Mean Streets

East Falls Social Justice Book Club reviews “Evicted”

Imagine if we didn’t provide unemployment insurance or Social Security to most families who needed these benefits. Imagine if the vast majority of families who applied for food stamps were turned away hungry. And yet this is exactly how we treat most poor families seeking shelter.” — Matthew Desmond, Evicted

The stage for this month’s meeting of the East Falls Social Justice Book Club was set nearly 2 years ago. During professional development sessions in preparation for my first year at St. James School, I was introduced to an excerpt of text from a brand-new book: “Evicted.”

The excerpt told the story of a woman, her two sons, and her landlord. The story was heartbreaking and real, the writing relatable and clear. It was so powerful, in fact, that it still resonated with me when public housing came up in a book club discussion 2 years later.

After years of leaving Evicted on my “to read” list, it shot up to the top with the help of the Book Club community. The New York Times bestseller and Pulitzer Prize winner introduces readers to the everyday tragedy of eviction through the stories and experiences of eight families.

Author Matthew Desmond follows these families from May 2008 to December 2009, immersing himself deeply in relationships with all of them. At first, Evicted is reminiscent of other immersive pieces like “Random Family,” which follows a selection of families in the Bronx during the 1990’s.

Where Desmond sets his work apart is in his research. He is not telling the story of a down-and-out “other half,” he is addressing a serious shortfall in urban policy and society. The book’s structure comes from Desmond’s individual relationships with each person mentioned in it—including the landlords. Each of the interactions described in Evicted comes directly from Desmond’s firsthand experience or recorded conversation.

The stories of these interactions read like a novel, and Desmond has interspersed facts, figures, and histories to ground the reader in the sheer reality of their lives. And although the narrative center of this book is in Milwaukee, where more than 1 in 8 renters experienced a forced move (including formal and informal eviction, landlord foreclosure, and building condemnation) between 2009 and 2011, we are constantly reminded that “this book… tells an American story.”

Desmond’s work has been copiously fact-checked and researched: the book includes 62 pages of detailed endnotes, in-depth explanations of his ethnographic process, and a complete description of his survey methodology through the University of Wisconsin and the MacArthur Foundation. (The MacArthur Foundation awarded Desmond their prestigious Fellowship, or “Genius Grant,” to complete the Milwaukee Area Renters Study, since previous research on eviction was insufficient to address Desmond’s scope.)

Desmond leaves you not only with heart-wrenching stories of impoverished communities, but also provides you with potential policy solutions and remedies for the system that has left so many behind. While reading, expect to feel drawn into each of Desmond’s stories and invested in the experience of each person. Expect, also, to feel surprised, frustrated, and maybe outraged at the broken system of renting and real estate in the city. But do not expect to feel hopeless—you will be inspired by individual resilience and the redemption of community, and perhaps you will even resolve to take action.

Evicted reminds us that while poverty can be dehumanizing and cruel, it is experienced by real people with real stories—people who prevail despite their hardships. It reminds us also that poverty is not an intractable reality, but that it is something that can be traced through the fibers of someone’s life and addressed at a variety of societal levels. As Desmond points out in his concluding chapters and call to action, “those solutions depend on how we answer a single question: do we believe that the right to a decent home is part of what it means to be an American?

Join the Club!

Want to join the East Falls Social Justice Book Club? Meetings are from 6-8PM on the third Tuesday of the month at various neighborhood locations Please email Sarah Carroll if you are interested in joining and she will share next month’s title and the meeting location!

 

Alexandria Brake grew up along the Connecticut shoreline and arrived in Philadelphia after attending the University of Maryland, College Park. (Go Terps!) Alexandria currently lives and works as an English Teacher at St. James School. She loves being outdoors, and is studying to earn a Master’s Degree in Environmental Science and Education at the University of Pennsylvania. Some of her favorite things to do in the city are running in the Wissahickon and finding the best coffee shops.

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