by Matthew Desmond

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Chapter 17

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Part Three: After

This is America

Arleen has an appointment with a potential landlord, who arrives thirty minutes.. The one-bedroom is on the northern edge of the North Side. Arleen dislikes the apartment and the neighborhood, but she says she will take it.

The landlord, a white woman named Carol, screens Arleen on the spot, asking if she has any evictions in the previous three years. She advises Arleen to tell the truth because she will be checking CCAP. Arleen, who gave her real name on the application, tells the truth. She only lies about receiving child support and about only having Jafaris.

Arleen goes over all of her horrible experiences, including drug dealers on Atkinson and her sister dying, which irritates Carol. She tells Arleen that she should get a job and that, before accepting her application, she needs to see the unit on Thirteenth Street.

Arleen cleans the apartment, taking out the trash and hiding Jori’s belongings. The bathroom cannot be improved because the sink and tub are clogged. Crystal tries to comfort her before Carol arrives.

Though the apartment looks respectable, Carol deems it unacceptable. She says that Arleen’s sister’s death is not her landlord’s problem. Arleen begins saying all of the things that she thinks white people like to hear from her: “I understand what you are saying,” “I’m trying to get my stuff together and stop making dumb choices,” and “I’m going to start going back to school for my GED.”

Carol wants to know what changes Arleen will make so that she will not be thrown out in a month. Arleen offers a “vendor payment” with W-2, which involves her rent being automatically deducted “so that by the time I get my check you already have your payment.” Carol approves.

Arleen cannot move into the new unit until the first of March, so she tries to find a room at a shelter. The Red Cross will cover shelter residents’ security deposits, so this way she can give Carol all of her money. In the meantime, she stores her belongings at Public Storage. She was able to get a discounted price for the first month. The man at the front desk gives her a lock and waives the insurance.

Crystal lets Arleen and the boys stay with her through the weekend because all of the shelters are full. Finally, Arleen finds a room at the domestic shelter she stayed at when she was escaping Jafaris’s father. When she calls Carol to tell her the name of the shelter, she learns that Carol leased the apartment to a different tenant. Arleen does not ask why—she figures she found a “better” tenant, one without children or with stable income.

With little else to do, Arleen finishes packing and instructs Jori to remove the $5 adapter that she purchased to connect the stove to the gas line. Crystal is outraged and screams at Arleen, telling her to get out of her house.

Arleen, who is already very stressed, begins yelling at Crystal. Jori joins the fight, and suddenly Quentin enters the apartment. He was showing prospective tenants the rear apartment and overheard their yelling. He holds Jori back when he lunges at Crystal. As Arleen, Jori, and Jafaris leave, Crystal throws the rest of their belongings out into the yard and screams, “‘Y’all ain’t untouchable...This is America! This is America!’”

  • If Arleen had not been so overwhelmed, she may have understood that removing the adapter was akin to “throwing Crystal’s desperation in her face.” Severe poverty and persistent stress have made it difficult for them to be consistently empathetic with each other. However, they are only friendly “when there was food in their bellies and some certainty about the next day.”
  • Crystal struggles to manage her anger and can quickly become violent. A year ago, a clinical psychologist diagnosed her with multiple mental illnesses, including bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, and emerging personality disorder with borderline features. Her IQ is around 70. The report concluded that she requires “‘long-term mental health treatment and supportive assistance if she [was] to be maintained in the community as an adult.”

Crystal is now alone with no way to cook for herself. Jori could not detach the stove piece, so he cut the electrical cord. However, her pastor had called for a fast, so Crystal tells herself that she would not have eaten that day anyway.

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Chapter 16


Chapter 18