by Matthew Desmond

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Chapter 15

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A Nuisance

Crystal hears Trisha being beaten by her boyfriend, Chris, who is outraged that she drank his beer and smoked his cigarettes. She expresses her concern when Arleen returns from apartment hunting. Arleen, however, is too overwhelmed with her own family’s problems to worry about Trisha.

Chris’s physical abuse loudly continues into the night. Arleen tries to ignore the sounds, but Crystal becomes so upset that she calls Sherrena. After Sherrena does not pick up, she calls the police three times. They finally arrive and arrest Chris. Arleen tells Crystal that she “must want to lose [her] house.”

The next day, an officer calls Sherrena about a “nuisance activity” that was reported on her property. This has happened before; last year, the police sent Sherrena a letter about a nuisance activity in the same apartment.

Sherrena knows that Crystal called 9-1-1 on Trisha’s behalf, but she also called once after a loud fight with Arleen. Now, Sherrena is embarrassed about having to explain why she is allowing an evicted tenant to live with a current tenant. She decides to evict Arleen and move Crystal to a different property. After her conversation with the officer, she calls Arleen and screams that she must be out by Monday.

On Sunday morning, Arleen tries to persuade Sherrena to let her stay with Crystal until Thursday. She is struggling to find a suitable home because of Milwaukee’s high rent, and she was not planning on having to leave so soon. Sherrena says no. Arleen blames Crystal, insisting that she was the one who called the police and that they were only called because Chris was beating Trisha.

Sherrena is ordering Arleen to leave because Crystal’s four 9-1-1 calls have qualified the Thirteenth Street property a “nuisance.” According to the nuisance property ordinance, Sherrena can now be penalized for not properly screening or controlling her tenants, thus creating more work for police. Thus, she must submit an abatement plan demonstrating that she will prevent the nuisance activity from happening again.

  • If landlords fail to stop a nuisance behavior from continuing, they face steep fines, property loss, license suspension, or even jail time. The reasoning behind the ordinance is that, if landlords are held responsible for tenant behavior, police departments can focus on “high-priority crimes.” Most nuisance citations take place in the mostly-black North Side, where one in sixteen eligible properties are given citations. In white neighborhoods, citations are given to one in forty-one eligible properties.
  • 83% of landlords who receive nuisance citations evict or threaten to evict their tenants. Therefore, tenants are less likely to dial 9-1-1 in emergency situations. In the year that Crystal calls the police, more than one person per week will be murdered by a current or former loved one. Milwaukee’s chief of police reasons that, if people call the police more often, these crimes can be avoided. Yet, his own department’s policies on “nuisance activities” place abuse victims—especially battered women—in a terrible position. They must either stay silent and be abused or call the police and be evicted.

Crystal returns from church in a good mood, but Arleen is irritated. She is angry with Crystal for calling 9-1-1 and with Sherrena for not giving her more time to leave. Crystal calls Sherrena and takes full responsibility for calling the police, and Arleen rages at Sherrena that she has nowhere to go and that everything was fine until the police were called. Arleen thanks Sherrena the help she's given her and promises to be out before Thursday—and that she can't give her anything else.

Crystal tries to comfort and empathize...

(This entire section contains 716 words.)

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with Arleen. They talk about their shared traumas, including being sexually abused and abandoned by family members. Crystal tells Arleen that “everyone goes through stuff in life” and that suffering will continue but that suffering is what makes a person who he or she is. She was saved by the Spirit of God, however, and by her supportive pastor.

Arleen’s phone suddenly rings. A friend has a lead on an apartment. However, it is too expensive. Crystal leaves to look at Sherrena’s other property, but tells Arleen that, “if I can’t promise you nothing else, it’ll be all right.”


Chapter 14


Chapter 16