What Happens to People Who Get Evicted Over and Over and Over

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Photo: Erik Lesser/ZUMA Press/Corbis

The very first thing that happens in Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, a book released earlier this week by Crown Publishers, is a young boy named Jori throws a snowball at a car. The occupant stops, gets out, chases the boy and his cousin back to Jori’s apartment, breaks down the door, and leaves. The landlord finds out about the broken door and evicts Jori’s mother, sending her and her two kids out into the Milwaukee winter.

It’s obvious why Dr. Matthew Desmond, a sociologist at Harvard and the book’s author (as well as a MacArthur “genius grant” recipient), began his study of Milwaukee’s rock-bottom housing market and the people attempting to navigate and profit off it with this anecdote. Over and over in the book, minor-seeming setbacks have a way of spiraling out of control. Drug tests and transportation problems and broken heaters and backed-up plumbing feed into one another in vicious ways, turning life for Milwaukee’s most vulnerable citizens into a flurry of paperwork and short-term loans and appointments and, above all, repeated, desperate searches for suitable housing in a city that seems hell-bent on denying it.

Evicted will likely inject some much-needed life into the debate over America’s housing policies. But Desmond’s zoomed-in approach — based on more than a year spent hanging around with both white and black residents of Milwaukee facing housing challenges, as well as landlords and the sheriffs and moving crews who evict people — also focuses on the psychological ravages of housing insecurity, on what it does to parents and children when they realize they are being batted around, from unit to drafty unit, at the whims of forces they can barely understand.

In an interview with Science of Us, Desmond explained the psychological effects of housing stress, and also discussed why one of his subjects blew a month’s worth of food stamps on crab legs and lobsters, the mistakes people make when they talk about ghetto or trailer-park “culture,” and the lessons he learned from the controversial reception of Alice Goffman’s On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City.

One of your influences in writing this book was Eldar Shafir and Sendhil Mullainathan’s research, and their book Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much, which focuses on the many negative psychological and decision-making effects of being faced with prolonged scarcity. In what ways did you see poverty and housing insecurity rob your subjects of their ability to plan for the future?
The book focuses a lot on the consequences of eviction and housing insecurity in terms of things like the neighborhoods you live in or access to housing assistance. But there’s also just the sheer cognitive load of a crisis, right? And so just spending time with tenants paying 50, 60, 70 percent of their income to housing, that takes an enormous amount of bandwidth, to use the term from Scarcity.

It’s consuming when you’re thinking all the time, How am I going to make rent? If I miss rent, how can I avoid eviction? How can I work this out with my landlord? If you have housing problems and you have an antagonistic relationship with your landlord, that can be your life, and if anyone has ever been in that situation, it’s really hard to think of other things, like going to community college, investing in your kids, investing in your neighborhood, when so much of your brain is focused on this very bare, basic human necessity.

And then when you’re in the middle of an eviction — a lot of folks who haven’t been through an eviction, I think they have this image that it’s a one-stop process, that it’s a very bad day. But an eviction can be a long, drawn-out process; it can involve several court hearings, it can drag on for weeks, and that is such a consuming, stressful, intense experience that that takes a lot of bandwidth, too. So one of the interesting findings from this study — to me, at least — is that eviction is linked to job loss. You lose your home, you are much more likely to lose your job the year following. The reason for that comes back to the bandwidth problem: You’re so focused on this event that you’re making mistakes at work; you can relocate further from work, which can increase your tardiness and absenteeism and cause you to lose your job.

So I think that bandwidth is the mechanism connecting these two shocks — losing your home and losing your job — in a way that reaffirms how eviction is a cause, not just a condition, of poverty.

There’s also a layer of uncertainty on top of everything. Your subjects often knew they were being evicted but didn’t know exactly when it was going to happen, which seemed to make things worse.
I think that the process is very confusing to a lot of tenants, and there’s also discretion built into every stage of the process on behalf of landlords and sometimes on the court side. And so in Milwaukee the colloquial phrase for this is “riding it out.” You go to eviction court, you think you’ll probably be evicted, but who knows? Your landlord gets a flat tire and doesn’t show up, or your landlord decides to work it out with you on that day for some reason.

