I'm a sucker for optimism
Written by
Donna Bryson
August 2018
Written by
Donna Bryson
August 2018

Scott was once a nurse with a comfortable home in a middle-class Milwaukee neighborhood. His back gave out after years of lifting patients onto bedpans. A doctor prescribed painkillers and Scott became addicted. By the time we meet him in ethnographer Matthew Desmond’s riveting “Evicted,” Scott has lost his nursing license because he was stealing drugs from patients. The only housing he can afford is a dilapidated trailer in a criminally neglected mobile home park. Scott’s neighbors include other addicts who ensure he can always find a fix, even if he has to spend his rent money to buy it.
In another case study in Desmond’s book, Doreen heads a family of three generations in which no adult had a high school diploma. That leaves them little chance of getting a job that would even pay for decent child care. When Doreen’s family needs a home, tasking them with navigating bureaucracies and social agencies is akin to asking someone with no flying hours to step into the cockpit of a Boeing jet without a copilot and take off.
Desmond’s “Evicted” is about our nation’s housing crisis. And about the other crises that the lack of affordable shelter influences and by which it is exacerbated. The book is sobering, but also manages to be optimistic. And I am a sucker for optimism.
“We have affirmed provision in old age, twelve years of education, and basic nutrition to be the right of every citizen because we have recognized that human dignity depends on the fulfillment of these fundamental human needs,” Desmond writes.   “Decent, affordable housing should be a basic right for everybody in this country.”
Desmond, a University of Wisconsin graduate sociology student when he started the project that became “Evicted,” writes with an empathy for people like Scott and Doreen that arises not just from statistics or a few interviews.
When Desmond was an Arizona State undergrad his parents lost their home to the bank. His research for “Evicted” included living for months in Scott’s trailer park and in a rooming house run by Doreen’s landlady. 
The people readers find in “Evicted” are often overwhelmed. Many don’t seem to believe they even deserve decent housing, healthcare, opportunity. Policy makers also have struggled with the affordable housing crisis. 
Desmond offers solutions such as a publicly funded legal aide service for poor people dragged into housing court, where landlords ae overwhelmingly more likely than tenants to have lawyers. Desmond cites a program in the South Bronx that provided such assistance to 1,300 families between 2005 and 2008 and prevented evictions in more than 8 in 10 cases. The Bronx program cost around $450,000; savings to the taxpayer in shelter costs alone were estimated at $700,000.
Desmond also proposes taxpayer-funded housing assistance be more widely available. 
“Each year, we spend three times what a universal housing voucher program is estimated to cost on homeowners benefits like the mortgage-interest deduction and the capital gains exclusion,” he writes, while acknowledging red tape would have to be cut and even some habitation standards eased to make such a system palatable to landlords. 
“Housing is too fundamental a human need, too central to children’s health and development, too important to expanding economic opportunities and stabilizing communities to be treated as simply a business, a crude investment vehicle, something that just ‘cashes out,’” Desmond adds in his call for huge shifts in our assumptions and priorities.  
More ideas are out there that can work, Desmond writes: “If our cities and towns are rich in diversity _ with unique textures and styles, gifts and problems _ so too much be our solutions.” 
Desmond went from Wisconsin to Harvard and Princeton, and in 2015 won a MacArthur “genius” grant. The genius of his “Evicted” is that it offers not just solutions, but reason to pursue them.
After a few false starts, trailer park resident Scott kicks his habit, gets a job in a methadone clinic helping others do the same, and gets an apartment under a permanent housing program. 
Matriarch Doreen responded to TV scenes of the Katrina-devastated New Orleans by boarding a bus to Louisiana to volunteer to distribute food and clothing. She later manages to move her family to a small southern town. Getting away from concentrated urban poverty lifts a pall of helplessness. Doreen’s daughter Patrice earns her GED and enrolls in a community college, setting her sights on becoming a parole officer.


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