Seeing the city shrinks. Cars pass on the highway. Dasani Coates looks out the window, looking at the trees and snowy ledges, and then a sign:
You are welcome
state of freedom
She’s been hearing about Pennsylvania all her life. This is where people go free. Her mother, Chanel Sykes, moved as a child, leaving Brooklyn on a bus to Pittsburgh to escape the influence of a crack-addicted parent. Dasani, now 13, is going, but to a different place – a boarding school in rural Hershey that tries to save children from poverty.
“I want to go to Milton Hershey School because I want to get a better education,” Dasani wrote in her application essay. She was eager to be “a little away from my family,” she said, “but at least I know I get to see them on vacation.”
None of Dasani’s seven siblings had ever left home. They were always together, despite being homeless, roaming between New York City shelters with their parents, Chanel, and her husband, Supreme. Then, in October 2014, they landed in a rent-subsidized apartment on the north coast of Staten Island, an area ravaged by gang warfare and evictions. Three months later, on January 26, 2015, Dasani was preparing to leave for Hershey School.
“You know Saturn is leaving, right?” Her mother told baby Lee-li that morning. The girl pushed her little nose into Dasani’s face and mumbled “No, no, no, no.” Then he put Dasani in the eye with a piece of bazooka bubble gum.
“She doesn’t understand,” whispered Dasani. “So far.”
Even Dasani did not yet understand what it would mean to leave. She had spent her rocky childhood defending the survival of her siblings, learning to change diapers before coming to kindergarten. She was her mother’s firstborn, but acted like a parent with a tight-knit bunch of her siblings, spanning ages 2 to 12—her “full blood” sister, Aviana, He has four half-siblings, Maya, Hada, Papa and Lee. -Lee, and two half-brothers, Khalik and Nana.
“Family is everything,” Dasani told me. She didn’t know the world without them.
To avoid saying goodbye, he distracts Lee-Lee with the cartoon show “Peg + Cat” before the child sees it. He had no suitcase, only a stack of family photos, a bottle of perfume and a small black purse filled with dozens of coins. On the terrace, standing in the snow, stood Dasani’s stepfather, Supreme, a 37-year-old barber. He hugged Dasani tightly and said, “I love you,” which he never said. Then he saw her walk away, his eyes moist.
“I’m jealous,” she said softly. “I wish I could do it all over again. I would be very happy – I would be very happy to go to school. To go School“
On the drive to Hershey’s, Dasani sees Route 78 giving way to a country road through vast fields of corn. I’m at the wheel, next to Chanel, who will soon be 37. Dasani’s two eldest sisters, Aviana and Nana, have come along for the ride. They look out the car window, seeing the farmhouse and silos pointing to the sky. Dasani glances at the horizon, finding nothing but the hills. The cows scream at him in a way that the city rats can scare away a country child.
A look of miracle appears on Aviana’s face. Born only 11 months apart, he and Dasani consider themselves “twins.” Only they have a name like their mother – Chanel – bottled and sold fancy liquids. For years, they shared the same dresser and mattress, even the same pillow.
No sister could have imagined saying goodbye. Three nights ago, they were cleaning the kitchen when Beyoncé’s song “Listen” came on the speaker. Aviana’s face lit up as Dasani and Chanel rushed to catch him. Together, they slowly danced to the words.
I’m alone at a crossroads
I am not in my house in my house…
I followed the voice you gave me
But now I have to find my own.
I met Dasani for the first time In October 2012, she was an 11-year-old homeless girl as she grew up in Fort Greene, Brooklyn—a neighborhood where the rich and poor live in striking close proximity. The following year, I published a five-part series about Dasani’s family after spending 14 months with him.
All 10 of them – Dasani, her parents, her seven siblings and her pet tortoise – were living in a single mouse-infested room at the Auburn Family Residence, a city-run homeless shelter home to millions of people. Just a short walk from the townhouse that is sold in. Day after day, Dasani would walk through the streets of Fort Greene, looking at a world that had not seen her. “I’m visible,” he told me later. “But society doesn’t see me.”
She had a delicate oval face, chestnut skin and bright brown eyes. Young for her age, Dasani woke up early every morning to feed and dress her siblings before taking them to school. She was a dancer, a runner, a proud street fighter. There were three ways, in his mother’s view, for a child to become popular: “Fly the dress. do well at school. War.”
Few saw Dasani’s furious edge, but her middle-school principal Paula Holmes could see it. She was the kind of girl by the light of Holmes who could become anything she wanted — even a Supreme Court justice — if she used her gifts in time. “There is something in Dasani that has not yet been revealed,” said Holmes. “It’s still being cultivated.”