The uncertainty comes out a lot when you go out with the sheriffs and the eviction movers who remove people from their homes. One thing you’ll see, and this is an observation that’s made briefly in the book, is just how surprised so many people are. You wake a lot of people up when you’re with the sheriff. You go into a lot of homes where nothing’s packed — the dishes have been washed from the night before. It’s startling, and I think part of that is a communications breakdown — some of that breakdown in communication might be intentional on the part of the landlords, and some of it might not be.

But then there’s this other, maybe deeper reason, which is something like denial — something like an inability to really come face to face with the fact that people will soon knock on your door and push you and your things out in the street.

There’s one scene from your ride-alongs with the sheriffs and movers that captures that in a really heartbreaking way:

As the move went on, the woman slowed down. At first, she had borne down on the emergency with focus and energy, almost running through the house with one hand grabbing something and the other holding up the phone. Now she was wandering through the halls aimlessly, almost drunkenly. Her face had that look. The movers and the deputies knew it well. It was the look of someone realizing that her family would be homeless in a matter of hours. It was something like denial giving way to the surrealism of the scene: the speed and violence of it all: sheriffs leaning against your wall, hands resting on holsters; all these strangers, these sweating men, piling your things outside, drinking water from your sink poured into your cups, using your bathroom. It was the look of being undone by a wave of questions. What do I need for tonight, for this week? Who should I call? Where is the medication? Where will we go? It was the face of a mother who climbs out of the cellar to find the tornado has leveled the house.

It’s like the full weight of it is hitting her all at once, I guess?
Yeah. You ever have a morning where you can’t find your keys? You’re just searching and you can’t think of anything else but where your keys are. Try to put yourself in this woman’s situation — she was cooking dinner, she knew this day would come, she just didn’t know when. There’s reasons for her to think that way — some of the material the sheriff sends out [to notify tenants of their eviction] doesn’t have the date they’re going to visit your home on it.

She asked for a few more days, they said no, so she’s just running around frantically. Imagine that you had to move immediately. Now. You gotta get your kids’ stuff, you gotta get the medication, you gotta figure out what should be left behind and what should be kept — it’s just this overwhelming amount of information pouring over tenants in this very hard moment. But then there are the moments that follow that are equally taxing from a cognitive standpoint: applying for housing and facing rejection after rejection after rejection. And that wears on you — that wears on your spirit. Not just because it’s all this time, but because getting rejected really sucks, and it can wear you down.

There’s a heartbreaking scene where one of the white trailer-park residents blows her entire monthly food-stamp allowance on “two lobster tails, shrimp, king crab legs, salad, and lemon meringue pie.” She wolfs down this meal that ends up setting her back in the months that follow.
I think it’s important to remind you and perhaps everyone that this happened once. Larraine did have what some people would call a spending problem, and when that happened, with the lobster on food stamps, I was really… [laughs] angry at her! And kind of was, like, completely at a loss. But I’ve always thought it was not my job to apologize for people’s decisions but to try to understand them, and try to make people understand them.

And this is a point where the book draws directly from Scarcity, and I came down on the side of “Larraine’s not poor because she did that — she did that because she’s poor.” It makes a lot of sense, I think, when you just consider how much more it would take to bring Larraine up from her state of massive insecurity to something that’s just like, you know, stable poverty. Because that gap is so vast, Larraine doesn’t have any incentive to scrimp and save, to put a little money away. Would that be wise for her to do so or prudent? Sure, but isn’t it also prudent to give her some joy and to recognize that she refuses to be reduced to her economic situation itself? And so I think that this is a case where it’s not bad behavior that’s causing poverty; it’s the other way around. Did Larraine pay a cost for that? Absolutely. She took it on the chin after that — she went hungry, she went to food pantries. But she didn’t apologize for doing that, and I don’t feel like I should either.

