Having spent over 20 years (1973 to 1995) helping to provide transitional housing for homeless families in Washington, D.C. I was eager to read Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, Matthew Desmond’s narrative of low-income individuals and families locked in poverty, repeatedly evicted, forced from one unaffordable, substandard home to another.
As an ethnographer, Desmond moved into Milwaukee’s poor neighborhoods – black, Hispanic and white where he observed first hand the toll eviction takes on families and the profit it provides for landlords. He tells the stories of people caught in a downward spiral of bad luck and bad decisions in a bad system.
Ehrenreich believes Desmond, a Harvard academic, has ‘set a new standard for reporting on poverty’ as did Katherine Boo in behind the beautiful forevers: life, death and hope in a mubai undercity. Add Ben Rawlence for his City of Thorns: Nine Lives in the World’s Largest Refugee Camp, the story of Somali refugees trapped in Dadaab, Kenya.
Rather than bury us in data and statistics these ethnographers write in-depth descriptions of depravation and suffering – although they have done the research to be certain their stories are not simply anecdotal.
I recognized the voices, the sights and smells in Desmond’s narrative. I’ve seen evicted families huddled on curbs guarding their meager belongings. I’ve accompanied families threatened with eviction to the landlord tenant court. And I’ve toured deplorable overpriced low-income apartments, occasionally contending with landlords and property-managers over deferred maintenance.
The threat of evictions is increasing as the gap between rising housing costs and what people can afford is widening.
Desmond’s solution for the10 million or so low-income families who spend half or more of their income for rent and utilities is universal housing vouchers, guaranteeing that no one below a certain poverty level would have to spend more than 30 percent (the recommended government standard) of their income for rent and utilities. Presently only about a third of poor families receiving housing vouchers or living in public housing fit that criteria. Most are not so lucky.
I agree that securing safe affordable housing is a key step toward breaking the cycle of urban poverty. But universal housing vouchers as Desmond suggests is not a viable solution. Federal, State and local governments are unlikely to allocate the billions of dollars needed to make that happen anytime soon, if ever. In his review Jason DeParle cites studies demonstrating that vouchers alone don’t solve the eviction or poverty problem.
And I agree with Desmond that lack of decent housing is a cause as well as a consequence of poverty. But eviction is not the only cause. There are many causes of poverty including addiction, mass incarceration, lack of living wage jobs, poor health care, failing schools, disabilities, family breakdown, public policies, and more.
There is a way to reduce evictions. That’s why we started the transitional housing program at the Community of Hope over 35 years ago: a systems approach providing affordable housing while addressing the other needs and problems that destabilize poor families and low-income neighborhoods.
Sherlene Phillips tells her story in the current Community of Hope newsletter. She ‘lost her job, was evicted and could no longer stay at a relative’s home. She knew she had hit rock bottom. “Here I was,” she recalled, “ a young, educated, attractive mother that was homeless, helpless and with an addiction to alcohol,” about to be separated from her two children.
In 2015, Shirlene and her family moved into Hope Apartments, one of few programs in Washington, D.C. where families remain intact while the head of householdworks toward sobriety goals. The program is designed to help adults attend substance abuse treatment programs while simultaneously finding a job and stable housing. As Sherlene tells it — “COH gave me the tools to get back on my feet and improve in all aspects of my life.”
Community of Hope director Kelly Sweeny McShane reports that in 2015 the COH provided supportive services to 435 families who had experienced eviction and homelessness and helped prevent an additional 176 families from becoming homeless.
The Community of Hope is one organization, among others, in Washington, D.C, using private and public funds to help families recover from eviction on a pathway out of poverty. Could this comprehensive approach to the causes and consequences of urban poverty be scaled up to make a difference nationally? I think so.