Dasani’s roots at Fort Greene go back four generations to his great-grandfather, Wesley Sykes, who left North Carolina to fight in Italy with the Army’s separate all-black regiment, the Buffalo Soldiers. After returning home as a veteran of the triple bronze service star in 1945, Sykes married and moved north to Brooklyn, where it was nearly impossible for a black family to obtain a hostage. While the GI Bill moved millions of white veterans into the middle class—helping them go to college, start businesses, and own a home—black veterans were largely excluded. Trained as a mechanic in the military, Sikes worked more than 30 low-paying jobs in Brooklyn cleaning floors and pouring concrete. He and his wife, Margaret, settled for rent-subsidized apartments in Fort Greene House, the complex Dasani would come to know as “The Projects”.
Sykes’ fifth child – Dasani’s grandmother Joni Sykes – was born in the same building where Dasani would later live, the public hospital at 39 Auburn Place that became a homeless shelter. By 1978, Joanie was pregnant with Chanel, named for the perfume she saw in a glossy magazine.
Chanel’s childhood is associated with a new era of urban crisis. As the crack epidemic escalated, his mother became addicted and sent Chanel, as a child, to live with his father and his common-law wife, Sherry. Chanel was 2 years old when her father died at a construction site. She spent the weekend with Joni with Sherry, a stable, church-going businessman who relied on welfare checks to support her habit. At the age of 8, Chanel found her mother’s cracked pipe in a jewelry box.
“It was like two different people trying to raise a child,” Chanel said. Sherry tried to undermine Joni’s influence at the age of 10 by sending Chanel to live with a relative in Pittsburgh and attend a Catholic school. But Chanel yearned for her mother and was soon back in New York, living with Joanie at a homeless shelter. In her early 20s, Chanel had dropped out of high school, joined the Bloods gang and was caught in the rift—just as her mother turned her life around. Joni had calmed down and, through a welfare work program, took a full-time job cleaning a train.
Dasani was born in 2001, when Chanel was 23 years old. She gave birth to Dasani’s sister, Aviana, the next year, who parted ways with the man who gave birth to both girls. By 2005, Chanel was married to Supreme, another Brooklyn native who had survived several traumas. Together they vowed to improve their lives, creating the kind of family they never had – a strong army of siblings with an unbreakable bond. “It’s a cruel world,” Chanel told me. “I wanted them to trust each other. So they don’t have to depend on people who are not family.”
As the Administration for Children’s Services was hovering over the family, the agency tasked with investigating allegations of child abuse and neglect. ACS caseworkers were continuously monitoring the channel and Supreme since 2004. On 12 occasions, they found evidence of parental neglect due to lack of supervision, educational lapses or drug use by parents. In 2011, Chanel temporarily lost custody of the children after leaving them unattended in Auburn. They remained in Supreme’s care as both parents began drug-treatment programs, determined to keep their family intact. “We didn’t have a family,” Chanel said. “That is why the street became our family. I didn’t want Gali to be his family either.”
It took months for the channel to speak to me with such candor. After all, she said that if I weren’t a mother, she’d never let me be near her kids (most of whom are identified by their surnames). It also helped that I wasn’t, in his words, “all white” because I’m “Latin”—my mother is an immigrant from Chile, a fact that pleased Dasani, whose biological father is half-Dominican.
After publishing the series about Dasani – accompanied by vivid photographs by Ruth Fremson – readers poured in with calls and emails offering to donate to the family. We directed them to the Legal Aid Society, which had set up a trust for Dasani and her siblings. She was still on the front page when incoming Mayor Bill de Blasio held a news conference, saying, “We can’t let the kids of this town down like Dasani.” His administration removed more than 400 children from Auburn and another shelter, permanently closing both facilities for children.
For a moment, Dasani felt like the most famous kid in town. The cameras flashed as he took to the stage during de Blasio’s inauguration in January 2014. He held the Bible for incoming public prosecutor Letitia James, who called him “my new BFF.”
But long after the attention shifted, Dasani’s family was still homeless, now living in a shelter in Harlem. Donors of the trust had expressed concerns about money going to parents with a drug history. Absent the issue, any cash donations would have counted as income, leaving the family to lose their food stamps and other public aid. Dasani understood that the trust was mostly for college – a fund for the future, not a way out of poverty.
After the series ran, Dasani’s family agreed for me to continue following her story for a book—a project that would keep me in their lives for nearly a decade. As of June 2014, Dasani was nearing the end of seventh grade, arriving by bus from Harlem to her school in Fort Greene. She had missed 52 days of school – almost a third of the academic year. While chronic absenteeism is typical among homeless students, Holmes, the principal, also blamed Dasani’s mother for burdening her eldest daughter with child care. This contributed to Dasani’s aggressive behavior at school, Holmes thought.
“He’s short-fused,” Holmes told me. “But his anger is not really on anyone here. Their anger is over the unnecessary stuff being imposed on this child.” In June 2014, Holmes hatched a plan. She called Dasani into her office to announce: she would be applying to Hershey School. For this child, leaving home was the surest way to a better life.
Even as a little girl, Dasani was full of aspirations. She had a daily routine: She would get up in front of her siblings and sit by her window, looking at the Empire State Building early in the morning. “It makes me think there’s something going on there,” she said.
She kept reaching for the same throughout her life. “I have a lot of potential,” he told me. “However, I do.”