Evicted by Matthew Desmond

Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond.

Milwaukee is the city. But it could be any other American city. According to Mr. Desmond, “Every year in this country, families are evicted from their homes not by the tens of thousands or even the hundreds of thousands, but by the millions.”

By living with and among the poor, first in a run-down tailer park and then in a tenement building, Mr. Desmond is able to describe first-hand the plight of a few of these millions whose housing situation is unstable at best and tragic at its worst. It’s an eye-opening account, and by the end of the book it’s hard to see how these people can be helped, unless altruistic and compassionate people with more money than the poor and less greed than their rapacious landlords come alongside and enter into long-term helping relationships with individual poor families and individuals.

Mr. Desmond’s solution, articulated briefly near the end of the book, is more government money, more subsidized housing, more government protections. And some of his ideas might be helpful. However, the one person who manages to emerge from his unstable, homeless situation into a better life in the book is Scott, a former nurse who lost his license to an opiod addiction. And Scott succeeds with a lot of help from friends, and a meth clinic, and repeated second and third chances from nearly everyone he encounters. He gets out by growing into making better life choices.

And then there’s the indisputable possibility, probability, that maybe Scott manages to pull himself out of drug addiction and poverty and homelessness because he’s a white male. Women and black people, and especially mothers who are responsible for more people than just themselves, have a much harder time escaping the eviction cycle. Desmond writes, “If incarceration had come to define the lives of men from impoverished black neighbourhoods, eviction was shaping the lives of women. Poor black men were locked up. Poor black women were locked out.” And their children are locked out with them, given a poor start in school and in life, and made to suffer for the sins and instability of their parents.

The individuals in the book who are members of a church, a white trailer park dweller named Lorraine and a black former foster child named Crystal, don’t fare much better than anyone else in the book, and they don’t get much financial help from their respective churches. Because their living situations and financial choices are complicated, sometimes wise but sometimes not, Lorraine and Crystal are left to fend for themselves, and they do so badly, with only spiritual comfort from their church families.

I would strongly recommend Evicted, especially for anyone who is called to work with and alongside the urban poor. A better understanding of why poor people make such seemingly self-destructive choices and even an understanding of why and how those afore-mentioned greedy landlords are able to rationalize their insensitivity is an important prerequisite to being able to work with and learn from our brothers and sisters who are caught in a web of poverty and yes, sin—just as I am sometimes caught in my own middle class riches and sin.

New York Times review of Evicted by Jennifer Senior.
Guardian review of Evicted by Katha Pollitt.
Kicked Out in America!, by Jason DeParle in the New York Review of Books.

1 thought on “Evicted by Matthew Desmond

  1. I read Evicted after finishing Hillbilly Elegy; the pairing gave me so much to think about. It is sobering to recognize that women and their children are the least likely to escape the terrible living conditions Desmond describes.

    (It’s been a long time since I commented or posted in your Saturday Review, but I have kept up with your site, Sherry.)

    Best regards,

    Melissa (formerly of M-mv)

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