Photo: Michael Kienitz

But part of the problem is that this idea has set in that these small spending decisions are responsible for economic hardship, right? Like, “If you could just stop spending that $4 on Starbucks lattes, you’d be in much better financial shape,” when the reality is often a lot more complicated?
I think that we’re having a conversation today in America that’s different, I feel, with respect to inequality. And I feel that there will always be people who hate the poor, there will always be people that do not give them the benefit of the doubt, but there are so many Americans I feel who are deeply troubled by the vast inequality that characterizes our country, are deeply troubled by the fact that we’ve tolerated a level of poverty no other advanced democracy tolerates, and want answers.

One of the interesting things you explained in the book, though, is that this idea of hating the poor has set in among the poor. In the trailer park, where seemingly half the residents faced the threat of eviction at some point, eviction was “understood to be the outcome of individual failure.” You write that “No one thought the poor more undeserving than the poor themselves.” How did that worldview develop? Is it an oversimplification to call it a particularly American thing?
There is research beyond my book in social science that does show that people in other countries understand inequality with different kinds of tools and different kinds of explanations than we do in America. My friend who lives in Paris says that if you see a homeless person in Paris, you say, “Where is the state here? What has the state done?” If you see a homeless person here you say, “What has this person done?” So you might be onto something there.

In a way, no one’s harder on the poor than the poor themselves. And I think there’s a reason for that — this is what I saw in my work, anyways. When you’re trying to make ends meet and get your lights on, get food on your table, find resources that you need, you’re often relying on folks all around you, you’re reaching out to people for help. But in reaching out you also see people’s stuff — you see their troubles, you’re exposed to their traumas. You’re introduced to their hardships in a way. A community that sees so clearly its own disadvantage or its own hardships also has a harder time seeing its potential, its ability to work together to change the community and change their lives.

You draw this interesting distinction between the actual poverty or crime rate in a neighborhood and this chain reaction that comes from residents’ perceptions of a neighborhood being broken or filled with broken people.
We know from the work of people like Robert Sampson, my colleague here at Harvard, and Devah Pager that your perceptions of the neighborhood matter deeply to things like your decision to stay in the neighborhood. And sometimes those perceptions reflect the actual crime rate in a neighborhood, but often they don’t — often they reflect things like the racial composition of the neighborhood, or other things.

The degree to which residents think their neighbors have suffered significant traumas like eviction, incarceration, or having their kids removed by Child Protective Services doesn’t provide a good measure of the actual rates of those things. But this degree of perceived suffering is negatively correlated with political capacity, or the degree to which residents believe they and their neighbors can work together to bring about something good and improve their community. So the more you see suffering around you, the less likely you are to perceive political capacity around you, and that’s controlling for things like the actual poverty rate and crime rate in a neighborhood.

I’m wondering if it’s a stretch to call this a version of collective learned helplessness — it’s like, Oh, my neighbors are so battered and traumatized that what’s the point? We’re not going to be able to fix this.
I think that’s right, and then that’s compounded by the beginning part of our conversation, which was just the massive cognitive load it takes just to survive poverty, just to keep housing. And that coupled with this other thing helps us understand why communities like College Mobile Home Park in Milwaukee [one of the sites of Desmond’s field research] are fairly tolerant of the inequality between their condition and their landlord’s.

Their vision is focused on more immediate problems, right? Their vision is focused on Can I get my hot water fixed? My bathtub is sinking through the floorboards — can we please fix this? I’m behind on rent — can I have a break? Will you let me slide? I think these are the problems which confront folks so much on a day-to-day basis that looking at a longer time horizon like, Can we work together to improve the community? Can we shore up our rights in this place? It almost seems silly when faced with those more immediate problems.

