone, in that first decade, we saw the portion of white residents jump up by 80%. So Chanel is in Bed-Stuy. She's seeing all of this is just starting to happen. She's pregnant with Dasani, 2001.
And she sees a curious thing on the shelf of her local bodega. She sees this bottled water called Dasani and it had just come out. Coca Cola had put it out a year earlier. And her first thought was, "Who would ever pay for water?" And that really cracked me up because any true New Yorker likes to brag about the quality of our tap water. I mean, whether you're poor--
Chris Hayes: That's correct.
Andrea Elliott: --or you're wealthy, (LAUGH) like, you know. So it was strange to her. But especially to someone like her, who she was struggling. She was a single mother. She was unemployed. She had a drug (INAUDIBLE). She had a lot of issues. She just thought, "Who could afford that?"
And it's a little bit like her own mother had thought. "What's Chanel perfume? What is that?" Chanel thought of Dasani. She liked the sound of it. The sound of that name. It, sort of, conjured this new life as this new life was arriving. And it really was for that clientele, I believe.
The bodegas were starting. I live in Harlem. And in my local bodega, they suddenly recently added, I just noticed this last night, organic milk. And that was not available even a month ago. (LAUGH) You know? So it's interesting how, you know, you always see what's happening on the street first before you see it 10,000 feet above the ground in terms of policy or other things.
But I met her standing outside of that shelter. And I was so struck by many things about her experience of growing up poor. She was 11 years old. Her mother had grown up in a very different time. The street was a dangerous place. Dasani was growing up at a time where, you know, the street was in some ways dangerous depending on what part of Brooklyn you are, but very, very quickly could become exciting.
Just a few blocks away are different or, kind of, safer feeling, but maybe alienating also. So she would talk about this. She would walk past these boutiques where there were $800 boots for sale. She never even went inside. She would just look through the window.
You know, she just knew this other world was there and it existed and it did not include her. Every once in a while, it would. And one of the things that I found interesting is that one of the advantages to being within such close proximity to wealthy people is that people would drop off donations at the shelter.
Clothing donations. And they were, kind of, swanky. Like, she was wearing Uggs at one point and a Patagonia fleece at another point. And demographers have studied this and I think that we still don't really know ultimately. It's still too new of a field of research to say authoritatively what the impact is, good or bad, of gentrification on long term residents who are lower income.
There definitely are upsides. Right? You have a greater likelihood of meeting someone who might know of a job or, "Hey, there's someone in my building who needs a such." And just exposure to diversity is great for anyone. It's important to not live in a silo. So I think that is what's so interesting is you rightly point out that we are in this fractured country now. And yet, in cities, the fracturing happens within really close range.
Chris Hayes: Dasani is 11 years old. You find her outside this shelter. She is in that shelter because of this, kind of, accumulation of, you know, small, fairly common, or banal problems of the poor that had assembled into a catastrophe, had meant not being able to stay in the section eight housing.
Section eight, of course, is the federal rental voucher system for low income people to be able to afford housing. It's massively oversubscribed. (LAUGH) And the market produces massively too little affordable housing, which is in some ways part of the story of Dasani and her family, which is the city doesn't have enough affordable housing. How long is she in that shelter? And talk a little bit about just her routine, her school life.
Andrea Elliott: Yeah. So she lived in that shelter for over three years. Before that, she had been in and out of shelters with her family. She then moved from there to a shelter in Harlem and then to a shelter in the Bronx before finally, once again, landing another section eight voucher and being able to move back into a home with her family.
And that gets us to 2014. At that time when I met her when she was 11, Dasani would wake around 5 a.m. and the first thing she did, she always woke before all of her other siblings. She had seven siblings. She was the second oldest, but technically, as far as they were all concerned, she was the boss of the siblings and a third parent, in a sense.
She was just one of those kids who had so many gifts that it made her both promising in the sense of she could do anything with her life. She could go anywhere. And it also made her indispensable to her parents, which this was a real tension from the very beginning.
She would wake up. She knew she had to help get her siblings fed and dressed. Her parents were struggling with a host of problems. And she wanted to beat them for just a few minutes in the morning of quiet by getting up before them. And she'd go to her window, and she talked about this a lot.
And she would stare at the Empire State Building at the tower lights because the Empire State Building, as any New Yorker knows, lights up depending on the occasion to reflect the colors of that occasion. St. Patty's Day, green and white.
Sometimes it'll say, like, "Happy birthday, Jay Z," or, you know. And she just loved that. She loved to sit on her windowsill. And, as she put it, "It makes me feel like something's going on out there." It was this aspiration that was, like, so much a part of her character.
