On the way to our family’s apartment-complex parking spot, we drive past two large dumpsters, dark green and rather foreboding, often full to bursting with yesterday’s trash. Some days little children search for cans to redeem for candy money. Or grown men crawl inside the large boxes, hunting for things to use or sell.
Just the other day I noticed all sorts of furniture piled high against the dumpsters: mattresses, tables, chairs, couches. “Oh no,” I murmured. “It looks like someone must have gotten bed bugs.”
My husband was quiet for a minute, then looked at me. “Actually,” he said, “it looks like somebody got evicted. That’s the furniture of an entire apartment.”
I knew he was right, but I couldn’t bear to believe it. I couldn’t bear to think about who slept on those mattresses, ate at that table, sat on that couch. I couldn’t bear to think about where they would go next. So I turned my face away, the Oregon rain starting to fall on those belongings, relics of history and place ruined and discarded for all to see. More than anything, I felt a rising shame at my own sense of powerlessness.
Matthew Desmond knows this sting all too well. Raised a preacher’s son, he was primed for a modest middle-class life. But when his parents’ house went into foreclosure, he was moved to study issues of poverty in America. As a recipient of the MacArthur Genius Grant for his sociological fieldwork in poverty-stricken portions of Milwaukee, he has seen firsthand the enormous ripple effect of evictions and forced relocations—how they keep people mired in poverty (while making a few individuals very wealthy).
Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City (Crown) is the result of months he spent living first in a trailer park in Milwaukee’s mostly white south side, then in a rooming house in the all-black north side. Desmond studiously avoids any mention of himself, so that his subjects stand out clearly. I am haunted by the names and stories of the individuals he lived with and followed as they worked incessantly to keep moving forward: addicts and shut-ins, single mothers, the mentally ill, the down-on-their-luck.
Damaged and Resilient
In the end, Evicted is a study of how profoundly broken systems create profoundly broken communities. Desmond frames the conversation around an incisive question: Why does everything cost so much more for the poor? The dominant advice for reaching (and staying in) the middle class is simple: up your income and lower your expenses. (Dave Ramsey, the popular financial guru, advocates spending only 25 percent of household income on housing.) But for people in poverty, this is virtually impossible. Unless they qualify for government assistance (and many have been waitlisted for years), they’re compelled to fork over roughly 60 to 90 percent of their income on rent.
Most entry-level jobs do not cover a family’s expenses. (In my Portland neighborhood, a single mother would have to work 72 hours a week at minimum wage to afford a basic two-bedroom apartment.) Food also costs more in inner-city neighborhoods, so even with food stamps, the money doesn’t stretch as far. For the comfortably middle class, extra expenses are a nuisance; for the inner-city poor, they create crushing scenarios. Do you pay the rent—or the bus fare to attend your mother’s funeral? Worse, eviction often results in job loss, taking away the paycheck you need to get back on your feet.
Amplifying the voices of the people he followed, Desmond weaves a tapestry of damaged and resilient life. While extreme poverty can lead to violence, abuse, and exploitation, it also spurs people to take care of each other as best as they can. As Julia Dinsmore, a prominent community activist and the author of a memoir on her life in poverty, says: “We have been the acting safety net for friends, family, and strangers in the beloved community since the beginning of time.”
This commitment involves painful sacrifices. People in poverty have long been at the forefront of movements for radical hospitality and intentional community. But as Desmond shows, they often face forced relocation for their efforts. In Evicted, people routinely receive eviction notices for letting friends or family members stay. Saddled with a constant fear of getting tossed out, they hold back from calling 911 to report crimes on the property or threatening to sic an inspector on landlords who neglect basic repairs. Some of the houses profiled in Evicted look like a picture of hopelessness: a slowly sinking vortex of need, with no chance of anyone making it better. It’s the only place you have. And it could be gone tomorrow.
Many forms of inequality worsen the situation. For example, among Milwaukee renters, 1 in 5 black women had been evicted, compared to 1 in 15 white women. While living with his subjects, Desmond observed and recorded countless acts of bias against people of color, and also against families with children. Some of the single mothers he followed would apply for upwards of 90 different units before being accepted.
In his afterword, Desmond doesn’t hesitate to call this exploitation, and that’s the word that lingered with me the longest. Poverty, he writes, cannot be reduced to “structural forces seemingly beyond our control” (to sum up the common liberal position) or a matter of “individual deficiencies” (the common conservative position). Instead, “poverty is a relationship, involving poor and rich people. . . . [I was] searching for a process that bound poor and rich people together in mutual dependence and struggle. Eviction was such a process.”
Cry for Larraine and Arleen
Finishing Evicted, I felt ashamed for having failed, until now, to understand the depth of the affordable-housing crisis in pockets of urban America: how often people experience violence; children shiver in the cold; tenants share couches, food, and drugs; or babies die due to lack of working smoke detectors. The stories of hardship pile on so thickly that it is hard to share a succinct example. On many occasions, I had to put the book down and cry. There was no other way to honor a reality so different from my own.
More than his research methods, Desmond hopes readers will focus on Larraine and Arleen and Crystal and Scott. Instead of paralyzing horror, Evicted aims for compassionate action: immersion in the lives of those without stable housing, coupled with meaningful engagement in the public policy arena. (Desmond recommends creating a national housing voucher program.)
Like the pile of furniture near my dumpster, Evicted offers a glimpse at the precariousness of life on the margins. Desmond wants to build relationships between rich and poor and show us that we are more connected than we think. If we believe in the God-given dignity of every human, then we cannot separate ourselves from brothers and sisters experiencing poverty and forced evictions. Nor can we ignore the dynamics that make their visions of “home sweet home” feel like a cruel mirage.
D. L. Mayfield lives and writes in Portland, Oregon. Her book Assimilate or Go Home: Notes from a Failed Missionary on Rediscovering Faith (HarperOne) releases in August.
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