In a footnote, you talk about how we shouldn’t see folks in the low-end-housing market as “rational actors” making careful, informed decisions, as per the predictions of classical economic theory about how people behave. Rather, they’re “exhausted settlers.” Could you expand on what you mean by that?
When you’re following people after their eviction, they often start out kind of optimistic, in a way — it’s a really tough time, but it’s also like a new start. Who knows where they might end up? But when you’re someone like Arleen, a desperate young mother who calls 40, 50, 60, 70 people just looking for a place, you might start off picking neighborhoods, you might start off with a lot of opinions about the kinds of house you want to live in, but in the end you just get exhausted, it just wears on you, and so you see in Arleen’s story where in the end she’s just like, A house is a house — whatever. I’ll take whatever.

And where she ends up is not in any way a reflection of her actual preferences. When someone finally approves her to live somewhere, she just goes for it and is able to stay there until the next eviction. And Arleen’s experience, I think, reflects the experiences of many low-income families who have been cast into the private rental market and are in really desperate situations. Now, I don’t think anyone would disagree with that, but it’s interesting to put those experiences up against survey data, for example, asking people, Why do you think your city’s so segregated? And most people in Milwaukee, at least, say that it’s because of personal preference. Or putting that story about exhausted housing searches and settling for whatever you get, putting that up against ideas of why people select in and out of neighborhoods and gentrification and these kinds of things, I think really complicates the story and shows that a lot of poor families didn’t select into a neighborhood because they wanted to or because of the school district or anything like that, but just because that was their only option at the time.

Arleen would do this heartbreaking thing where, battered with shame over not being able to provide her kids with food or shoes or whatever else, she flipped things around: She’d tell her kids, You don’t deserve that, or, You’re not really hungry. You’re not worthy of my assistance, in other words.
I have kids. It’s hard to say no, but imagine you have to say no to things like food and say no to things like a home and a warm bed. And people like Arleen grow a protective mechanism when they’re faced with those terrible situations, which is to sometimes subtly, sometimes not, not say, “No, I can’t,” but rather say, “No I won’t,” or, “No, you don’t deserve it, or, “No, you’re getting too fat.” I think that this is a clear example of how this problem, a lack of affordable housing, and this problem of the level of poverty we’ve allowed in our cities, is leaving a deep and jagged scar on the next generation. And from a cognitive standpoint, I think it’s something that you see — you don’t just see it in these situations, you can see it in situations of other kinds of trauma where people do use these kinds of self-protective mechanisms to get through it, to make sense of it, to not be consumed by shame.

Which takes me to another thing I wanted to ask you about. There’s an endnote where you write, “How often, I wonder, is coping mistaken for culture?” Are you basically saying that we look at a certain behavior as part of someone’s “culture” — the culture of a trailer park, the culture of a black ghetto — when in reality it’s just folks trying to not be driven crazy by desperate circumstances and trauma?
I wrote that after Scott [a white resident of the trailer park] and I had been to a counselor, and in that situation Scott is asked about sexual abuse he had experienced as a kid, which is something he hadn’t told me about before. And you know, Scott in the book is dealing with an addiction problem, and he used to call it self-medicating, and there’s a way of looking at that that is about cultural decisions, you know, it’s about values people hold, or it’s about certain kinds of behaviors and how they’re connected to really strong decisions you make. But I think what I would like us to do is to dig a bit deeper, to see how often those decisions like doing drugs or acting violently in some situations often are connected to trauma, and often to trauma experienced as a child.

I think this comes out a lot in Crystal’s story. We see Crystal [a young woman who allows Arleen and her kids to live with her at one point] at turns being generous and loving, and then also full of rage sometimes, and sometimes violent. And there are psychological reasons for that, you know — Crystal allowed me to see her psych report, and the trauma she experienced as a child left an imprint on her body and mind. So how should we explain Crystal’s behavior, right? Should we say it’s a reflection of, like, “the culture of the streets,” or something like that? I think that wouldn’t fully address the complexities that matter; I think we do need to understand how things that sometimes look like culture are often deeply informed by trauma or coping.