And this is a current that runs through this family, very much so, as you can see by the names. Her stepfather's name is Supreme. She calls him Daddy. Chanel. I mean, these were people with tremendous potential and incredible ideas about what their lives could be that were such a contrast to what they were living out.
She would then start to feed the baby. She would change her diaper. She would help in all kinds of ways. By the time, I would say, a lot of school kids were waking up, just waking up in New York City to go to school, Dasani had been working for two hours.
And by the time she got her youngest siblings to school and got to her own school, usually late, she had missed the free breakfast at the shelter and the free breakfast at her school. She was often tired. Nonetheless, she landed on the honor roll that fall.
So her principal, kind of, took her under her wing. And I met Dasani right in that period, as did the principal. And, you know, this was a new school. And it was just a constant struggle between what Dasani's burdens have imposed on her and the limitless reach of her potential if she were only unburdened.
Chris Hayes: Her parents, Supreme and Chanel, you've, sort of, made allusion to this, but they both struggle with substance abuse. I mean, that is one of many issues. And obviously, you know, one of the things I think is interesting and comes through here is, and I don't know the data on this, but I have found in my life as a reporter and as a human being along various parts of the Titanic ship that is the United States of America that there's a lot of substance abuse at every level. (LAUGH)
Andrea Elliott: Oh, yeah.
Chris Hayes: You know? Like, these two things that I think we tend to associate with poverty and, particularly, homelessness, which is mental illness and substance abuse, which I think get--
Andrea Elliott: Yes.
Chris Hayes: --very much, particularly in the way that in an urban environment, get codified in your head of, like, people who were out and, you know, they're dealing with those two issues and this is concentrated. And one of the things that I've learned, of course, and this is an obvious point, is that those are very widely distributed through society. And, really, the difference is, like, the kind of safety nets, the kind of resources, the kind of access people have--
Andrea Elliott: Exactly.
Chris Hayes: --to dealing with those. And that's very clear in the context of her parents here.
Andrea Elliott: Absolutely. Her parents survived major childhood traumas. They did not get the help that many upper middle class Americans would take for granted, whether it's therapy, whether it's medication, whether it's rehab. They did go through plenty of cycles of trying to fix themselves.
And they did attend rehab at times. They were in drug treatment programs for most of the time that I was with them, mostly just trying to stay sober and often succeeding at it. I saw in Supreme and in Chanel a lot of the signs of someone who is self-medicating.
I mean, I have a lot of deep familiarity with the struggle of substance abuse in my own family. And so I have seen my siblings struggle for decades with it and have periods of sobriety and then relapse. And this was all very familiar to me. It's something that I talked about a lot with Supreme and Chanel.
I think that you're absolutely right that the difference isn't in behavior. The difference is in resources. It's in resources. And so I also will say that people would look at Dasani's family from the outside, her parents, and they might write them off as, you know, folks with a criminal record.
Well, by the way, that really gets in the way of getting a job. And unemployed. Well, if you know the poor, you know that they're working all the time. It's just not in the formal labor market. They would look at them and say, "How could they have eight children?
That's so irresponsible." And to each of those, sort of, judgments, Dasani's mother has an answer. She says, "I would love to meet," you know, anyone who accuses her of being a quote, unquote welfare queen. (LAUGH) She said to me at one point, "I mean, I want to say to them, especially if it's a man who's saying this, 'Have you ever been through childbirth?'
Like, I would love to meet a woman who's willing to go through childbirth for just a few extra dollars on your food stamp benefits (LAUGH) that's not even gonna last the end of the month." Family wasn't an accident. Family was everything for them.
This was and continues to be their entire way of being, their whole reason. And for most of us, I would say, family is so important. Right? Chanel always says, "Blood is thicker than water." She felt that the streets became her family because she had such a rocky childhood.
And she didn't want the streets to become her kids' family. And so she wanted a strong army of siblings. She wanted to create this fortress, in a way. And that's the sadness I found in watching what happened to their family as it disintegrated at the hands of these bigger forces. And we can talk about that more. But at the end of the day, they are stronger than anything you throw at them. And I consider family to be Dasani's ultimate, sort of, system of survival. This is where she derives her greatest strength.
Chris Hayes: I want to, sort of, take a step back because I want to continue with what you talk about as, sort of, these forces and the disintegration of the family and also track through where Dasani goes from where she was when she's 11. But before we do that, I want to talk a little bit about your subjective perspective and your experience as this observer and the ethical complications (LAUGH) of that and talk a little bit about how you dealt with that right after we take this quick break.
