A Milwaukee Eviction. Image from Sally Ryan/ZUMA

I recently¬†posted some thoughts about Matthew Desmond’s book¬†Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City (Broadway Books, 2016). Desmond writes about a dozen or so individuals or families in Milwaukee who are struggling to keep roofs over their heads (or in some cases to find another roof after losing the one they had). Many of them spend 70 or 80 percent of their income on rent, so coming up with the monthly payment is often quite a challenge. Even small unexpected expenses can put them behind on rent and push them to the edge of eviction. One question that kept coming to mind as I read the book was “Who is there to help poor renters?” Some benefit from government programs, but these programs meet only a small fraction of the need. Who else is there to help?

Often the first person who provides help–limited and self-serving though it often is–is the landlord. One of the two landlords featured in the book, Sherrena, doesn’t immediately address the delinquency of one of her tenants, Lamar, because Lamar is legless and has young sons in his care. Her reluctance doesn’t last long, though. Desmond quotes her as saying “I guess I got to stop feeling sorry for these people because no one is feeling sorry for me.” Lamar tries to work off the amount in arrears, but Sherrena won’t give him credit for what he has done. The other landlord in the book, Tobin, quickly evicted some tenants who fell behind, but let others remain for months. Desmond notes one factor that affected whether a landlord would proceed with an eviction:

“How a tenant responded to an eviction notice could make a difference. Women tended not to negotiate their eviction like men did, and they were more likely to avoid landlords when they fell behind. These responses did not serve them well.”

Jerry, a biker who lived in Tobin’s park, responded to his eviction notice by angrily threatening to hit Lenny, the property manager. Surprisingly, that didn’t make the situation worse. Desmond attributes tolerance for such aggressiveness to landlords’ “gruff masculine way of doing business. That put men like Jerry at an advantage.” Jerry subsequently offered to work off the debt and was allowed to do so.

Renters facing eviction sometimes turned to family for help. Desmond describes the efforts that Larraine, one of Tobin’s tenants, made to get family help when faced with eviction. Two of her siblings had less income than her and couldn’t provide assistance. Relationships with impoverished family members may provide some benefits, but financial assistance isn’t one of them. Her sister Susan was a little better off but wouldn’t help because Larraine had mismanaged money in the past. Larraine hesitated to ask Rubin, her youngest brother, because they weren’t close and she didn’t want to imperil his future willingness to help by making frequent requests. The fear that a relative in position to help will decide that the person in trouble doesn’t deserve additional help is apparently a major reason why some relatives aren’t contacted.

Larraine can’t ask her oldest daughter Megan for help, since she hadn’t paid back an earlier loan, and Megan held that against her. She asks her daughter Jayne, who has a fast food job; Jayne promises to help but has no money until payday. Larraine goes next to her church, from whom she has gotten help previously, though she was only partly truthful when making that request, a deception that her sister Susan, who attends the same church, brought to the pastor’s attention. Pastor Daryl is torn. He believes that the church should help the poor, In Larraine’s case, though, he thinks that much of her hardship is because of her bad choices. Eventually he tells Larraine that the church won’t be helping this time. Finally, Larraine goes to Ruben, who agrees to help. In the end, though, Tobin refuses the money, having by this time decided he wants Larraine out of his park. Having family to ask, even family willing to help, by no means makes it certain that eviction can be prevented.

Since my church is currently discussing ways to help with the affordable housing crisis, I was particularly interested in what role churches played in the lives of those facing eviction. Though Larraine didn’t get financial help from Pastor Daryl on this occasion, her church is an important part of her life. She attends every Sunday and has loved going to church ever since she was a child. Regardless of whether the church provides emergency funds to poor congregants like Larraine, I couldn’t help but wonder if there was anything else that churches can do to better equip them for the hardships they faced, perhaps helping with budgeting or decision-making so that a housing crisis was less likely to occur in the first place.