If we take a hard look at what poverty is, its nature, it’s not pretty — it’s full of trauma. And we’re able to accept trauma with certain groups, like with soldiers, for instance — we understand that they face trauma and that trauma can be connected to things like depression or acts of violence later on in life. I think that we would benefit a lot from a similar kind of mind-set when it comes to poverty sometimes.

Your book is going to draw comparisons to Alice Goffman’s On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City, since both books involve a white ethnographer “embedding” with poor black people, though in your book about half of your subjects were white. I’m curious if, when you saw that book’s reception and some of the controversies that popped up around it, that had any effect on you and your work on Evicted.
I think one of the things we’ve learned from the reception of that book is how deeply people care about our methods, you know, and our claims, and how we know what we know. The truth is absolutely paramount, it’s so paramount, and we have to be dogged about it and transparent and accountable to those claims. And I think that’s something that’s come out from the conversation around that book.

I was doing fieldwork long before that book was published, so it didn’t affect the work in and of itself. I think that one thing is that I had always thought about hiring a fact-checker for this book, and I did in the end. I think I probably would have done that regardless, but I think that the reception of that book influenced that decision, too.

You and Goffman have pretty different views of the fact-checking process. I interviewed her, and she said that if one of her subjects said, “I went to court facing this charge,” that would go in the book, and she thought her subjects’ understanding of their situation mattered a great deal, regardless — to a certain extent, at least — of whether it matched up with the legal reality. So some of the differences between how your book and hers approached fact-checking are a bit philosophical. But it is a resource thing, too, right? It took you a lot of money, and money in the form of time, to fact-check everything in Evicted.
It takes a lot of time. It takes an enormous amount of time.

So it’s not crazy to say that, materially, fact-checking was quote-unquote “easier” for you, as someone further along in his career and who had access to more resources, right?
I think there are ways that graduate students can fact-check their work. I think there are ways that we can do this that don’t require massive amounts of resources. So let’s say you and I were in grad school together and I was doing an ethnography — I could give you my fieldnotes and you could do the same for me, and we could fact-check [each other’s] claims, and we could write that in our publication so that we hold each other accountable for that. That could be rather costless.It does take time — it does take time. But again, like, I think we have to be obsessive about the truth and go to whatever lengths we can to get it.

So you don’t think there are ethical problems with sharing fieldnotes with another scholar just so they can help you fact-check, right? Because part of the debate here has been about the boundaries of ethical concerns and where they lie.
So in my experience, what I did is the fact-checker signed a nondisclosure agreement, because she was going to be interacting with some sensitive material and people’s real names and that kind of stuff, and then I handed everything over to her. I don’t think that’s an ethical issue. For the New Yorker excerpt, the New Yorker fact-checker interviewed Arleen and Sherrena [a landlord and entrepreneur] and other people that were in that excerpt. I called everyone and just said, “Hey, would you guys be okay with talking to a fact-checker? And they said sure. The fact-checker I hired for my book ended up conducting over 30 independent interviews with folks who were in the book and other sources to corroborate stuff. So, I dunno — I feel like those are pretty established practices in journalism.

There are some corners of academia where the concept of subjectivity is a pretty big area of focus, and you’re supposed to spend a lot of time reflecting on how your personal identity and biases and so on affected your observations and storytelling. In the last section of your book, you note, in effect, I’m a white guy — this closed some doors, this opened other doors, but you don’t really dwell on it. And you didn’t tell the story from a first-person perspective, which as you note has in recent years become “almost exclusively” the way ethnography is done. How’d you decide on your approach?
I wanted to have a conversation about this massive, morally urgent problem that’s confronting our country today. I wanted to have a conversation about the fact that there are mothers like Arleen who have to choose between feeding her kids and paying the rent; that there are mothers like Vanetta who take extremely desperate measures, like committing an armed robbery, to try and keep her kids. And I thought that was the conversation I wanted to have, that was the book I wanted to write, and I felt that to write that it was important for me to really prioritize Vanetta and Arleen and other people in the book, to get at that conversation. So I guess that was the goal that drove those decisions.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

What Happens to People Who Get Evicted Repeatedly