So you mentioned There Are No Children Here. And I had an experience where someone I knew and was quite close to is actually an anthropologist doing field work in Henry Horner Homes after There Are No Children Here. And there was a lot of complicated feelings about that book, as you might imagine.
And there's a amazing, amazing book called Random Family by Adrian LeBlanc which takes place in the Bronx, which is in a somewhat similar genre. And in all these cases, I think, like, you know, there's a duty for a journalist to tell these stories.
And at the same time, there's the old Janet Malcolm line about how every journalist who's, you know, not deluded will tell you what they're doing is ethically indefensible, which is not true and, kind of, hyperbolic, but scratches at something a little bit of a kernel of truth, which is that, like, there is always something intense and strange and sometimes a little hard to reckon with when you are reporting and telling the story of people who are in crisis, emergency trauma and you, yourself, are not.
And at one level, it's like, "It's our ethical duty to tell stories honestly and forcefully and truthfully." And it's, I think, a social good to do so. But there's something ethically complex, at least emotionally complex. And I just wonder, like, how you thought about it as you went through this project.
Andrea Elliott: This is a work in progress. I think about it every day. It's something that I have wrestled with from the very beginning and continue to throughout. And there's so much to say about it. I had spent years as a journalist entering into communities where I did not immediately belong or seem to belong as an outsider.
I was comfortable with that as a general notion of what I should be doing with my work, because I think that is our job as journalists. And regardless of our skin color, our ethnicity, our nationality, our political belief system, if you're a journalist, you're gonna cross boundaries.
You're gonna get out of your own lane and go into other worlds. But you have to understand that in so doing, you carry a great amount of responsibility to, I think, first and foremost, second guess yourself constantly. I was never allowing myself to get too comfortable.
I think that that was a major compass for me was this idea that, "Don't ever get too comfortable that you know your position here or your place. Try to explain your work as much as you can." I had an early experience of this with Muslim immigrant communities in the United States that I reported on for years.
I felt that it was really, really important to explain my process to this imam, in particular, who I spent six months with, who had come from Egypt and had a very different sense of the press, which was actually a tool of oppression. Part of the government.
It wasn't a safe thing. And he didn't really understand what my purpose was. And at that time in my career, it was 2006. I didn't have a giant stack of in-depth, immersive stories to show him. And I was trying to get him to agree to let me in for months at a time.
By the time I got to Dasani's family, I had that stack and I gave it to them. And I'll get to that in a second. But with Shaka Ritashata (PH), I remember using all of the, sort of, typical things that we say as journalists. "I just want to be a fly on the wall."
And we were working through a translator. And the translator would translate and was actually showing this fly. And I remember the imam's face was just, like, horrified. (LAUGH) I don't know what got lost in translation there. Then Jim Ester and the photographer (LAUGH) who was working with me said, "We just want to shadow you."
And that didn't go over well because he just came (LAUGH) years ago from Egypt. I mean, everything fell on its face. And so I did what I often do as a journalist is I thought, "You know, let me find a universal point of connection. The movies." Now you are a very halal Muslim leader.
You're not supposed to be watching movies. But you know what a movie is. We're gonna both pretend we've seen movies. Anyway, and I said, "Imagine I'm making a movie about your life. A movie has scenes. In order to witness those scenes, I have to be around.
This is a story." And he immediately got it. He said, "Yes. A movie has characters." So by the time I got to Dasani's family, this was a very different situation. Her parents are avid readers. They follow media carefully. But nonetheless, my proposal was to focus on Dasani and on her siblings, on children.
And that carries a huge ethical quandary because you don't know, "Will they come to regret this later on?" So at the time, you know, I was at The New York Times and we wrestled with this a lot. We just had all these meetings in the newsroom about what to do because the story was unfolding and it was gripping. And at the same time, what if these kids ten years from now regret it? Don't their future adult selves have a right to privacy (LAUGH) in a sense? Right?
Chris Hayes: Yeah. Yeah.
Andrea Elliott: And I think the middle ground we found was to protect them by not putting their last names in and refer to most of them by their nicknames. And then their cover got blown and that was after the series ran. But the family liked the series enough to let me continue following them.
They felt that they had a better handle on my process by then. And my process involved them. First of all, I don't rely on my own memory. So I work very closely with audio and video tools. And I have this pen that's called live scribe and it records sound while I'm writing.
