by Matthew Desmond

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Chapter 5

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Arleen Belle does not mind living on Thirteenth Street. There is an Arab-owned bodega on one end of her block and a bar frequented by old men on the other. She is able to walk Jafaris to school. Though there are crack addicts—“the hypes”—next door, she likes that there is a girl learning to play the violin just a few houses away.

The duplex is on the ground level of a Greek Revival-style house that has deteriorated over the years. Arleen tries to make the apartment into a comfortable home and appreciates the refrigerator and furniture that the previous tenant left. She even paints the walls and the stairwell leading up to the empty upstairs unit.

Jori, who is a friendly and sociable fourteen year old, plays with the other neighborhood boys after school. Jafaris, who is in kindergarten, is less social. When he is bored, he searches the basement or the back alley for abandoned or broken things, like dog leashes or pieces of plywood.

At night, Arleen watches reruns on television, examines Jafaris’s Individualized Education Program (IEP) evaluations, or reads her prayer book. She shuts herself in the upstairs unit when she needs privacy. One of her friends gives them a cat that Jori names Little.


Arleen comes from a poor family. Her father left her mother, who was sixteen, after she became pregnant. Her mother did not work much, but her grandmother served food in the cafeteria at Columbia St. Mary’s Hospital.

Arleen moved out when she was seventeen and lived with a family who employed her as a babysitter. She met a man with whom she would eventually have her first son, Gerald, or “Ger-Ger.” Ger-Ger’s father was soon imprisoned. Arleen left him after meeting Larry, a “lean man with calm eyes and a wide brow,” who made money as a self-taught mechanic. He and Arleen had four children together, the youngest of which was Jori.

Larry eventually proposed to Arleen, who thought he was joking and said no. He became unfaithful and left her for one of her friends. Arleen, heartbroken, quit her job and struggled to maintain consistent work. She began receiving welfare checks because of her chronic depression, but struggles to pay for all of her expenses.

Arleen longs for housing assistance, which would only require her to spend 30% of her income on rent. Housing assistance lifts families from “grinding poverty,” which involves “being batted from one place to another,” into “stable poverty,” which helps them establish roots in one community. When she was nineteen, Arleen lived in subsidized housing that cost only $137 per month. However, she gave up her apartment and has been trapped in the private rental market ever since.

Even if Arleen could secure public housing again, she cannot afford to set aside a month’s worth of income to pay the Housing Authority for leaving her subsidized apartment with no notice. Furthermore, there are more than 3,500 families waiting on “the List.” In bigger cities, a mother with a small child may be a grandmother by the time her application is considered.


A young woman named Trisha moves into the unit above Arleen. Trisha came to Sherrena through Belinda Hall, a representative payee who handles finances for SSI beneficiaries deemed incapable of managing their money. She and Arleen become friends. Arleen likes having Trisha for a neighbor, and Sherrena loves having a tenant whose rent is always guaranteed. Sherrena privately offers to evict some of her tenants to fill her properties with Belinda’s clients.

Sherrena leaves a voicemail for Arleen, who owes her $650. Arleen’s close...

(This entire section contains 708 words.)

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friend—someone Arleen considered a sister—died the previous month, and Sherrena agreed to let her deduct money from that month’s rent so she could attend the funeral. Arleen must pay $650 for the next three months to repay the lost rent. However, Arleen’s usual monthly stipend is only $628. Furthermore, she missed a meeting with her welfare caseworker, who subsequently “sanctioned” Arleen by reducing her stipend.

Arleen figures that since she will inevitably be behind on her rent, it is better to keep the reduced check so she will not be entirely broke. She calls Sherrena to tell her that she never received her check.


Chapter 4


Chapter 6