Crystal was another struggling renter who was heavily involved in church. She was evicted by Sherrena and wound up in a homeless shelter. Even while homeless, she put a substantial portion of her monthly check in the offering plate. Her reasoning is as follows:

“I need something from God. So I sow a seed…. I need a house. I need financial breakthrough. I need healing from stuff. I need to be made whole.

She got some assistance from the church–an occasional bag of groceries, a place to stay once in a while. But she kept from everyone but the pastor that she was homeless. Desmond described her motives as follows:

“Crystal didn’t want members of her church to reduce her, to see her as an object of pity, a member of ‘the poor and the orphaned.’ She wanted to be seen as Sister Crystal, part of the Body, the Beloved.”

So Crystal got what she most wanted from her church–affirmation of her identity. I wonder whether the church has encouraged her transactional view of giving, though. If so, it seems her church is letting her down.

Lamar, Sherrena’s legless tenant, doesn’t attend church. One day, though, as he is sitting around with his sons and some neighborhood boys smoking a joint, Colin, a young pastor from a nearby church, comes to the door with his Bible and some cookies. Ignoring the smell of marijuana and sounds of a sexual encounter taking place in the bedroom, Colin opens his Bible and goes over some scripture passages. Lamar knows many of the passages by heart. When one the topic of the devil comes up, Lamar adds “And earth is hell.” Colin corrects him: Well, not quite hell.” Colin leads them in prayer and hands out a list of items Lamar can pick up at the church. Colin tried his best, and he’s certainly doing more than most churches do. Nevertheless, it seems that he misses what’s being said about how Lamar’s life is truly hellish. No matte what tangible help we offer, it’s important for those who seek to minister in Christ’s name to listen to those in need as carefully as he did.

So once one falls through the frayed safety net the government provides, it’s very much hit and miss as to whether those about to be evicted can find anyone else willing and able to help. I pray that God will help our church reach out to the Lamars in our city–and the Larraines and Crystals as well. May we be able to understand their struggles–including the hell on earth that some experience–and have wisdom regarding how we can help.

 

We all know, or at least know of, some poor soul who encounters one misfortune after another. They give us pause, the unfortunate; we feel sorry for them, we wish we could help, and sometimes we can do a little something that makes things marginally better. Usually they don’t occupy our thoughts for long, though: we quickly shift our focus to something more pleasant. Before doing so, we may try to come to terms with what’s happened by blaming (“If only he hadn’t done that“) or glib truisms (“Life isn’t fair.”) It takes quite a bit to disturb us in a way that sticks with us for days. For me, Matthew Desmond accomplished that feat with his book Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City (Broadway Books, 2016).

Desmond, a Princeton sociologist, moved into a dilapidated trailer park in southern Milwaukee and later into a rooming house in the city’s North Side. In both areas, he encountered plenty of people on the edge–people who were having to spend 70 or 80 percent of their income on rent. That left them vulnerable, like riding in an overloaded boat that can be swamped even by small waves. Once that happens, choices become extremely difficult–whether to buy food, pay rent, or pay a utility bill when there isn’t money for all three, for example. It’s become more and more likely that poor renters will find themselves in this situation:

“Since 2000, the cost of fuels and utilities had risen by more than 50 percent, thanks to increasing global demand and the expiration of price caps. In a typical year, almost 1 in 5 poor renting families nationwide missed payments and received a disconnection notice from their utility company.” p. 15

“In 2013, 1 percent of poor renters lived in rent-controlled units; 15 percent lived in public housing; and 17 percent received a government subsidy, mainly in the form of a rent-reducing voucher. The remaining 67 percent–2 of every three poor renting families–received no federal assistance. This drastic shortfall in government support, coupled with rising rent and utility costs alongside stagnant incomes, is the reason why most poor renting families today spend most of their income on housing.” p. 303