Dasani would call it my spy pen. They loved this pen and they would grab it from me (LAUGH) and they would use it as a microphone and pretend, you know, she was on the news. "This is so and so." You know? She actually did a whole newscast for me, which I videotaped, about Barack Obama becoming the first Black president.
It was really so sweet. I still have it. And her lips are stained with green lollipop. (LAUGH) Because they ate so much candy, often because they didn't have proper food. And that would chase off the hunger faster. Ethical issues. Yes. It was incredibly confusing as a human being to go from their world back into mine on the Upper West Side in my rental with my kids who didn't have to worry about roaches.
Well, every once in a while, a roach here and there in New York. But nothing like this. You know, my fridge was always gonna be stocked. It was a constant struggle. And I think what I would say is that there are no easy answers to this. What I would say is that you just have to keep wrestling with it.
And I found greater clarity after I left the newsroom and was more in an academic setting as I was researching this book. I was around a lot of folks like Lee Ann Fujii, who passed away. She was an amazing ethnographer and she and I had many conversations about what she called the asymmetry of power, that is this natural asymmetry that's built into any academic subject, reporter subject relationship.
And you just have to know that going in and never kid yourself that it has shifted. And then you have to think about how to address it. And how far can I go? What is crossing the line? And those questions just remained constantly on my mind. And they were things that I talked about with the family a lot. We could have a whole podcast about this one (LAUGH) issue.
Chris Hayes: Yeah. Yeah. No, I know. And it is something that I think about a lot, obviously, because I'm a practitioner as well. And, you know, I think that there's, in the prose itself, tremendous, you know, I think, sort of, ethical clarity and empathy and humanization. And there's some poverty reporting where, like, it feels, you know, a little gross or it feels a little, like, you know, alien gaze-y (LAUGH) for lack of a better word. Like, these are--
Andrea Elliott: Right.
Chris Hayes: --real tropes (LAUGH) of this genre. And this book really avoids it. I want to be very clear. Like, you do an incredible job on that. But, like, that's not something that just happens. It happens because there's a lot of thought and even theory, I think, put into the practice.
Andrea Elliott: Can I delve into that for a second? 'Cause I think it's such an important point. I think it's so natural for an outsider to be shocked by the kind of conditions that Dasani was living in. And I understand the reporters who, sort of, just stop there and they describe these conditions and they're so horrifying.
And, actually, sometimes those stories are important because they raise alarms that are needed. I think that when you get deeper inside and when you start to really try your best to understand on a more intimate level what those conditions mean for the person that you're writing about, so you stop imposing your outsider lens, although it's always gonna be there and you must be aware of it, and you try to allow for a different perspective.
This family is a proud family. This family is a family that prides itself on so many things about its system as a family, including its orderliness. They were put in a situation where things were out of their control. Laundry piled up.
Mice were running everywhere. And then they tried to assert control. And I think showing the dignity within these conditions is part of that other lens. Right? But the other part is agency. So to what extent did Dasani show agency within this horrible setting?
It wasn't just that she was this victim of the setting. No. She attacked the mice. (LAUGH) She would try to kill them every week. And she talked about them brutally. And in the very beginning, I was like, "Oh, I don't think I can hear this." She's like, "And I smashed their eyes out and I'd do this."
And then I was like, "I need to hear this. This is so important." She was so tender with her turtle. The turtle they had snuck into the shelter. But she was not at all that way with the mice. And, of course, not. They were-- they were eating the family's food and biting.
At one point, one, I think it was a rat, actually bit baby Lele, the youngest of the children, and left pellets all over the bed. So this was the enemy. And you got power out of fighting back on some level. And a lot of the reporting was, "But tell me how you reacted to this. How did you respond? How did you feel, you know, about the pipe that's leaking?" And which she fixed. You know, that's part of it.
Chris Hayes: We don't have to go through all of the crises and challenges and brutal things that this family has to face and overcome and struggled through. I want people to read the book, which is gonna do a better job of this all because it's so, sort of, like, finely crafted. Talk a little bit about where Dasani is now, her age, what she had to, sort of, come through, and also maybe a little bit about the fact that she was written about in The New York Times, like, might have affected that trajectory.
Andrea Elliott: Okay. Where is Dasani now? Dasani's 20. She's had major ups and major downs. This book is filled with twists and turns, as is her story. It's unpredictable. It's part of the reason I stayed on it for eight years is it just kept surprising me and I kept finding myself (LAUGH) drawn back in.
