The true power of Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, Matthew Desmond’s Pulitzer Prize winning study of poverty in Milwaukee, comes from the individual stories it tells. Arleen’s story is a good example.
When we first meet Arleen (pseudonym) and her sons, Jori and Jafaris, they are moving into a new apartment in Milwaukee’s inner city. Arleen is busy rearranging furniture and stacking dishes next to her nice porcelain plates. It’s a new beginning, but some old problems are about to re-enter her life.
It starts when her landlord, Shereena, allows Arleen to be “light” on the rent one month so she can contribute to the expenses of her sister’s funeral. All of Arleen’s family are poor, but they had decided they would each contribute $350 to the funeral expenses. Arleen knew she really couldn’t afford to contribute, but still refused to be “shamed” by not participating. Shereena agreed that Arleen could pay back the missing $350 in small amounts each month, but when Arleen’s welfare check was reduced, she realized that paying the the rent and part of what she owed Shereena would leave her completely broke. So she decided to pay only half the rent, keeping the rest for expenses. It seemed preferable to owe more back rent than be unable to buy food.
Shereena promptly filed eviction papers. At the eviction hearing the judge brokered a deal: Arleen would avoid a formal eviction (which would hurt her chances of finding a new apartment) by vacating the apartment before the end of the month.
Just before Arleen was scheduled to leave the apartment, she got what appeared to be a lucky break. Shereena had dropped by with the new tenant, a young woman named Crystal. Crystal asked Arleen where she and her sons were planning to move. When Arleen replied that she didn’t know, Crystal offed to share the apartment with her until they found a new place. It turns out that such acts of generosity are not uncommon in the inner city; Crystal herself had once stayed a month with a woman she met on the bus.
But a new problem quickly arose. Crystal had become friends with Trisha, a young woman who occupied the apartment above hers. One night she heard suspicious sounds; Trisha’s boyfriend had come over and Crystal heard shouting and then a loud thump when the boyfriend threw Trisha to the floor. Crystal decided she had to intervene, finally calling 911. The police arrived and took the boyfriend away.
The next day Shereena was informed by the police that last night’s domestic dispute constituted a “nuisance activity” on her property; she had to file a proposed “abatement plan” for their approval or face a large fine and/or a year in jail. The abatement plan Shereena chose was to evict Arleen and her sons. It turns out that threatening abatement penalties is a common practice when a domestic dispute requires police intervention. Usually the single woman beaten is evicted, one good reason why women are unwilling to call 911 when a domestic dispute gets out of hand. But here was a new refinement; the eviction was imposed on Arleen and her children who had played no part in the dispute.
Arleen then started what turned out to be a long search for a new apartment. She applied to eighty-nine landlords without success; most flatly turned her down; a couple orally agreed to rent to her, but later reneged. She finally had luck with number 90. He was named Pana and agreed to rent her a one bedroom apartment for $525 a month. (Her total income per month was $625.) But Pana made one condition very clear: “You need to pay your rent and not get in trouble.”
The new “trouble” involved her older son Jori. Jori was mostly an upbeat kid, very loyal to his mother. But he had from time to time showed signs of anger. When a teacher at his new school (each eviction placed him in a different school zone) snapped at him, Jori kicked the teacher in the shins and ran home. The teacher called the police who came to the apartment. Pana made Arleen an “offer”; if she vacated the apartment in the next couple of days he would return her rent and security deposit. If not, he would evict her. Arleen, Jori, and Jafaris left.
Arleen’s luck did not improve.. Eventually she lost the children; Jori went to live with his father and Child Protective Services placed Jafaris with Arleen’s sister. At first Arleen started to unravel (“I’m tired, but can’t sleep; I’m fitting to have a nervous breakdown.”) But then she rallied and regained custody of her boys. She took another apartment, this one without stove or refrigerator. When we last see her, she voices the hope that someday “I can … look at my kids. And they be grown. And they … become something. Something more than me.”
I guess you can say that Arleen and her family never reached the state of “homelessness”– unless you consider a stove and a refrigerator necessary components of a home.
At the end of the book, Desmond tells us some good news; there is an existing federal program that would solve Arleen’s housing problem; federal law makes poor families like Arleen’s eligible under Section 8 for a housing voucher that will pay her full rent, but only cost her 30% of her monthly income. If the rent is $525 dollars and her income $625 a month, the voucher would only cost her $188. Desmond then tells us the bad news; as the number of poor families who are financially eligible for vouchers has grown, funding has failed to increase to meet the need, Now only one third of the poor families eligible actually receive a voucher. Just imagine the uproar if only one third of the Americans who qualified for Social Security actually received their checks.
Arleen’s story persuades me that for many poor Americans the underlying problem is a simple inability to pay the rent charged and have enough left to cover other basic needs like food and clothing. Psychological and addiction problems also are involved, but perhaps as often the result as much as the cause of homelessness.
This is not the America we want to live in. What can we do? A good first step is to vote for candidates, presidential,senatorial, and congressional, who promise to make sure that every family that meets the eligibility requirements receives a housing voucher.