Once tenants fall behind, they lose many of their legal protections. They can’t withhold rent if the property is dangerous or in disrepair, and court eviction if they make a report to a building inspector. As a result, renters in arrears often have to endure miserable living conditions. For example, Doreen and her children, one of the families Desmond introduces us to, have holes in the walls, a door off its hinges and clogged drains in the toilet, bathtub, and sink. Desmond describes the eventual effect on the family:

“Doreen stopped cooking, and the children ate cereal for dinner. Patrice [an adult daughter] slept more. The children’s grades dropped, and Mikey’s teacher called saying he might have to repeat, mainly because of so many missed homework assignments. Everyone had stopped cleaning up, and trash spread over the kitchen floor.” p. 257

The family had previously lived for seven years in much better quarters, but had been evicted because police investigating a neighborhood shooting had come to the door, saw the house was a mess, contacted Child Protective Services, who in turn called the building inspector, who cited the landlord. Doreen was behind in rent because volunteering in New Orleans after Katrina had cost her too much. Thus the landlord could retaliate for being cited by evicting Doreen, so he did. In another incident, a young woman named Crystal called 911 to report domestic violence occurring in the apartment above hers. The police responded, but later contacted Sherrena, the landlord, notifying her that they were called because of nuisance activity on her property and would charge her for future enforcement costs. Sherrena responded by taking out eviction papers on Crystal.

Desmond describes the details of the eviction process, from eviction court to the moving crews and sheriff’s deputies that spend all day every day evicting one tenant after another. Those being evicted were given a choice; have all their belongings stacked on the curb or have them taken to storage and pay a monthly storage fee until they could get them out. Some choice! Some homes were neat and tidy, others not so much:

“Sometimes renters had already abandoned the place, leaving behind dead animals and rotting food. Sometimes the movers puked. ‘The first rule of evictions,’ Sheriff John liked to say, ‘is never open the fridge.'” p. 114

Some evictions seem vindictive, as when Ned and Sue were evicted from their trailer and moved in with friends in another trailer; the landlord decided to evict the friends as well. Sometimes a child’s problems are the cause: Arleen’s teenage son kicked a teacher in the shin; when the landlord found out she told Arleen she had to leave or would be evicted. Whatever the cause of the eviction, it’s often tremendously hard for the evicted family to find new quarters. Arleen had been evicted before, and called 90 landlords before finding someone willing to rent to her.

Evictions disproportionately affect blacks and women. In the poorest black 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.” (p. 98)

Those who are evicted are more likely to subsequently lose their jobs, experience other material hardships such as hunger, and be depressed. Not only those who are evicted suffer, but the neighborhood suffers as well: Desmond found that neighborhoods with high eviction rates have higher violent crime rates the next year. Some of Desmond’s subjects found themselves on the verge of eviction because of poor choices they made. Yet most poor Milwaukee residents had an incredibly small margin for error, and some ended up on the street when the choice they made was reasonable given the circumstances. For example, Arleen’s previous eviction resulted in part from having helped pay her sister’s funeral expenses. What sort of society is set up so that providing a little assistance for a funeral puts someone at risk for homelessness?

Besides those who actually experience eviction, there are many who manage to keep a roof over their heads but struggle to do so. Desmond indicates that 1 in 5 renting families in the US spends half or more of their income on housing. They struggle not just because of low and stagnant wages, but also because landlords can profit by exploiting the poor. In the poorest neighborhoods, housing is dilapidated or in disrepair but only costs marginally less than in other parts of the city. Our housing problem can only be addressed by major societal changes. Desmond mentions especially legal aid to the poor and a universal voucher program.

In the meantime I’m troubled. I’m troubled for Doreen, for Crystal, for Ned and Sue, for Arleen, and for everyone who has been evicted. I’m troubled that I live in a society that does so little to help those without access to adequate housing. And I’m troubled by my inability to help. Thanks to Desmond, I imagine that I’ll stay troubled. I hope his message troubles enough of us that together we can make a difference.