And I could never see what the next turn would be. So that's continued to be the case since the book ended. She has hit a major milestone, though. She became the first child in her family to graduate high school and she has now entered LaGuardia Community College.
She's studying business administration, which has long been her dream. So she's taking some strides forward. In the book, the major turning points are, first of all, where the series began, that she was in this absolutely horrifying shelter just trying to survive.
Then the series ran at the end of 2013. And she became, for a moment, I wouldn't say celebrity, but a child who was being celebrated widely. She was invited to be a part of Bill de Blasio's inaugural ceremony. She held the Bible for Tish James, the incoming then-public advocate who held Dasani's fist up in the air and described her to the entire world as, "My new BFF."
I mean, this was a kid who had been, sort of, suddenly catapulted on to the front page of The New York Times for five days. Legal Aid set up a trust for the family. Some donations came in. What was striking to me was how little changed. And it's not because people didn't care or there wasn't the willpower to help Dasani.
It's, first of all, the trust, which continues to exist and is something I think people should support. It's helping them all get through college. And I'm also, by the way, donating a portion of the proceeds of this book to the family, to benefit Dasani and her siblings and parents.
But I would say that at the time, the parents saw that trust as an obstacle to any kind of real improvement because they couldn't access it because donors didn't want money going into the hands of parents with a drug history and also because they did continue to receive public assistance.
And so it would break the rules. And so they had a choice. Either give up your public assistance and you can have this money or not. And it wasn't a huge amount of money as far as I know, although Legal Aid's never told me (LAUGH) exactly how much is in it.
But I don't think it's enough to put all these kids through college. So I'm really hoping that that changes. But basically, Dasani came to see that money as something for the future, not an escape from poverty. And so putting that aside, what really changed?
Not much. The problems of poverty are so much greater, so much more overwhelming than the power of being on the front page of The New York Times. And that's just the truth. The other thing you asked about were the major turning points.
After that, about six months after the series ran, I continued to follow them all throughout. I never stopped reporting on her life. And they agreed to allow me to write a book and to continue to stay in their lives. And that was a new thing for me.
I had not ever written a book. And I had avoided it. Actually, I'd had some opportunities, but I was never in love with a story like this one. I still am always. Whenever I'm with Chanel, Dasani, Supreme, any of the kids, I'm captivated by them.
I just find them to be some of the most interesting people I've ever met. About six months after the series ran, we're talking June of 2014, Dasani by then had missed 52 days of the school year, which was typical, 'cause chronic absenteeism is very, very normal among homeless children.
There's so much upheaval. She was commuting from Harlem to her school in Brooklyn. And her principal had this idea that she should apply to a school that I had never heard of called the Milton Hershey School, which is a school in Hershey, Pennsylvania that tries to reform poor children. And a lot of things then happen after that.
Chris Hayes: Yeah. The Milton Hershey School is an incredible, incredible place. A fascinating, sort of, strange (UNINTEL) generous institution in a lot of ways. She ends up there. And, yeah, maybe talk a little bit about what that experience is like for her.
Andrea Elliott: So Milton Hershey School was created by America's chocolate magnate Milton Hershey, who left behind no children. And so this was his great legacy was to create a school for children in need. And it's the richest private school in America. It has more than a $17 billion endowment.
And about 2,000 kids go there. You have to be from a low income family. Hershey likes to say that it wants to be the opposite of a legacy school, that if your kids qualify, that means that the school hasn't done its job, 'cause its whole purpose is to lift children out of poverty.
And you can't go there unless you're poor. And so Dasani went literally from one day to the next from the north shore of Staten Island where she was living in a neighborhood that was very much divided along the lines of gang warfare. There were evictions.
It was a high poverty neighborhood to a school where every need is taken care of. She has a full wardrobe provided to her. She lives in a house run by a married couple. Each home at the school, they hire couples who are married who already have children to come be the house parents.
And they have 12 kids per home. And they act as their surrogate parents. And so you can get braces. You get birthday presents. You have piano lessons and tutoring and, of course, academics and all kinds of athletic resources. And it was an extraordinary experience.
And at first, she thrived. She made leaps ahead in math. She was doing so well. But when you remove her from the family system, this was predictable that the family would struggle, because she was so essential to that. And when she left, the family began to struggle, and for a variety of reasons, came under the scrutiny of the city's child protection agency.
And this ultimately wound up in the children being removed in October of 2015, about ten months into Dasani's time at Hershey. Her siblings, she was informed, were placed in foster care. And I don't think she could ever recover from that.
