Evicted: EM Book Club

“Evicted” by Matthew Desomod.

By: Kristen Mueller, MD

Thank you to all who attended our inaugural EM Social Justice book club on August 2, 2017.  For those of you who didn’t have time to read the book, or read it and could not attend, here are some of the highlights from our discussion.

As an overview (from the back cover), “In Evicted, Harvard sociologist and MacArthur “Genius” Matthew Desmond follows eight families in Milwaukee as they each struggle to keep a roof over their heads….Evicted transforms our understanding of poverty and economic exploitation while providing fresh ideas for solving one of the twenty-first-century America’s most devastating problems.  Its unforgettable scenes of hope and loss remind us of the centrality of home, without which nothing else is possible”.  

To write this book, sociologist Matthew Desomond lived in a trailer park in South Milwaukee, WI for several months in 2008, and then in an apartment in north Milwaukee in 2009.  In the trailer park, most of the residents were poor and white.  In the north side, most of the residents were poor and black.  In our discussion, it was striking how even among neighborhoods with extreme poverty, racial segregation continued and encouraged by both landlords and the tenants themselves.

This book struck a particular chord with me, as I lived in Milwaukee, WI from 2006-2010.  During that time I rented a 1 bedroom apartment in the predominantly white suburb of Wauwatosa near the medical campus (MCW) and paid $595/mo in rent.  Despite the fact that I had no job and no regular income beyond student loans, I had middle-class parents to co-sign my application and was enrolled in medical school.  I had no difficulty securing this apartment and maintaining my lease for 4 years.  I also looked like everyone else who lived in the neighborhood.

In the book, several of the families were struggling to find housing--studios, 1 bedrooms, anything--for the same amount of money.  Because of criminal history, previous evictions and lack of family co-signers, many were unable to secure housing in buildings that were up to code or have stable leasing agreements.  Related to this imbalance of power between the landlords and the tenants, and the surprisingly for-profit industry of renting to the lowest socioeconomic class in the region, tenants frequently had no recourse for things like holes in the walls or windows, no running water, no appliances in the apartment, or stopped up toilets, etc. Additionally, I was shocked by the number of reasonable things a person or family could do that could lead to evictions such as calling 911 of an emergency, reporting domestic violence, or having children (just at all--having children disproportionately made it difficult to find and maintain housing).  I was also surprised by how often people would take in strangers to come live in their 1 bedroom apartments to help cover the rent.  

This book also highlighted how difficult it is to break out of the cycle of poverty.  Many of the families highlighted spent 70-90% of their monthly income on rent.  This frequently left less than $30 month for all other expenses such as food for the entire family, clothes, transportation, school supplies, etc.  

To given additional perspective, during my reading I considered The Sphere Project as a reference; this is an international humanitarian nonprofit organization that outlines guidelines for quality and accountability in any humanitarian response, with the guiding principle that people have a right to life with dignity (http://www.spherehandbook.org).  Basic core standards required for any humanitarian response include minimum standards for safety from violence, water, sanitation and hygiene, food security and nutrition, shelter, and health action. While reading Evicted, I was struck by how often the protagonists of this book living in America, touted by some to be the best country in the world, frequently did not have the basic human resources that would be expected in refugee camps in war torn regions or areas recovering from natural disasters.

The protagonists of this book are representative of our BJH ED patient population living in urban St. Louis and beyond.  This book can give additional insight into our patients’ barriers to care, medication compliance and regular follow up.  There is much more that I could say about this book, but I encourage you to read it for yourself and to continue the discussion.  

Thank you for your interest and participation. Our next book club will be “White Like Me: Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son" by Tim Wise on Monday, November 13, 2017.  

Happy reading!