“In languages all over the world, the word for ‘home’ encompasses not just shelter but warmth, safety, family—the womb.” ~Matthew Desmond
Part of my Summer Social Justice Reading Challenge included reading Matthew Desmond’s powerful nonfiction book Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City (New York: Crown Publishers, 2016). Although I finished reading the book a month or so ago, I’ve been letting my thoughts about it percolate before writing a review.
First, it is a formidable book, with the hardcover edition being 341 pages with an additional 62 pages for a detailed “Notes” section. Since the author is a Harvard University professor and Evicted is based on his PhD dissertation research, the scholarly weightiness of the book is not surprising. As Desmond points out, there has been a dearth of research on the practice, policies, and consequences of eviction on individuals, families, and groups in the United States. Through his research and policy work, he seeks to address this issue. He has established the Just Shelter website to highlight additional stories of evictions around the country and to direct people to ways of helping at the local and national levels. For that I admire him.
In an effort to tell the stories of people he studied and lived amongst (in order to study them), Desmond uses a third-person detached narrative approach similar to the one used by Katherine Boo in Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity (New York: Random House, 2012). In the “Notes” section he acknowledges that he declined to write in the more current first-person ethnographic narration, a “…postmodern turn in anthropology, which focused attention on the politics and biases of the author.” He goes on to invoke “classic” policy-relevant ethnographic books, such as Elliott Liebow’s Tally’s Corner: A Study of Negro Streetcorner Men (New York: Little, Brown &Company, 1967), in which he claims the authors “are hardly on the page.” (p. 405) This is a strange statement, since Tally’s Corner is written in first-person, despite it also being written from Liebow’s dissertation.
Evicted reads more like a novel (Sinclair’s The Jungle comes to mind) than a heavy-duty social policy book. But as a reader, I was distracted by the frequent use of derogatory descriptors of people (moon-faced, redneck, etc.) and the fact that I could easily tell the places in the story where the not so behind the scenes author would play the role of the Great White (male) hope and bail people out of difficult spots. In the “Epilogue,” Desmond acknowledges both of these issues, but not in particularly convincing or reassuring ways. For instance, he mentions that people sometimes call him on the fact that he includes not so savory details about “poor people” and he replies that it doesn’t help anyone to try to gloss over realities—and that the tendency of kind-hearted liberals to portray poor people as saints is belittling and disrespectful. I agree, but there’s no need to describe people in a pejorative way.
The strongest part of Evicted comes in the “Epilogue: Home and Hope.” It is here that Desmond does an excellent job of highlighting the negative health effects of eviction on people, including the higher rates of depression and suicide among recently evicted people. And he has these things to say about the role of home for all of us: “The home is the center of life. It is a refuge from the grind of work, the pressure of school, and the menace of the streets.(…) The home is the wellspring of personhood. It is where our identity takes root and blossoms (…) When we try to understand ourselves, we often begin by considering the kind of home in which we were raised. (…) America is supposed to be a place where you can better yourself, your family, and your community. But this is only possible if you have a stable home. ” (pp. 293-4) Yes, housing is health care and yes, everyone deserves a safe and stable home.