It was just the most devastating thing to have happened to her family. And she tried to stay the path. She lasted more than another year. But I think she just experienced such an identity crisis and she felt so much guilt. She felt that she left them and this is what happened.
And she also struggled with having to act differently. What Hershey calls code switching, which is you switch between the norms, the linguistic codes, and behaviors of one place to another so that you can move within both worlds or many worlds.
She felt that they were trying to make her, sort of, get rid of an essential part of herself that she was proud of. Like, "Why do I have to say, 'Isn't,' instead of, 'Ain't'?" This focus on language, this focus on speaking a certain way and dressing a certain way made her feel like her own family culture home was being rejected.
Her sense of home has always been so profound even though she's homeless. And one thing this book's gotten me to see is how the word homeless really is a misnomer, because these people have such a sense of belonging, especially in New York City.
They are true New Yorkers. They just don't have a steady roof over their head. And she said that best in her own words. I can read you the quote. She said, "Home is the people. The people I hang out with. The people I grew up with. That, to be honest, is really home. People who have had my back since day one. It doesn't have to be a roof over my head. At Hershey, I feel like a stranger, like I really don't belong. In New York, I feel proud. I feel good. I feel accepted."
Chris Hayes: So she's back in the city. She is 20 years old. She's at a community college. What's your relationship with her now and what's her reaction to the book?
Andrea Elliott: So at the end of the five days that it took for me to read the book to Dasani, when we got to the last line, she said, "That's the last line?" And I said, "Yes." And she jumped on top of my dining room table and started dancing. This is typical of Dasani. She's a hilarious (LAUGH) person.
Chris Hayes: Yes.
Andrea Elliott: She was mostly doing--
Chris Hayes: That comes through.
Andrea Elliott: --it (LAUGH) because she was trying to show me how relieved she was that our brutal fact check process was over and that she didn't have to listen to me say one more line. But she told me, and she has told me many times since, that she loves the book.
It's painful. There are parts of it that are painful. But she was so closely involved in my process. I would be off in the woods somewhere writing and I would call her. I mean, I called her every day almost for years. "What were you thinking in this moment?
What did you think then?" And a lot of that time was spent together. I took 14 trips to see her at Hershey. In the city, I mean, I have a 132 hours of audio recorded of all my reporting adventures. And I just spent so much time with this family and that continues to be the case.
You know, we're very much in one another's lives. I don't want to really say what Dasani's reaction is for her. I think what she has expressed to me, I can certainly repeat. She's been through this a little bit before, right, with the series. So she knows what it's like to suddenly be the subject of a lot of people's attention.
I think she feels that the book was able to go to much deeper places and that that's a good thing. And I hope that she'll continue to feel that way. You never know with a book what its ultimate life will be in the minds of the people that you write about or a story for that matter.
But I know that I tried very, very hard at every step to make sure it felt as authentic as possible to her, because there's a lot of descriptions of how she's thinking about things. And that's impossible to do without the person being involved and opening up and transparent.
The other thing I would say is that we love the story of the kid who made it out. We rarely look at all the children who don't, who are just as capable. And I think that that's what Dasani's story forces us to do is to understand why versus how.
How you get out isn't the point. It's why do so many not? And I think that that's also what she would say. She doesn't want to get out. She wants to stay in her neighborhood and with her family. And she wants to be able to thrive there. She doesn't want to have to leave.
Chris Hayes: That is such a profound point about the structure of American life and the aspirations for it. Andrea Elliott is a investigative reporter at The New York Times, (BACKGROUND MUSIC) a Pulitzer Prize winner. She spent eight years falling the story of Dasani Coates. It's told in her newest book Invisible Child: Poverty, Survival, and Hope in an American City. It's a really, really great piece of work. Andrea, thank you so much.
Andrea Elliott: Thank you, Chris.
Chris Hayes: Once again, great thanks to Andrea Elliott. The book is called Invisible Child. It's available wherever you get your books. We'd love to hear from you. Tweet us at the hashtag #WITHPod. Email firstname.lastname@example.org. Why Is This Happening? is presented by MSNBC and NBC News, produced by the All In team and features music by Eddie Cooper. You can see more of our work, including links to things we mentioned here, by going to nbcnews.com/whyisthishappening.
Tweet us with the hashtag #WITHpod, email WITHpod@gmail.com. “Why Is This Happening?” is presented by MSNBC and NBC News, produced by Doni Holloway and features music by Eddie Cooper. You can see more of our work, including links to things we mentioned here, by going to nbcnews.com/whyisthishappening.