What happens in Evicted?

Matthew Desmond's Evicted tells the story of eight families caught in the affordable housing crisis. It relates actual events that took place in Milwaukee's South Side between 2008 and 2009, while Desmond was a PhD candidate in sociology at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

  • Readers are first introduced to Arleen Belle, a poor African American woman with two sons, Jafaris and Jori. Arleen can't afford her rent, and her landlord, Sherrena, evicts her. Arleen illegally sublets from the new tenant, Crystal, before again being evicted.

  • Sherrena's other tenants include Lamar, a Vietnam veteran who lost a leg in an accident; Doreen Hinkston and her four children, who live together in a small apartment; and Crystal, the unstable woman from whom Arleen briefly sublets.

  • Desmond also introduces readers to the residents of College Mobile Home Park, a trailer park in Milwaukee. Among the residents are Scott, a drug addict and former nurse; Pam and Ned, two crack addicts expecting a baby; and Larraine, a woman suffering from fibromyalgia. All of them are evicted by their landlord, Tobin.

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Matthew Desmond's Evicted is a stark and unflinching portrait of poverty in America. It draws on first-hand accounts of real events Desmond either witnessed or heard about while conducting field research for the book. Though present for most of the events related in the book, Desmond doesn't insert himself into the narrative, instead narrating it all in the third person, allowing the characters to speak for themselves as much as possible. Still, it's helpful to establish a timeline: the events of Evicted take place between 2008 and 2009 (with a few rare exceptions). Desmond started his field research in 2008, while a PhD student in sociology at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. He then moved into the College Mobile Home Park, a trailer park owned by gruff, seventy-something Tobin Charney, one of the landlords featured in this book. There, he met Scott, a kind but defeated man who'd lost his nursing license after stealing pain medication to feed his addiction; Larraine, a fifty-four-year-old white woman suffering from fibromyalgia; and Pam and Ned, two crack addicts with four children between them (three from previous relationships and one on the way). Pam was pregnant at the time of their eviction. Her family's story is just one of eight told in this book.

In the prologue to Evicted, Desmond introduces readers to Arleen Belle, a poor African American woman with two sons: Jori, thirteen, and Jafaris, five. When we first meet her, she's being evicted, and she and her sons are forced to move into a homeless shelter known as "the Lodge." It's winter, and she struggles to find an apartment in Milwaukee's black inner city, the North Side. She rents a rundown four-bedroom house there, but is kicked out just a few weeks later when the city decides the property is "unfit" for human habitation. She finally finds an apartment on Thirteenth Street in a building owned by Sherrena Tarver. Desmond doesn't use the word "slumlord," but when Arleen moves in, the duplex is in terrible shape. There's a fist-sized hole in the wall, the carpets are filthy, and the front door has to be locked with a wooden plank. She doesn't know it yet, but she won't be staying here long.

Sherrena is a stern, entrepreneurial, but not uncaring woman who owns a slew of largely rundown properties in North Side. A former schoolteacher, Sherrena turned to real estate after a brief failed attempt at running a daycare. She realized that a lot of money could be made in the rental market, and she decided to specialize in renting to the black poor—not entirely out of solidarity. In fact, as Desmond points out, landlords in the inner city enjoy some of the largest profits, because they can rent their properties at the same rates as similar properties in higher class neighborhoods, but they don't have to keep them up half as well, because their tenants are so poor and desperate that...

(The entire section is 1,245 words.)