I recently read a stunner of a book – Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, by sociologist Matthew Desmond. It won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Nonfiction – no surprise because it presents a powerful combination of intensive first-hand research, convincing data, and vivid writing. To wit:
If incarceration had come to define the lives of men from impoverished black neighborhoods, eviction was shaping the lives of women. Poor black men were locked up. Poor black women were locked out.
Desmond embedded himself in the lives of two landlords and eight families experiencing evictions in Milwaukee, and he presents them to the reader in compelling, balanced, and entirely human portraits. Desmond trains a spotlight, as well, on the broader context of racism and sexism in our society, presenting data showing that eviction is an everyday event in the poorest black neighborhoods of Milwaukee – particularly for women. In those neighborhoods, women are evicted nine times as often as women from the city’s poorest white neighborhoods.
Desmond also asks us to focus on the frequency with which families with children are illegally barred from rental properties – a factor that both contributes to evictions and makes it more difficult for parents to recover from them. Housing discrimination against families with children has been illegal by federal law since 1988, yet Desmond finds that these families are turned away in as many as 70 percent of housing searches. And in a national survey he cites, less than 40 percent of respondents even were aware that it is illegal to treat these households differently!
Desmond’s book touches on family homelessness and makes real for readers its most common variation: families doubled-up in overcrowded housing under duress.
Families double up when they lose their housing – through eviction or otherwise – and cannot surmount the barriers to acquiring new housing. Families double up when new families are formed through the birth of children to young parents who lack the resources to rent their own accommodations. Families double up with relatives and friends who may put their own leases in jeopardy in order to welcome them – creating a follow-on risk of eviction and homelessness for both hosts and guests. Families live a musical-chairs life in one doubled-up household after another until they are out of options and turn to homeless family shelters for relief.
The annual release of the best-known national count of homelessness – the “Point-in-Time Count” by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development – brought this reality to mind again. Why? Because most doubled-up families are not included in this count. An alternative count of homeless children conducted annually by our nation’s schools -- the “McKinney-Vento Count” by the US Department of Education – establishes that doubled-up families actually comprise the vast majority of homeless families: 76 percent by the last count.
Bi-partisan legislation reintroduced this spring (the Homeless Children and Youth Act) would require federal departments to use a common definition of homelessness that includes these doubled-up families. We can’t address what we don’t fully acknowledge, and moving forward with this change is an important step toward providing homeless families with the types of assistance they need. Desmond’s book brilliantly presents these needs in stark and human terms. Passing the Homeless Children and Youth Act would be a national acknowledgement that we know these families exist.