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Lessons from Dasani: Breaking the Cycle of Homelessness

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The New York Times "Invisible Child" series has prompted a strong reaction and substantive global dialogue among politicos, influencers and concerned citizens on the issue of homelessness in New York City. Like so many readers, I found myself deeply saddened as I followed the story of Dasani, a 12-year-old homeless girl who, along with her family of seven siblings and parents suffering from substance addiction, has been living in stressful conditions in a city shelter for the past three years.

Dasani's story has left many New Yorkers shocked, asking how this could go on in front of our own eyes. People want to know how there can be more than 22,000 children living without homes in our city, and how this number managed to nearly double over the last decade. These questions are vital and, in this alone, the Times series has done the city a valuable service. But the story also calls for a note of caution.

As devastating as it is, Dasani's story is by no means typical. Most of the homeless families in New York, including the 800 that our non-profit organization, Win, serves each night, have been hit by any number or type of misfortune -- personal loss, job or financial instability, even natural disaster. Some have endured harrowing medical battles or fled from their homes to escape domestic abuse, only to find themselves with no roof over their heads and nowhere else to go.

For the families we serve, who spend on average eleven months in a shelter, homelessness is not something they are condemned to, but something they are ultimately able to overcome. Those who stay in one of our many shelters around the city maintain some semblance of a normal life; going to work, doing homework with their children and cooking meals, even as they fight to get back on their feet.

Walking into one of our shelters, visitors are often surprised by what they see. The perception of homeless shelters as chaotic and unkempt, is replaced with a more accurate impression of optimism and hope. Win shelters provide private units where families sit around their own kitchen tables, bathe their kids in their own bathrooms and work hard to surmount the many challenges homelessness presents each day.

This kind of safe, clean and stable environment is the essential foundation on which families can work to break the cycle of homelessness. Able to return home to the same place each night, and have access to social services like on-site childcare, job training and life skills programs is essential to providing families with the resources they need to eventually move on and out of shelter.

Anyone who has worked to fight homelessness for as long as we have will tell you that there's no magic formula out there. But for over 30 years, Win has helped provide families stability, which creates a relatively clear path for those families to regain the life that was once theirs, and the dignity that comes from working hard to support one's family.

As the conversation about homelessness in New York continues to grow, adding valuable voices and perspectives, we have to ensure that people know there is a way forward. Working together to develop progressive policies, while strategically allocating public funds, and benefitting from the continued support of nonprofits, and generosity of private donors, we can break the cycle of homelessness and make the transition to independence a reality for thousands of families who want -- and need -- nothing more.

Bonnie Stone is the President and CEO of Win, a non-profit organization dedicated to breaking the cycle of homelessness for families.