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.


This isn’t a review, but a reflection. The movies that intrigue me do so because they explore questions like how we should live our lives, what makes for good (and bad) relationships, and how we come to be made whole or broken, saved or lost. I write about those movies to engage these and similar questions.

No_One_Writes_to_the_Colonel_FilmPosterWhen I was in North Carolina recently, I saw a movie sponsored by the Modern Languages Department of Methodist University, where I taught before retiring in 2012. The film was El coronel no tiene quien le escribe (No One Writes to the Colonel), a 1999 Spanish language film by Mexican director Arturo Ripstein, based on a novella of the same name by Gabriel García Márquez. It has me thinking about what life is like for older adults in third-world countries.

The film is set in a small fishing community on what is apparently the Mexican coast. It is the 1940s, and the colonel (played by Fernando Luján), a veteran of the Cisteros war, has been waiting 27 years for the pension he was promised. Every Friday, he dresses in his best suit and waits on the dock for the mail boat, expecting to receive the letter announcing the beginning of his long-delayed pension. The lawyer who has been representing him has been ineffectual at everything except collecting additional fees. It seems that the government wants to forget about the war, so bureaucrats ignore the efforts of the war’s veterans promised benefits.

The colonel’s wife Lola (Marisa Paredes) tells him the pension will never come. Yet he keeps hoping—in the pension and in another longshot possibility, that the fighting cock that was the prized possession of their recently deceased son will win at the cockfights held each fall. The colonel and his wife are destitute, and the mortgage on their house will be due before the cockfights start, so much of the plot has to do with the couple’s efforts to prevent foreclosure.

The couple’s grief over their lost son is heartbreaking. At one point, Lola says pathetically, “It’s a sin to live longer than one’s children. A sin to wake up each morning.” The gamecock has special poignancy because it is all they have left of their son. The Colonel caresses it tenderly and carries it almost as if it were an infant in his arms. This fighting rooster is not just a potential breadwinner; he is a representative of all that was lost.

Besides impoverishment and the loss of their son, the couple are struggling with the lost integrity of their society. The injustice regarding the pension is part of a larger corruption, one that has infected most members of the village and, as it eventually turns out, underlies their son’s murder. The colonel remonstrates at one point, “The nation ended up like me—an old rag.” This is a despair that most older adults in liberal Western democracies never experience; even those of us who rant about government waste or oppression don’t have to grapple with the sort of societal rot that surrounded the colonel and his wife.

What is to be done in such a situation? The colonel does a couple admirable things in response. First, he clings to his honor. At times, this has a humorous element, as when he tries to save face with the neighborhood boys, telling his wife “They can’t find out I know nothing about cocks. I’m a full colonel, you know.” Ultimately, though, preserving honor proves costly, when he refuses blood money that would have provided financial deliverance.

The other thing he does in response to the corruption is continue to show up on the dock, even though there is no hope the letter will arrive. I see that as being his testimony to the whole town—mute testimony that says louder than any words that an injustice has been done, and no one should accept it as normal when such an injustice done to members of the community.

I know the film is a fictional account of events long past, but, still, it reminds me of real needs that exist right now in many countries. As I think ahead to my own retirement, I hope I’ll remember the plight of poor older adults who aren’t wrapped in the sort of financial security blanket that I have. Can any of us be fully at ease as long as so many people, be they young or old, have insufficient food, clothes, or shelter?