Book review: Memorable people, heartbreaking situations, data that can’t be ignored

Matthew Desmond, author of the book “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City.” Desmond aims to bring an overlooked aspect of American poverty and inequality to a broader audience.
Matthew Desmond, author of the book “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City.” Desmond aims to bring an overlooked aspect of American poverty and inequality to a broader audience. NYT

One of the most heartbreaking moments in Matthew Desmond’s “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City” – and there’s a shameful assortment to choose from – is when 13-year-old Ruby Hinkston takes refuge in the public library. She’s come to use the computer. It turns out that she’s been slowly building her dream house with a free online game, and she wants to visit it again.

“It had clean, light-reflecting floors,” Desmond writes, “a bed with sheets and pillowcases, and a desk for doing schoolwork.”

This cheerful vision in pixels forms an almost unbearable contrast to the filth of Ruby’s own apartment. The kitchen sink is stopped up, as is the bathtub and toilet. There are mattresses everywhere, their exposed innards revealing humming burrows of cockroaches – and the mattresses may be the least terrifying of their redoubts. They also fill the kitchen drawers and erupt from the nonworking drains.

Living in extreme poverty in the United States means waging an almost gladiatorial battle for creature comforts that luckier people take for granted. And of all those comforts, perhaps the most important is a stable, dignified home. Yet as a culture, notes Desmond, we have somehow failed to commit ourselves to providing this most fundamental and obvious necessity.

“Every year in this country,” he writes, “families are evicted from their homes not by the tens of thousands or even the hundreds of thousands, but by the millions.”

”Evicted” is a regal hybrid of ethnography and policy reporting. It follows the lives of eight families in Milwaukee, some black and some white, all several leagues below the poverty line. Desmond, a sociologist and a co-director of the Justice and Poverty Project at Harvard University, lived among them in 2008 and 2009 – first in the poor, white College Mobile Home Park, a dark hole of vanished ambitions and drug abuse (one woman is “Heroin Susie,” not be confused with “Office Susie”); and then in a rooming house run by the landlords Sherrena and Quentin, who eventually introduced him to many of their black tenants in other properties. One of those units was Ruby’s, with the volcanic cockroach problem.

The result is an exhaustively researched, vividly realized and above all, unignorable book. Through data and analysis and storytelling, it issues a call to arms without ever once raising its voice.

What makes “Evicted” so eye-opening and original is its emphasis. Most examinations of the poorest poor look at those in public housing, not those who’ve been brutally cast into the private rental market. Yet this is precisely where most of the impoverished must live.

“If incarceration had come to define the lives of men from impoverished black neighborhoods,” Desmond writes, “eviction was shaping the lives of women. Poor black men were locked up. Poor black women were locked out.”

But “Evicted” is most memorable for its characters, rendered in such high-resolution detail that their ghost images linger if you shut your eyes. To respect their privacy, Desmond has given them pseudonyms, but their voices are as distinct as fingerprints, their plights impossible to invent.

There’s Doreen, Ruby’s mother, who presides over a three-generation household of eight. There’s Doreen’s neighbor, Lamar, a black single father, who’s facing eviction and can’t collect disability, even though he has no legs. There’s Arleen, who’s evicted or forced out of her house so many times over the course of the book that I lost count, at one point calling on 90 landlords before finding another home – only to be kicked out a few days later.

As these people brokenly shuttle from pillar to post, their lives inevitably decline. How can you hang on to a job, send your child to school, or build roots in a community if you are constantly changing homes, each one more dilapidated and dangerously located than the next?

”Just my soul is messed up,” Arleen says after her being thrown back out on the street. Her children can see it. They’re the emotional seismographs in “Evicted,” detecting every tremor in their mother’s mood. Her son, Jori, dreams of making things right. He wants to become a carpenter one day. He wants to build her a house.


“Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City”

By Matthew Desmond

418 pages. Crown. $28.