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Matthew Desmond and the Truths Behind “Evicted”

Matthew Desmond-croppedSelecting Matthew Desmond's Evicted as one of our best books of the month wasn't a difficult choice. What was challenging was reading about the devastation that eviction brings upon poor families who are doing their best to create a stable life.

Urban sociologist and MacArthur "genius" grant recipient Matthew Desmond answers our questions about the people he met, the heartbreaking moments he encountered, and how to solve one of America's most troubling problems.

Adrian Liang: What sparked your idea to tell the stories of these tenants and landlords in Milwaukee?

Matthew Desmond: America is unmatched by any rich democracy for the depth and expanse of its poverty. I've always found that fact troubling and wholly unnecessary. I wanted to understand poverty from the ground level and to focus on the big role housing plays in driving inequality in America. I knew that to fully understand the matter, I needed to get just as close to landlords owning and operating in poor communities as I did to their tenants. The landlord-tenant relationship is fraught, complicated, and essential to the lives of low-income families and communities.

AL: You let the individuals speak for themselves in a frank style that harkens to Studs Terkel's works, and the effect is very powerful. How did you stay out of the way of these people's lives as they were playing out while managing to capture so many details?

MD: Living in their neighborhoods helped a lot. I spent over a year living in two very poor areas of Milwaukee, renting a trailer in a mobile home park and then a room in an inner-city rooming house. In those two neighborhoods, I began spending day after day with families facing eviction. I wrote down what I saw in small notebooks and made good use of my digital recorder. I believed that documenting the harsh realities of American poverty, recording people's strength and vulnerability in the face of hardship, and chronicling the harmful effects of eviction on families and children invite reform.

AL: Because eviction causes people to move, and move quickly, were there people whose lives you were following but with whom you lost contact along the way?

MD: I met many more people than I could write about, tenants and landlords. I followed one couple—Chester and Myesha—over several months. They lived with two teenage daughters in a home with exposed wires and a rotting floor. After a drawn-out battle with their landlord, they were eventually evicted and moved to San Antonio. I drove them to the bus station and later visited them in Texas. But the eviction took a toll on their relationship, and eventually Myesha left Chester and took the girls to California, her home state. In Evicted, they make brief appearances in the endnotes.

AL: There are a lot of dark moments in Evicted. For you, what episode was the most troubling?

Evicted-225MD: Seeing children evicted in the wintertime is troubling. Seeing some of them offer no response to such a traumatic thing—no tears, no questions, no frantic search for their favorite toy—is even more so. One of the hardest parts was the thing entire: the unrelentingness of poverty; how it can hold people underwater and keep them there, reducing people born for better things. But Evicted also is about courage, genius, spunk, generosity, humor, and love in the face of adversity—how gracefully people refused to be defined by their hardships.

AL: You make several suggestions for lessening eviction rates, which should improve the lives of families and others in the community. But some people aren't going to make the rational choices that help keep them in their homes. (I'm thinking of when one woman pushes her friend through a window for using all her cell phone minutes.) How do you respond to critics who point to those individuals as proof that laws shouldn't be changed?

MD: Crystal, who pushed a friend through a window, eventually did receive a housing voucher and is doing much better. She has gone back to school and will proudly show you pictures to prove it. After finding affordable, safe shelter, she thrived. Crystal was under incredible stress when she did that hurtful thing. If we want to address problems like violence, we have to focus on the root causes, including homelessness, poverty, and the fact that most poor renting families are spending over half of their income on housing.

AL: What's next for you?

MD: I'm talking with everyone I can about how we can fight poverty in America by providing families with access to decent, affordable housing. When I'm not doing that, I'm launching new projects that extend my work to national and global levels, including trying to understand the rise and ramifications of the unaffordable world: the fact that humanity is becoming urbanized and cities are becoming unaffordable to hundreds of millions.


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