"In Milwaukee's poorest black neighborhoods, eviction had become
commonplace--especially for women. In those neighborhoods, 1 female
renter in 17 was evicted through the court system each year, which was
twice as often as men from those neighborhoods and nine times as often
as women from the city's poorest white areas. Women from black
neighborhoods made up 9 percent of Milwaukee's population and 30
percent of its evicted tenants.
If incarceration had come to define the lives of men from
impoverished black neighborhoods, eviction was shaping the lives of
women. Poor black men were locked up. Poor black women [and their
children] were locked out."
It's not just Milwaukee. In the time it took you to read this
much of my review of Matthew Desmond's Evicted: Poverty And Profit In
The American City a family has had all their worldly goods dumped on
the curb or locked in a storage unit they'll never afford to reclaim
them from. Children are being uprooted from neighborhoods and
schools. Parents, marginally if at all employed, face enormous
complications and obstacles in the struggle to survive. They can, for
example, lose benefits because of not showing up for meetings with
social workers because the notice never reaches them. Slumlords with
properties not fit for human habitation are able to profit from their
A life changing event in his college years set Desmond on the
path to writing Evicted. The bank foreclosed on the home he grew up
in. He had to help his parents move out. Back at school he began
volunteering with Habitat for Humanity and hanging out with homeless
people. His grad school plans changed from law to sociology.
To do the research for Evicted Desmond strayed far from the
ivoried towers of acadamia. He lived in high eviction poor
"To me, ethnography is what you do when you try to understand
people by allowing their lives to mold your own as fully and genuinely
as possible. You do this by building rapport with the people you want
to know better and following them over a long stretch of time,
observing and experiencing what they do, working and playing alongside
them, and recording as much action and interaction as you can until
you begin to move like they move, talk like they talk, think like they
think, and feel something like they feel..."
It's this total immersion approach that makes Desmond's work
stand out from that of so many of his peers. If his research
information forms the skeleton of Evicted, his detailed portraits of
eight desperately poor families and two landlords become the organs,
flesh, and blood. The reader gets to intimately know, care about, and
feel anger on behalf of people he/she/they would most likely never
meet. Together the two strands form a vital and fascinating narrative
that is impossible to put down.
Desmond serves us up a full measure of desperation and despair.
"Losing your home and possessions and often your job; being
stamped with an eviction record and denied government housing
assistance; relocating to degrading housing in poor and dangerous
neighborhoods; and suffering from increased material hardship,
homelessness, depression, and illness--this is eviction's fallout.
Eviction does not simply drop poor families into a dark valley, a
trying yet relatively brief detour on life's journey. It
fundamentally redirects their way, casting them onto a different, and
much more difficult path. Eviction is a cause, not just a condition,
Desmond also leaves us with an inspiring epiphany and a
challenge. When people with multiple challenges and transitory and
sometimes no shelter transition to stable housing they are able to
make progress on other problems such as joblessness. Recently some
cities have been showing that it costs less to provide basic housing
than to cover higher costs for police, emergency medical care,
prisons, and emergency shelters.
Evicted is a must read for anyone who wants to help America
become great by finally achieving the four freedoms President
Roosevelt entered our nation into WWII to defend: freedom of
religion, freedom of speech, freedom from want, and freedom from fear.
"We have affirmed provision in old age, twelve years of
education, and basic nutrition to be the right of every citizen
because we have recognized that human dignity dependson the
fulfillment of these fundamental human needs. And it is hard to argue
that housing is not a fundamental human need. Decent, affordable
housing should be a basic right for everybody in this country. The
reason is simple: without stable shelter, everything else falls apart."
On a personal note, just this morning I was reading a piece Desmond
wrote for New York Times magazine. When we think subsidized housing
we envision projects or Section 8. Actually, even though over half
the poor pay 50% of their income on housing, and 25% pay over 70%,
only one 1 in 4 families who need this help can get it. Because of
our nation's housing policy, $134 billion a year goes mostly to the
well off in the form of homeowner subsidies, making them the real
A great big shout out goes out to Desmond for his insistance,
persistence, and consistency in speaking out on behalf of the poorest
of the poor.
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